Anxieties of White Mississippians Concerning the Institution of Slavery Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Anxieties of White Mississippians Regarding Slavery

In Bradley G. Bond's book Mississippi: A Documentary History, the author describes in great detail the restlessness and anxiety that white folks in Mississippi felt with reference to the institution of slavery. Bond describes the growth of slavery, what crops made it necessary for Southern landowners to purchase more slaves, the laws that pertained to the behavior of slave owners and slaves, and more. This paper reviews and critiques the Antebellum Slavery chapter (4) in Bond's book.

Antebellum Slavery

The Code Noir was a law that was enacted in Louisiana in 1724, likely the first such law that was designed to lay out in particulars as to what was expected of slave owners and slaves. At that time in Mississippi, there was a great deal of tobacco and indigo being grown but not a lot of cotton. When landowners began to realize that cotton was more profitable and in greater need in Europe and elsewhere, they started planting cotton in much greater quantities; and that, in turn, required more hands to do the labor. Hence, the demand for slaves increased as the boom in cotton growing began in the 1790s (Bond, 65).

Bond provides the data to illustrate how the number of slaves increased as the cotton explosion required more and more workers (slaves). Prior to the huge jump in cotton production the Spanish Census in Natchez District showed there were 1,619 whites and about 500 blacks (this was in 1784). But twelve years later, in 1796, those numbers changed dramatically -- and it was all the result of the explosion in cotton farming. Some 5,318 whites were counted by the Spanish Census along with 2,100 slaves (blacks); and by the year 1820, slaves made up 43.5% of the population of Mississippi (Bond, 65). That number was dwarfed by the new population data in 1860, just prior to the Civil War; at that time some 438,000 slaves were working the fields of Mississippi which was just above 55% of the entire population of the state.

That in itself is remarkable: more than half of population of the State of Mississippi was in bondage. In fact during the antebellum era, "…slaves built Mississippi," Bond asserted on page 65. Slaves in fact didn't just work the cotton fields. They also built levees, maintained the roads, they drained the swamplands and "…washed, cooked, cleaned, tended livestock," and worked any number of other jobs and tasks as needed (Bond, 65).

Their hard work was rewarded in myriad occasions with violence, arbitrarily administered with cruelty and savagery; they were also removed from their families. But for the white plantation owners and slave-holding property owners, while they were aware of the amount of work the slaves were doing to build the state of Mississippi, they were wary of a slave uprising. Bond's book goes into great detail about slavery in Mississippi in the early 19th century.

On page 66 Bond presents the Slave Code -- which made it legal for any white citizen to "apprehend" a slave and bring him before a judge if that slave is out in the community without a "pass." A pass would be a letter from his master saying he or she has the right to be outside of his plantation or farm. Thirty-nine lashes awaited any slave who dared to wander away from his place of bondage. The law also forbade slaves from owning weapons (even a club) and violating that law also called for 39 lashes "…on his or her bare back" (Bond, 67). The law also prohibited o assemblies or speeches or "riots" by slaves. As to those black individuals that are free, they do were not allowed to carry weapons of any kind. For white people, they were not allowed to be seen with a free negro or mulatto at what the law called "any unlawful meeting or assembly," and the punishment for that white person would be $20 (which in 1820 was a lot of money) (Bond, 68). The other particulars to the law included: a) free blacks were not allowed to get liquor for slaves (39 lashes); b) blacks or mulattos were not allowed to use "abusive language"; c) slaves were not permitted to be treated with "cruel or unusual punishment"; d) other laws prohibited slaves from conspiring to rebel, from attacking a white person, and other crimes such as rape, arson, etc., would mean punishment by death.

What was life actually like for a slave in the 1800s? Bond's book is enhanced by some very interesting and poignant oral histories written by slaves. Smith Simmons writes that he doesn't know how old he really is but he knew the name of his master (Dick Baylock) and he writes that he was fed well. "We was always fed mighty good, peas, greens, meat, lasses, and plenty of milk" (Bond, 71). While that line sounded like Smith was a happy person, a few sentences later he mentions that the children had no shoes to wear in the summer or the winter. "Their foots would crack open from the cold if they went outside in bad weather," he noted.

That said, Smith reported that he was treated pretty well, and Baylock was not particularly hard on any slaves. "There was very little punishment that went on; if any of the slaves ever got whipped I is never heard of it." Smith doesn't say much about Baylock's wife Janie, and he said the Baylocks had seven children but didn't mention if there was a good and fun relationship between the slave children and the white children on Baylocks 100 acre farm. The more you read of Smith's oral history the better it seems he was treated as a slave. For example, they had Sundays off (in fact the free weekend started at noon Saturday) and there was a dance on Saturday night with banjo playing and hand clapping. "Everything was lazy like and peaceful the whole day Sunday," he explained.

Things were quite a bit different for Charlie Bell who belonged to "Mr. Mo' from Poplarville in Pearl River County." Charlie mentions that his master build a log church and had a preacher come a couple times each month to conduct a service. Charlie explained that some of the slaves were good teachers as they could read and write and they were "…pretty sociable" too. It sounds from Charlie's oral history that there was dancing and music most nights; he explained that a drum could be made using the skin of a raccoon dried and pulled tightly over a sawed off keg (Bond, 74). If a person got sick and had a fever, the slaves would boil peach-tree leaves and if someone came down with dysentery, the tonic was to put red oak bark in a glass of water, let it steep, and drink it. There were other remedies for sprains and colds, and it sounded from Charlie's narrative that slave life wasn't all that bad -- at least if it was terrible, he wasn't sharing that information.

Then there was Ebenezer Brown, who presented his oral history when he was 85 years of age. Unlike Charlie and Smith, Ebenezer had it rough; "…I will never forget how he whup'd his slaves," he explained. Ebenezer's uncle Irwin was in charge of feeding the horses but he was whipped often for stealing; "…he wus a bad nigger…" (Bond, 74). He mentions the duties and responsibilities of several slaves; there was clearly a lot of work to be done because it was a "big farm" (Bond, 74). Ebenezer's father was a carpenter and he also worked in the field and drove a team of oxen into town to get flour and sugar.

Another sign that Ebenezer and the other slaves were driven hard is found in the paragraph on page 75; master Bill and apparently Bill's son Russ "…toted de whup" and they would ride around the fields whipping the slaves to make they work harder. "Marse Bill wud tie dem slave an' whup hard, and all de slave wud say, 'O, pray, marster, O, pray Marster'" (Bond, 75). Clearly there was plenty of work because they raised cows, sheep, hogs, chickens, geese, guineas, horses, mules, pigeons, and master Bill planted more potatoes "…dan eny body in the country" (Bond, 76). The cows produced more milk, Ebenezer recalled, than they knew what to do with. The good news for Ebenezer and his family was that every Saturday master Bill would dole out rations for the slaves to eat; flour, rice, peas, meat and even a little soda. Women who had babies took the little ones with them to work in the field while the women plowed and hoed the fields.

Lizzie Fant Brown remembers there were no hard times on the Fant plantation; "Everybody had a good time and they wasn't no hard times," she explained (Bond, 77). She tells stories about the patrols that kept watch at night so no slaves were out…

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