General Elements in Slave Treatment
The treatment of slaves in the United States varied widely depending on conditions, times and places. Treatment was generally characterized by brutality, degradation, and inhumanity. Whippings, executions, and rapes were commonplace. Exceptions, however, did exist to virtually every generalization, for instance, there were slaves who employed white workers, slave doctors who treated upper-class white patients, and slaves who rented-out their labor. These are not, however, the common rule.
Slaves were generally denied the opportunity to learn to read or write, in order to ensure that they did not form aspirations that could lead to escape or rebellion. Medical care to slaves was generally provided by other slaves or by slaveholders' family members. Many slaves possessed medical skills needed to tend to each other, and used many folk remedies brought from Africa. After such well-known rebellions as that by Nat Turner, in 1831, some states prohibited slaves from holding religious gatherings, as slaveholders feared such meetings would facilitate communication and might lead to rebellion.
Slavery in the United States included frequent rape and sexual abuse of slave women. Many slaves fought back against sexual attacks, and many died resisting. Others carried psychological and physical scars from the attacks. Sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in a patriarchal Southern culture which treated all women, black and white, as property or chattel. From 1662 and the adoption of partus sequitur ventrem into law in Virginia, white society protected sexual relations between white men and black women by classifying children of slave mothers as slaves, regardless of the father's race or status. After generations, there were numerous mixed-race (mulatto) offspring, many held in slavery. At the same time, southern societies strongly prohibited sexual relations between white women and black men in the name of racial purity.
Maintaining White Dominance
In 1850, a publication provided guidance to slave owners on how to produce the "ideal slave":
- Maintain strict discipline and 'unconditional submission';
- Create a sense of personal inferiority, so slaves 'know their place';
- Instill fear in the minds of slaves;
- Teach the servants to take interest in the master's enterprise; and
- Ensure that the slave was uneducated, helpless, and dependent, by depriving them of access to education and recreation.
Treatment of slaves tended to be harsher on large plantations, which were often managed by overseers and owned by absentee slaveholders, in contrast with small slave-owning families, where the closer relationship between the owners and slaves sometimes resulted in a more humane environment.
After 1820, some slave owners, in response to the inability to import new slaves from Africa, improved the living conditions of their slaves in order to induce them to not run away.
Some pro-slavery advocates asserted that many slaves were content with their situation. African-American abolitionist J. Sella Martin countered that the apparent contentment was merely a psychological reaction to the exceedingly dehumanizing brutality that some slaves experienced, such as witnessing their spouses sold at auction, or seeing their daughters raped.
Education and Access to Information
Slaveholders were fearful that slaves would rebel or try to escape. Most slaveholders attempted to reduce the risk of rebellion by minimizing the exposure of slaves to the world outside their plantation, farm, or workplace. Depriving slaves of such exposure eliminated dreams and aspirations that might arise from awareness of the larger world, restricted access to information about other slaves and possible rebellions, and degraded the slaves by stifling their ability to exercise their mental faculties.
Education of slaves was generally discouraged, because it was feared that knowledge - particularly the ability to read and write - would cause slaves to become rebellious. In the mid-19th century, slaving states passed laws making education of slaves illegal. Punishment in Virginia in 1841 was 20 lashes with a whip to the slave, and a fine of 100 pounds to the teacher. Punishment in North Carolina in 1841, consisted of whipping with 39 lashes to the slave, and a fine of $250 to the teacher. Education was not illegal in Kentucky, but was virtually nonexistent. In Missouri, some slaveholders educated their slaves, or permitted the slaves to educate themselves.
The quality and extent of medical care received by slaves is not known with certainty: some historians conclude that the quality was equal to that of whites (because whites were acting to preserve the value of their property), which was limited by the constraints of medical knowledge at the time. Others conclude that medical care was poor for slaves, and others suggest that the care provided by slaveholders was neglectful, but that slaves often provided their own adequate treatment.