The ethically repugnant institution of slavery in pre-Civil War America manifested itself in the cruel conditions of daily life for thousands of African-Americans. Nothing can quite capture the actual suffering endured by the thousands of slaves that toiled on American plantations before the Civil War. Daily life consisted of up to eighteen hours of work with only monotonous gruel for sustenance, sporadic and often deadly floggings, whippings, and beatings, and restless sleep in tiny multi-family dirt floor dwellings. On Southern plantations, slaves were routinely and unexpectedly beaten, torn from their families, and kept deliberately illiterate out of the fear that learning to read would instigate rebellions and running away. When blacks did begin to study the Christian bible, those teachings did indeed lead to mass movements of attempted liberation. These failed miserably and ended in systematic killings. To make up for their losses, slave owners bred human babies as if they were farm animals, often forcing mothers to start giving birth as early as age thirteen. While house slaves enjoyed a slightly better life than their field-working counterparts, life inside plantation homes was akin to, or worse than, life in prison. Moreover, because slavery was legally permitted and morally justified by the vast majority of southern whites whose livelihoods depended on it, blacks had absolutely no legal or political outlets. Rapes, physical assault, and murder went not only unpunished: it was practically expected from the owners of slaves. Basically, blacks in America were treated like animals, as their race deemed them unworthy of human life. Slaves attempted to create African communities on their plantations through religious rituals, music, and kinship bonds; however, the solace afforded from these practices remained ineffective against the constant physical, emotional, and mental oppression of the institution.
During harvest time, slaves toiled in the fields for up to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. Even during the remainder of the year, daily work routines were inhumane. Slaves were worked well beyond their physical capabilities, even though they were given tasks according to their particular strengths. Women well into their term of pregnancy would be found alongside their male counterparts on plantation fields, plowing or hoeing; there was relatively no sex differentiation when it came to field work. The practice of "hard driving" slaves went hand-in-hand with physical punishments that would supposedly spur the men and women to work harder. Children as young as six years old were forced to carry water or weed the fields. Crops like cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco thrived with slave labor, which was considerably cheaper than hiring paid workers. Work on the fields never ceased throughout the year, in large part due to the mild southern climate; basically, there was no respite from work during the course of a slave's life.
Each plantation or region in the south had different labor codes for slaves but they all permitted gross physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Mutilation, branding, chaining, whipping, drowning, and murder were common practices employed to maximize productivity or to express complete dominance over the slave population. Furthermore, whippings were unpredictably delivered and often got completely out of hand. On September 15, 1844, the St. Louis Republican reported a story on an eight-year-old slave girl who was brutalized by her master: "The flesh on the back and limbs was beaten to a jelly -- one shoulder-bone was laid bare -- there were several cuts, apparently from a club, on the head -- and around the neck was the indentation of a cord, by which it is supposed she had been confined to a tree." Stories like these were not uncommon; in fact, they were so much a part of life in the south that slave beatings mostly went unnoticed and especially unpunished. Because they were not permitted to testify in court, slaves had no legal recourse to protect them from physical beating or murder. Slaves were frequently drowned, hanged, beaten to death, or even burned at the stake. Slave women were commonly raped by their white masters or any white male family member; the children from those insipid unions were of course born into slavery.
Most field workers were fed fairly large portions of gruel so to maximize their energy and productivity levels. However, the quality of food was nutritionally inadequate and imbalanced. Slaves prepared their own food and carried it out to the fields in buckets, eating like animals from troughs. Children did the same, but were provided with far less food than they needed: "the children feed like pigs out of troughs, and being supplied sparingly, invariably fight and quarrel with one another over their meals," (Fredric). The monotonous slave diet commonly consisted of corn meal and some salt pork or bacon that was bought at discounts from auction houses. Meat and other slave food were frequently contaminated, especially on plantations near swampy areas where bacteria and viruses propagated. Moreover, nutritional deficiencies and related illnesses plagued many slaves. Depending on the plantation, slaves were sometimes permitted to grow vegetables in a small garden but in general eating offered no pleasure and little comfort or sustenance. House slaves occasionally ate better food than their field-working counterparts. However, Harriet Jacobs reported that her mistress spat on the plates of leftover food so that the slaves could not pick away at the remains ("House Slaves").
The living quarters of house slaves were usually better than those of field workers, who resided in tiny slave cabins with rudimentary fixings, clapboard siding, dirt floors, and clay chinking ("Antebellum Slavery: Health"). Slave cabins leaked when it rained and were continually wet, dirty, dank, and cold in the winter. As such, the dwellings were breeding grounds for disease and ill health. As Francis Frederic stated in his narrative Fifty Years of Slavery: "This mode of living is no doubt adopted for the express purpose of brutalizing the slaves as much as possible, and making the utmost difference between them and the white man," (1863). Near swamps, many slaves contracted diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery, and pneumonia. Life expectancy for blacks was much lower than for Southern whites, whose life expectancy was already lower than that of Northern whites ("Antebellum Slavery: Health").
House slaves were sometimes offered hand-me-down clothing from the white master family. However, field slaves were given a ration of clothing, usually a couple of wool pants in the winter and cotton ones in the summer, plus a few shirts. Slave cloth was exceedingly rough, like hemp or flax. In general, clothing for slaves was inadequate and uncomfortable, especially in colder regions. Women were not given clothes, but rather were offered cheap cloth imported from England and forced to sew their own garments.
Religion played a huge role in the lives of slaves, who continued to practice their indigenous religions the Great Awakening introduced them to Christianity. Until the early 1700s, no conversion of slaves was sought. They were considered to be inferior beings to begin with and unable to take part in the Christian doctrine. However, one of the main reasons why slaves were originally not introduced to Christianity was the fear that the knowledge would incite them and cause them to question their condition. However, beginning in the early eighteenth century, the missionary movement burgeoned in the American south. A British organization called the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts" (SPG) promoted the practice of Christianity among slaves (Perez). In the 1740s, the first Great Awakening further spread the Christian doctrine to African-Americans, and by the early 1800s, many blacks had turned toward Christianity for solace. The Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century provided a means for slaves to combine their indigenous African religions with Christianity. Totally syncretic religions like voodoo were only common in some parts of the United States, namely Louisiana, but in general the slaves managed to combine their rich spiritual traditions with the religion of their oppressors. The revivalist, evangelical spirit of the Second Great Awakening was particularly conducive to syncretism with African religions by encouraging "overjoyed body expressions," (Perez).
The introduction of Christianity to Africans in bondage led to organized church services, which were usually segregated. To form their own religious communities, slaves worshipped in secret and were eventually able to form their own churches. In 1816, Richard Allen formed the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. By the 1860s, fifteen percent of slaves were registered with the Baptist or Methodist churches (Perez). Gradually, slaves began to follow black preachers instead of white ones. Old Testament allegories of enslavement especially spoke to the black worshippers, who also found immense solace in the teachings of Jesus because of the Christian ideas of love and social justice. Christian teachings did lead to rebellions, the most famous of which was Nat Turner's in 1831. To squelch these uprisings, slave owners prohibited African forms of worship like drumming because they imagined these were means of sending communications regarding rebellions.
Religion remains one of the most hypocritical expressions of white supremacy. William Wells Brown…