Slaves were transported to America from the West coast of Africa after being captured and sold to slavers, or men in the business of buying and selling slaves. The slaves were transported to American by the “middle passage.” The middle passage was an especially cruel trip during which the slaves were crowded into ships and chained to the hold of the ship for months at a time. Many slaves died during the journey due to the unsanitary conditions aboard the ship, diseases such as scurvy, dysentary, starvation or malnutrition, suffocation, and general homesickness. Captains were afraid that slaves would uprise against the crew, so they often separated slaves from the same tribes and punished them for talking or singing on the ship.

Slave Quarters On reaching America, the majority of slaves were sold on board ship at plantation wharfs of prospective buyers. Most slaves arrived in the colonies during the summer months. Many slaves had been farmers in Africa; they brought their knowledge of rice production to the South, as well as some native vegetables such as okra and the art of weaving baskets. These farmers became field slaves with the primary task of raising a profitable crop of tobacco. During planting and harvesting times, artisans and house slaves worked in the fields, too. Most women were field hands, although some performed weaving, sewing, dairying, household tasks, and child care.

Colonial African-American families had little control over their own lives. Children of slaves were considered slaves at birth. Very few slaves in the colonial period were ever freed. Although children under the age of ten were rarely separated from their mothers, many families were dispersed when plantations were sold or divided among heirs. Some masters would sell slaves away from their families while others would not split up a family unit.

Many times slaves resisted the efforts of their masters, white overseers, and black foremen to increase crop production. Sabotage of crops, theft of tools, and work slow-downs were common forms of slave opposition. Newspapers frequently printed advertisements for run-away slaves.

African-American craftsmen were considered more valuable than field slaves because of their training and abilities. A common practice among slave owners, the Lees included, was to hire out their skilled workers to other plantations for short periods of time. Occasionally, slaves learned their skills and trade through an apprenticeship to a white man. Frequently, these workers passed on skills to their children or kinsmen so they, too, could enjoy better working conditions.

Slaves were scattered all over the plantation, depending on their occupation. In 1782 approximately eighty-three slaves were divided among various quarters on Stratford. This number included children and infants as well as adult slaves. The house and skilled slaves lived near the Great House in multi-family houses. These dwellings usually were of better construction than field quarters. The duplexes at Stratford were made of stone. Field quarters were typically small, one-room wooden structures with wooden chimneys and dirt floors. They were sparsely furnished with built-in beds or pallets for sleeping on the floor or up in the loft. A blanket, an iron pot, and a handmill for grinding corn into meal were usually provided.

A slave’s diet consisted mainly of weekly rations of corn and fatty meat. Slaves often grew vegetables in small gardens just outside the quearters. The master sometimes permitted slaves to raise chickens and other livestock to supplement their diet and to sell or trade for services. Slaves on plantations close to the river added fish and other seafood to their meager fare. Occasionally, they were able to trap or hunt small game.

Slaves, including children, were given only a minimum of clothing. Women field hands were normally allotted shoes and two shifts, with an extra petticoat, or skirt, in the winter. Men received breeches, or trousers, two shirts, and shoes. Usually osnaburg, homespun wool, and coarse cotton fabrics were used to make slaves clothing. House slaves were furnished a better quality of clothing, sometimes hand-me-downs from the master and his family. Masters sometimes outfitted coachmen and postillions in special livery.

Slave life afforded little privacy. Under the floors of their houses, slaves often dug “cuddy holes” for hiding their few personal belongings. House slaves were constantly under the eyes of their masters and were sometimes required to sleep where they could attend to their duties at all hours.

Slave children usually began to work part-time in the tobacco fields around the age of seven. Tasks for children varied greatly from plantation to plantation; often, they spent the rest of their day running errands, watching the younger children, doing odd jobs, or playing.

Boatswain, a Stratford slave, was a young child when he was purchased by Thomas Lee in 1732. He probably got his name from the profession for which he was intended or acquired it once he had grown into the position. A boatswain was in charge of the crew manning a vessel. River travel was important for both people and crops, and Boatswain would have been in a very important position. By 1782, however, he was 60, elderly for a slave, and almost certainly too weak to continue such strenuous work. As an experienced waterman, it is likely that he fished for the household.

Suggested Readings

  • Abrahams, Roger D., ed. Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
  • Bascom, William. African Folktales in the New World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.
  • Faulkner, William J. The Days When The Animals Talked: Black American Folktales and How They Came To Be. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1977.
  • Hamilton, Virginia. Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
  • Hopkinson, Deborah. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
  • Lester, Julius. To Be A Slave. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1968.

Suggested Activities

  1. Have students read aloud and act out a selection of African folk tales. Discuss superstitions in general and how they have passed down from generation to generation.
  2. Have students listen to a variety of African-American songs and have the whole class perform at least one selection. Discuss how these songs were used by slaves to pass the time while working, to pass along family traditions and history, etc. Have students simulate African percussion instruments and rhythms while performing a song.
  3. Have students act out a conversation between a group of slaves discussing another slave who had run away (include possible reasons for running away, punishment if caught, repercussions on the remaining slaves, etc.).