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Black Americans Experience Of Subjugation And Slavery History Essay

Info: 4027 words (16 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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The experience of Black Americans between 1750 – 1880 was at the beginning certainly one of subjugation and slavery. This is not surprising considering the circumstances surrounding Black Americans transportation to colonial America, to be sold as slaves. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that this was constant across the 100 year period and that the treatment of black Americans was the same in different areas of America. The experience of all Americans was not always of oppression and the lives of freed slaves, black cowboys and black soldier’s needs to be considered, as well as the measures put in place by white Americans to ensure slaves were treated humanely. Alternately the differences in the treatment, of black Americans, in the Northern states needs to be compared with the Southern states.

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In order to discuss the experience of black Americans the differing ideas about the African slaves need to be debated. Some Americans saw the African “Negro” as simply an uneducated barbarian who needed to be enslaved, whereas others argued they were a representative of a different, no less civilized, culture. Northern historian, Kenneth Stampp, challenges the view that enslavement changed the African slave from savage to civilised [1] . Supported with data, Stampp argues that “Africans brought to the United States, as slaves, had been removed from societies far more advanced than most of our historians have appreciated” [2] . However, not all historians agree with Stampp. Lewis. C. Gray describes how the “great body of Negroes came to America as ignorant savages” and how it was “necessary to teach them the simplest operations in hand tools and to instruct them in the elementary methods of living” [3] . Equally, Southern historian, Ulrich B. Phillips, defends slavery as an institution that “assembled the working population in a more productive pattern than had existed previously”. Phillips referred to an idea first expressed in T.R Dew’s essay on slavery (1832) which was elaborated by Gabriel Tarde [4] . Phillips describes how enslavement was “even of advantage to some of the people enslaved, in that it saved them from extermination when defeated in war, and in that it gave them touch with more advanced communities than their own” [5] . Genovese disagrees with this view and argues that Tarde offers “little support to Phillips” and that Tarde’s ideas “should be considered within the context of his theory of imitation” [6] .

When comparing the differing views of Stampp and Phillips it is interesting to note that the anti-slavery historian Stampp is from North America whereas the pro historian Phillips is from the South. This certainly may affect the views of the historians; also more importantly the context in which both historians wrote their arguments has to be considered. Phillips American Negro Slavery was published in 1918, a time still thriving in racism and prejudice. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution:Slavery in the Ante-bellum South was published in 1956, a time in which views were changing about African Americans and the African-American Civil Rights Movement was getting underway.

Although it is clear by being kept as a slave the individual is being controlled and subjugated, the life of a slave has to be examined to discuss the extent of the subjugation and slavery. One area which can be examined is the punishments and rewards given to slaves by their masters.

Cumulative word count – 664 WordsThe punishment for delinquent slaves included deprivation of various privileges, confinement in the stocks, branding, being sold, incarceration and the death penalty. However, the most commonly used form of punishment was whipping. Owners preferred whipping to incarceration because it did not lead to any loss of labour time. Whipping could be used either as a mild or severe punishment, with it sometimes resulting in the death of the slave. Other times whipping was coupled with exportation to another state, as an alternative to the death penalty which would lose the owner the entire value of the slave. However, Fogel and Engerman argue that in 18th century America whipping was a commonly used form of punishment for not only slaves but for men and women who failed in their duties. Whipping of wives was relatively common, therefore the use of this punishment shouldn’t be exaggerated in its use of evidence to support the subjugation of black Americans as it was not solely used on slaves. Equally, although some owners could be brutal in their administration of punishments, many were not. Although most accepted the need for whipping they recognised that it had to be used with restraint and not in the heat of the moment. Many planters forbid the whipping of slaves unless done by them, and limited the amount of lashes that could be administered. [7] 

There were also codes implemented by the state to ensure that slaves were treated humanely. The Code of Alabama, for example, stated that “the Master must treat his slave with humanity, and must not inflict upon him any cruel punishment; he must provide him with a sufficiency of healthy food and necessary clothing; cause him to be properly attended during sickness, and provide for his necessary wants in old age.” [8] 

Although the used of sometimes severe punishments supports the idea of black Americans as being suppressed and controlled, with little control over their own lives and rebelliousness being punished. The extent to which brutal punishments were used should not be exaggerated and in the context of 18th century America it was not just black American slaves that received whipping or forms of punishment. Many of the American children, wives and workers were punished similarly and there were some laws in place to try and prevent unnecessary cruelty. Kolchin supports this by concluding that although “laws prohibiting cruelty to slaves were easy to evade”, “the very existence of these laws was indicative of the kind of community sentiment that acted to curtail although by no means eliminate the worse abuses again them.” [9] 

The use of punishments on slaves was equalled by the amount of rewards handed out to the slaves. Rewards were used to motivate slaves to work harder, as although punishments prevented rebelliousness, they didn’t encourage slaves to work harder then needed, to avoid punishment. Therefore, the majority of slave owners also introduced rewards for hard working slaves. The rewards differed between improving short-term performance and more long-term improvements. Slaves who performed well on a certain day or week may receive prizes, such as tobacco and clothing, or rewards in the form of unscheduled holidays or trips. Whereas slaves who did extra work in time permitted for rest may receive extra pay; this was sometimes a considerably greater amount then their usual pay.

Some rewards were used with the intention of improving behaviour over a longer period of time. These rewards usually took the form as end of the year bonuses which were given in either money or goods. Bennet Barrow is an example of a slave owner who distributed bonuses averaging from $15 to $20 per slave family in 1839. The amounts that each slave family received were directly proportional to their performance in that year.

The rewards gave the slaves some freedom over their lives. Some masters rewarded their slaves with areas of land in which the slave could grow their own crops, these crops could be used to feed the family but also as extra income for the slave families. Occasionally masters went as far as agreeing schemes in which the profits were shared with the slaves. This method of reward allowed the slave to have a certain amount of control other their lives, with the majority of the profit received from their work being given back to the slave, as long as they paid for the rental of the tools from the plantation owner.

A much longer reward, which often went over a decade, was the approval of a slave to rise within the social and economic hierarchy. Fieldhands could become drivers or artisans, artisans could then move to the nearest town and hire themselves out, while drivers could become overseer. Moving up the hierarchy meant increased economic benefits, better housing, clothing and increased cash flow, but more importantly increased freedom over their lives. [10] 

Cumulative word count – 1,420 WordsTherefore, although they were still property of their master, many slaves had freedom, although limited. Slaves had the possibility of extra income and, similar to the free working place, they had the chance to move up the social and economically ladder. This in itself brought with it increased freedom. Thus, although black Americans still found them selves as slaves and under the control of their master, they had some control over their own lives, even if it was limited.

When discussing the experience of Black Americans, the treatment of slaves in the courts needs to be explored. The degree to which black Americans had rights in the courts can be seen by the punishment of whites for crimes against blacks and also the “procedural fairness” shown to black Americans on trial.

Although the majority of crimes against Blacks were unpunished, historian Peter Kolchin argues that “whites were occasionally tried, convicted, and punished for murdering slaves.” [11] Legal Historian, Edward L. Ayers, supported the idea of fairness in the courts, he argued that “Blacks Accused of major offences could expect procedural fairness; once slaves entered the higher levels of the judicial machinery, in particular, they were treated much like whites.” [12] Similarly to whites, some guilty blacks were acquitted on technicalities. An example of this is a Louisiana Slave who was convicted, in 1857, of stabbing a white man, this conviction was overturned on appeal because the law in effect at the time had since been repealed. [13] Ayers states that slaves were convicted “no more frequently than whites in Superior and Stare Supreme Courts”, Ayers also notes that slavery became “less harsh as the antebellum era progressed.”

Although few masters were punished for cruelty to towards slaves, if cruelty occurred by men other than the master they did receive punishment,. An example of this is when four white men, in the 1850s, where found guilty for “beating, whipping, or wounding a slave” and they received fines. [14] 

The inquiry of Thomas Coob into the law of Negro Slavery in 1858 showed the awareness from the whites, that the slave had very limited rights in the courts. Coob stated that the courts “should, and do, feel themselves to be his (the slaves) guardian and protector and will provide for the defence of his rights”. Coob also stated that the offence of rape, committed on a female slave, should be an indictable offence. However, Coob is also an example of the ignorance of the time, this is reflected in his belief that the “occurrence of such an offence (rape of a female slave) is almost unheard off; and the known lasciviousness of the Negro, renders the possibility of the occurrence very remote. Yet, for the honour of the statue-book, if it does occur, there should bean adequate punishment.” [15] Therefore, although there were genuine attempts to give Black Americans equality in the courts, the prejudice towards them still existed and meant the effect was limited. Ayers supports this by concluding that law acted only as a “shield for blacks… in a limited sense”. Ayers also noted that although the fair legal system helped to convince slave owners “that they were just” believing that it was “evidence of a healthy society”, slaves “saw too much evidence to the contrary to place much faith in the law.” [16] 

Michael Wayne agrees with Ayers and argues that by following “procedural fairness” masters “strengthened their sense of moral legitimacy” and that it was not a commitment to justice for Black Americans. Equally, although the courts may have provided some fairness for slaves, in the majority of cases it was the master who dealt with suspected criminals and as Wayne argues they “answered to no one but his own conscience.” Escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, supports Wayne, he stated that “the overseer is generally accuser, judge, jury, advocate and executioner.” [17] 

Cumulative word count – 2,099 WordsAnother issue is that although black Americans may technically receive “procedural fairness”, not all sentences for “major offences” were the same for black and white Americans. Therefore, “procedural fairness” seems pointless if the sentences are unbalanced for blacks. In Mississippi, for example, a white convicted of manslaughter faced a term in the penitentiary, whereas if a black was convicted of manslaughter they would face hanging. In addition, many acts which were illegal for slaves were legal for whites, for example a house servant was officially stealing if she removed anything from her owners larder, however if her owner seized anything she had grown during her free hours, this was entirely within his rights as her master. [18] 

A tragic example of the lack of protection from the courts of slaves was illustrated by historian Melton McLaurin, he told the story of a slave who murdered her master after five years of sexual abuse. At her trial it was argued that she had the right to defend herself from rape. However, since the sexual assault of a slave was not a criminal offence, the judge correctly ruled that she did not have this right, so she was executed. Therefore, although she officially received “procedural fairness”, if the laws are prejudice towards slaves “procedural fairness” is pointless. Wayne also adds that “it is difficult to make the case that slaves were treated much like whites. For one thing…..blacks had no opportunity to sit as judges or practise the law or serve on juries.” [19] 

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According to calculations by Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, free blacks in the Deep South worked 28 to 37 percent fewer hours per year in 1879 than slaves had in 1859. By contrast, Robert W. Fogel and John F. Olson recently argued that although the gang system enabled masters to drive slaves at a more intensive pace per hour, they actually worked 10 percent fewer hours per year than Nothern free farmers; in other words, slaves worked harder, not longer.

Those families were not, of course, untouched by slavery. Even under the best of circumstances, slave families lacked the institutional and legal support enjoyed by those that were free, and in extreme cases masters could not only hinder but prevent the development of normal family relations; Fredrick Douglass, taken from his mother as an infant, recalled it as “a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran way, to part children from their mothers at a very early age”.

Peter Kolchin, p.138

“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant-before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran way, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is take from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old women, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.”

Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave”, P.17

Cumulative word count – 664 Words”Despite their intense demand for slave labor, many states of the deep South passed laws designed to curtail the operations of professional slave traders; Georgia banned the commercial importation of slaves from1817 to 1853, and Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana imposed similar bands fro much briefer periods.”

“Ethical concerns also spurred efforts to regulate the slave trade. Several states discouraged the separation of families, and in 1829 Louisiana forbade the sale of children under the age of eleven apart from their mothers.”

Peter Kolchin, P 129

“Laws forbidding the slave trade were easily evaded, and the buying and selling of slaves continued unabated. Still, efforts to regulate the trade were not totally without effect. Before the passage of Louisiana’s 1829 law prohibiting slave of children under age eleven apart from their mothers, 13.3 percent of the slaves shipped to New Orleans by Virginia-based traders Franklin and Armfield consisted of such children; after 1829, Franklin and Armfield abruptly halted these sales. Throughout the South, public sentiment reinforced legislation to discourage the separate sale of very young children.”

Peter Kolchin, P130

“Although most crimes committed against slaves went unpunished, whites were occasionally tried, convicted, and punished – typically with ten-year hail sentences – for murdering slaves. Laws prohibiting cruelty to slaves were easy to evade, but the very existence of these laws was indicative of the kind of community sentiment that acted to curtail although by no means eliminate the worse abuses again them.”

“of course most infractions committed by slaves never reached court……. But as legal historians such as Mark V. Tushnet, Daniel J. Flaniagan and Edward L. Ayers have recently stressed, slaves charged with killing or physically assaulting whites often received serious trials. “Blacks Accused of major offences could expect procedural fairness,” noted Ayers; “once slaves entered the higher levels of the judicial machinery, in particular, they were treated much like white.” Like whites, guilty blacks were sometimes acquitted on technicalities; in 1857, for example, the conviction of a Louisiana slave for stabbing a white man was overturned on appeal, because the law in effect at the time of the offence had since been repealed.” (Vengeance and justice; crime and punishment in the 19th century American south, 134, Catteral ed Judiciacal cases, 637 Edward Ayers

“ayers is not arguing that there was a broad commitment to justice for blacked but rather that by following “procedural fairness” in court cases involving slaves, masters “strengthened their sense of moral legitimacy”. ,,,,,, “Keep in mind, for slaves the courts represented only a minor component of the “judicial machinery” of the South. It was the master who dealt with most suspected criminal acts but his labourers, and he ordinarily answered to non one but his own conscience.

Nor is it entirely accurate to suggest that blacks and white were subject to the same penalties for “major offences”. In Mississippi, homicide committed without “express malice” was manslaughter, not murder. But a white convicted of manslaughter faced a term in the penitentiary; for blacks the punishment was hanging. Indeed, even the attempted murder of a white person but a slave was a capital offence. Furthermore, many illegal acts by slaves were perfectly lawful when carried out by whites. If a house servant removed a ham from her owner’s larder, that was stealing. But if her owner seized the collard greens she had grown during her free hours, well, that was entirely within his prerogative.”

Death of an overseer: reopening a murder investigation from the plantation South – Michael Wayne. P. 170

“in Celia, A Slave, the historian Melton McLaurin tells the tragic story of a 19 year old women who bludgeoned her master to death after five years of repeated sexual abuse. At her trail, her court-appointed attorney attempted to argue that she has the right, as did any women, to defend herself from rape. But the presiding judge correctly rules that sexual assault of a slave was not a criminal offence under the law, and so Celia was made to pay with her life. The fact that, in a technical sense, she may have received “procedural fairness” would seem to be beside the point. “

” It is difficult to make the case that slaves were treated much like white. For one thing … blacks had no opportunity to sit as judges or practise the law or serve on juries.”

Death of an overseer: reopening a murder investigation from the plantation South – Michael Wayne. P.171

“As to what amount to cruel treatment, is a question which necessarily, to some extent, must be submitted to the jury. The general principle would be, that the master’s right to enforce obedience and subordination on the part of the slave should, as far as possible, remain intact. Whatever goes beyond this, and from mere wantonness or revenge inflicts pain and suffering, especially unusual and inhumane punishments, is cruelty, and should be punished as such.”

An inquiry into the law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America… Volume 1, Thomas Read Rootes Coob P. 98 – 99


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