1973.06.01: History of an Unfree People: Daily Slavery (Red Tide)

Red Tide, Vol. II, No. VI [Issue #10]
Summer 1973

Black History Series No.6
History of an Unfree People
[By Michael Letwin]


One of the most popular misconceptions of the U.S. history is the role that slavery played in the Southern economy. We are taught that there were slaves in the south because the southern aristocrats were “evil people”, while the Northern capitalists were against slavery because they were “good”.

The south was a colonial economy. Its economy rested on exporting raw materials such as cotton, tobacco, rice, indigo, etc. the manufacturers in the Northern U.S. and England.

These products were to get to their destination primarily by ship and railroad, where it would be manufactured into the final product.

This kind of industry relies on labor rather than on machinery. — it is a labor intensive economy. Because wage-labor (or “free 1abor”) was both we expensive and too unpredictable, slavery was the most practical method of labor, in terms of the profits of white plantation owners.

The method of organization of the agricultural production in the south was the plantation. In the life of the southern plantation system, black slavery was above all else, a labor system. Popular treatment of slavery such as “GONE WITH THE WIND” stresses the house slaves, who in fact comprised a very small section of the slave work force.

In fact, the vast majority of slaves worked in the fields and secondarily in the cities, where they worked as skilled and unskilled laborers, domestics, on the railroads, docks, river boats, in mines, quarries, fisheries, textile mills, tobacco factories, and iron founderies.


For slaves, the day’s toil began just before sunrise. The working day was shorter in the winter than in the summer, but chiefly because there was less day light, not because there was less to do. The master was hardly ever at a loss to find things for his slaves to do.

The tasks also differed according to the season of the year. The tasks of January were different than that of May, and slaves were forced to work at different jobs accordingly.  Slave owners developed numerous variations on two basic methods of managing their laborers: the “gang system” and the “task system”.

Under the first of these systems, which was the one most commonly used, field hands were divided into gangs commanded by drivers who were to work them at a brisk pace. The purpose of the gang system was to force every hand to continue his labor until all were discharged from the field in the evening.

Under the task system, each hand was given specific daily work assignments. She could then set her own pace and quit when her job was completed. The driver’s job was to inspect the work and to see that it was performed satisfactorily before the slaves left the field.

All slaves possible, worked. This, ironically, is an example of the incorrectness of the notion that women are not suited for work, as women (and children, as soon as they physically could) were put to work with the men, picking cotton, and planting crops.


In Africa, blacks had been accustomed to a strictly regulated family life and a rigidly enforced moral code.

But in America, the disintegration of their social organization removed the traditional sanctions which had encouraged them to respect their own customs. In America, slaves were encouraged to live as white families, and to accept white standards of morality.

But it was only outwardly that the family life of the mass of Southern slaves resembled their masters. Inwardly, in many crucial ways, the domestic regimes af the slave cabin and the “big house”, was quite different.

The most obvious difference lay in the legal foundations upon which the slave family and the white family rested. In every state, white marriages were recognized as civil contracts which imposed obligations on both parties, and provided penalties for their violation.

Slave marriages had no such recognition in the slave codes. Instead, they were regulated by whatever rules the owners saw fit to make and enforce.

All slave marriages, of course, could be done only with the permission of the masters of the people involved. The same was true of divorce. And in general the members of the slave family had no say over their life.

Families were broken up at the whims of the master, for profit. Parents and children would often never see each other again. It was also here that the role of the strong black mother originated, as when a break in the family occurred, the children and family would usually stay with the mother.


Another popular stereotype of the slave era is the emphasis on the childlike, passive and content attitudes of slaves. This too is greatly untrue. One has only to look at the different types of resistance on the part of slaves, in the form of mass insurrection, sabotage, and self-mutilation to avoid work, to see that blacks, not unlike any other subjugated group of people, will not sit by and take their oppression passively.

Black slaves were very capable of thinking and acting for themselves, despite racist theories of the need for paternalism (parent­-like) of whites toward blacks.

The most important lesson for us to remember about slavery is the fact that it did not exist because of a southern sadists (although some may have been) got together and decided how they could be mean, but rather because it was part of an economic system which is run for profit.



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