Treatment of slaves was characterized by degradation, rape, brutality,
and the lack of basic freedoms.
Identify methods used to subjugate the enslaved population in the South
Treatment of slaves varied, but the laws in slaveholding states left
enslaved people without defense or recourse in any case.
Punishment was often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived
infractions, but sometimes abuse was carried out simply to reassert the
dominance of the master or overseer.
Slaveholders whipped, shackled, hanged, beat,
burned, mutilated, branded, and imprisoned slaves. Slave women were often subject
to rape and sexual abuse.
The offspring of slave women with a man of any race were born into
slavery, resulting in a large number of mixed race, or mulatto, slaves. In
contrast, many Southern societies strongly prohibited sexual relations between
white women and black men in an attempt to maintain“racial purity.”
treatment of slaves in the United States varied widely depending on conditions,
time, and place. Generally speaking, urban slaves in the northernmost Southern states had better working conditions and more freedom than their counterparts on Deep Southplantations. As slavery became more entrenched and slaves both more numerous and valuable, punishments for infractions increased.
Treatment was generally characterized by brutality,
degradation, and inhumanity. Whippings, executions, and rapes were commonplace, and slaves were usually denied educational opportunities, such as learning how
to read or write. Medical care was often provided to slaves by the slaveholder’s
family or fellow slaves who had gleaned medical knowledge via ancestral folk
remedies and/or experiences during their time in captivity. After well-known
rebellions, such as that by Nat Turner in 1831, some states even prohibited
slaves from holding religious gatherings due to the fear that such meetings
would facilitate communication and possibly lead to insurrection or escape.
Isolated exceptions existed to the generally horrific institution of slavery. For instance, there were slaves who
employed white workers, slave doctors who treated upper-class white patients,
and slaves who rented out their labor. Yet these were far from common
women in the United States were frequently subjected to rape and sexual abuse.
Many slaves fought back against sexual attacks, and many died resisting. Others
carried psychological and physical scars from their attacks. Sexual abuse of
slave women was rooted in and protected by the patriarchal Southern culture of
the era in which all women, black or white, were treated as property, or chattel.
As early as the adoption of partus sequitur ventrem into Virginia law in 1662,
the children born of sexual relations between any man and a black woman were
classified as slaves regardless of the father's race or status. The result after
several generations was a large number of mixed race, or mulatto, slaves. 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
1850, a publication provided guidance to slave owners on how to produce the
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 is uneducated, helpless, and dependent by depriving them of access to
education and recreation.
of slaves tended to be harsher on larger plantations, which were often managed
by overseers and owned by absentee slaveholders. In contrast, small
slave-owning families sometimes provided a more humane environment due to
the closer relationship between owners and slaves.
the prohibition placed on the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century, some slave owners attempted to improve the living conditions of their existing
slaves in order to deter them from running away.
proslavery 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
remained fearful that slaves would rebel or try to escape. Most slaveholders
attempted to reduce the risk of rebellion by minimizing the exposure of their slaves
to the world beyond their plantation, farm, or workplace, restricting access to
information about other slaves and possible rebellions, and degrading the
slaves by stifling their ability to exercise their mental faculties. Depriving
slaves of such exposure eliminated dreams and aspirations that might arise from an awareness of a larger world.
of slaves was generally discouraged (and sometimes prohibited) because it was feared that knowledge—particularly the ability to read and write—would cause slaves to become
rebellious. In the mid-nineteenth century,
slaving states passed laws making education of slaves illegal. In Virginia in
1841, the punishment for breaking such a law was 20 lashes with a whip to the
slave and a fine of $100 to the teacher. In North Carolina in 1841, punishment
consisted of 39 lashes to the slave and a fine of $250 to the teacher.
Education was not illegal in Kentucky, but it was virtually nonexistent. In
Missouri, some slaveholders educated their slaves or permitted the slaves to
The quality and extent of medical care received by slaves is not known
with much certainty. Some historians speculate that the quality must have been
equal to that of white people, assuming owners acted to preserve the value of
their property. Others conclude that medical care was poor for slaves, and
others suggest that while care provided by slaveholders was neglectful, slaves
often provided adequate treatment for one another.