Slavery | Virginia Museum of History & Culture
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William Byrd II
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Virginia’s 550,000 slaves constituted one third of the state’s population in 1860. In some eastern counties, slaves were the majority. In the western counties, rugged terrain made slavery impractical. In 1829, citizens there demanded representation in a government controlled by easterners with different interests. In 1861, they chose to form West Virginia rather than join the Confederacy.

Slave Life on the Plantation

The majority of enslaved men, women, and children provided agricultural labor. Trained craftsmen provided such services as blacksmithing and carpentry, while a smaller group of men and women served the needs of the planter’s family. On Sundays, slaves tended to their own gardens and livestock provided by the owners, practiced religion, and engaged with family and friends.

Through their families, religion, folklore, and music, as well as more direct forms of resistance, African Americans resisted the debilitating effects of slavery and created a vital culture supportive of human dignity. At the same time, slaves exerted a profound influence on all aspects of American culture. Language, music, cuisine, and architecture in the United States are all heavily influenced by African traditions and are part of a uniquely American culture.

Slave Religion and Folklore

As late as 1800, most slaves retained African traditions of music, dance, and belief in a supreme creator. Baptist and Methodist ministers preached hope and redemption to enslaved people who fashioned Christian gospels into a communal music of spirituals about salvation, deliverance, and resistance. Religious expression helped slaves maintain a sense of hope and ultimate salvation.

Much of the religious life of the slave community existed beyond the control of whites. Among fellow slaves, black preachers emphasized biblical themes of suffering and redemption.

Enslaved African Americans continued a rich tradition of African parables, proverbs, and legends. Through folklore, they maintained a sense of identity and taught valuable lessons to their children. The central figures were cunning tricksters, often represented as tortoises, spiders, or rabbits, who defeated more powerful enemies through wit and guile, not power and authority.

Music and Food

Slave music merged European practices with intricate rhythm patterns, off-key notes, foot patting, and a strong rhythmic drive. Music was incorporated into religious ceremonies as shouts and “sorrow songs;” “field hollers” and work songs helped coordinate group tasks; and satirical songs were a form of resistance that commented on the injustices of the slave system.

African Americans adapted Indian, European, and African food traditions—such as deep-fat frying, gumbo, and fricassee—to feed their own families as well as those of white slaveowners. Pork and corn were the primary rations issued to slaves, but they were supplemented by plants and animals grown or raised or gathered from nearby rivers and fields.

Living in Fear

The management of an enslaved workforce was a frequent topic of debate among slaveowners. Over time an elaborate system of controls was developed that included the legal system, religion, incentives, physical punishment, and intimidation to keep enslaved people working. None was completely successful.

While slaveowners asserted that their workforce was loyal, they also lived in constant fear of a revolt. White southerners prohibited enslaved African Americans from learning to read, restricted their movement, prevented them from meeting in groups, and publicly punished runaways. Slave codes also punished white Virginians who assisted blacks in violating the codes.

The Slave Trade and Slave Auction

After an 1808 act of Congress abolished the international slave trade, a domestic trade flourished. Richmond became the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South, and the slave trade was Virginia’s largest industry. It accounted for the sale of as many as two million people from Richmond to the Deep South, where the cotton industry provided a market for enslaved labor.

Prices of slaves varied widely over time. They rose to a high of about $1,250 during the cotton boom of the late 1830s, fell to below half that level in the 1840s, and rose to about $1,450 in the late 1850s. Males were valued 10 to 20 percent more than females; at age ten, children's prices were about half that of a prime male field hand.

Resistance by Those Enslaved

Denied their unalienable rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, enslaved Americans were trapped in a cruel and unacceptable lifestyle. Some enslaved Virginians instigated organized, armed rebellion or attempted escape, even though success was unlikely and punishments included execution and disfigurement. Most engaged in day-to-day resistance—breaking equipment, stealing foodstuffs, slowing the work-pace. The most effective resistance was the formation of a distinct culture that perpetuated African American traditions of music, storytelling, and cuisine, and was bolstered by strong religious beliefs.

External Resistance to Slavery

Travelers to Virginia were appalled by the slavery they saw practiced there. In 1842, the English novelist Charles Dickens wrote of the “gloom and dejection” and “ruin and decay” that he attributed to “this horrible institution.” Inevitably, the intolerable abuses caused a number to commit suicide. A few initiated rebellion––the ultimate crisis imagined by the slaveowner.

  • Gabriel’s Rebellion, 1800

Gabriel was a literate enslaved blacksmith hired out to work in Richmond by his owner, Thomas Prosser of Henrico County. With some freedom of movement, access to other slaves, and information about uprisings elsewhere, Gabriel planned a slave rebellion in central Virginia. Betrayed by two fellow slaves, Gabriel and twenty-five of his followers were hanged.

  • The Nat Turner Revolt, 1831

The danger of a slave uprising seemed remote to most whites until this incident. In Southampton County, Nat Turner led about sixty fellow slaves in a two-day uprising that left sixty whites dead. The reaction to the event by white southerners can be seen in broadsides, narratives, and private letters. Because Turner’s former master was said to be a fair man, every slaveholder in Virginia suddenly felt threatened.

  • John Brown’s Raid, 1859

Accompanied by eighteen whites and five African Americans, abolitionist John Brown seized the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He intended to take rifles stored there, escape into the mountains, and start a slave revolt. Five raiders escaped, ten were killed, and nine—including Brown—were captured and executed. Sectionalist tension heightened as southerners feared additional violence.

The Abolitionist Movement and Manumission in Virginia

A society for promoting abolition was organized by 1790, and publications appeared as early as St. George Tucker’s Dissertation of 1796. The self-criticism and efforts for abolition ended, however, after Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831. From that point forward, the majority of white Virginians approved of the practice, denied its evils, and defended it as a “positive good.”

In 1782, the General Assembly allowed slaveowners to free their slaves. Some did. Many of their manumission documents are written with condemnation of “the injustice and criminality” of slavery: “Being fully persuaded that freedom is the Natural Right of all Mankind and that it is my duty to do unto others as I would desire to be done by in the like situation, I hereby Emancipate and set free the said Slave _____ .”

The Colonization Movement

Alarmed by the growing free black population, a number of Virginians—including James Monroe and John Randolph of Roanoke—joined antislavery northerners in establishing the American Colonization Society. The society promoted the “repatriation” of former slaves to Africa and established the country of Liberia. About 15,000 blacks emigrated and patterned their society after the American South.

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