Childhood on the Plantation

Slave children being fed by their caretaker

Slave children being fed by their caretaker

If you want an up-close look at the horrors of slavery, the volumes of interviews with former slaves conducted by the WPA in the 1930’s are a good place to start.  Voices from Slavery, edited by Norman Yetman, is a carefully curated collection of 100 of these interviews, revealing the extraordinary range of experiences reported by the interviewees, who ranged in age from around 80 to over 100 at the time of the interviews.

Memories fade, and the elderly people who looked back on their childhoods on “good” plantations had plenty of reasons for editing out the worst parts.   But what they did remember can be gut-wrenching. Descriptions of astonishingly brutal, and sometimes fatal, whippings and other forms of torture are common in these interviews.  One woman reported that her baby sister, aged only nine months, was beaten to death by her mistress for crying.  More than one watched his or her mother being whipped, and one woman remembered repeatedly having to stand up all night, holding a light, so that her mother could finish her assigned amount of spinning.  Plantation mistresses were often as vicious as their husbands, if not more so.

Other details, only slightly less shocking, illuminate the common childhood experiences of these interviewees.  One man remembered being put to work “as soon as he could toddle,” gathering firewood, and tending cows, horses and dogs.  When he was ten, he was turning the hand crank on the cotton gin.  Another was responsible for “nursing” her master’s six children, sleeping on a pallet on the floor in their room, and cleaning, dressing and feeding them until they could do it themselves.  “As soon as she could carry a milk pail” she was also responsible, along with one other child, for getting up at 5:00 in the morning to milk a hundred cows.  During the day, all children too little to work were typically cared for by one old woman in a communal nursery, with the older children helping to dress and feed the younger ones.  On many plantations, children ate out of a common bowl, often with one spoon that they passed around.  One man described children being fed mush out of a common trough, and having to eat it with their hands.

And yet relationships in a slaveholding society were nothing if not complicated.  There were “good” slaveowners, who were sometimes criticized more severely for their leniency than their neighbors were for their brutality.  On some plantations slave children did not have to work until they were in their teens, and could spend their time hunting, fishing, and playing “prisoner’s base” with the white children of the plantation.  Several people recalled being secretly taught to read and write by the white children of their owners, a violation of the law far more dangerous to the slave than to the white child.

The mixed-race children of a plantation owner, like Elijah Bettis’ seven enslaved daughters, were often raised as house slaves.  It was a somewhat easier life than that of a field hand, although it exposed a child to the resentment of those less privileged.  And there were cases of deep and genuine affection between slaveowners and the people they owned.  But even in these cases, self-interest and the rules of the slave society managed to strangle normal human feeling.  If Elijah sold his sons down the river to the cotton plantations, or kept his daughters’ children in slavery to be bequeathed to his white daughters – well, that was simply the way things were, and he would have never thought to question it.

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