Slavery and the plantation
During the era of slavery in the United States, not all blacks were slaves. There were a many number of free blacks, consisting of those had been freed or those in fact that were never slave. Nor did all slave work on plantations. There were nearly five hundred thousand that worked in the cities as domestic, skilled artisans and factory hands (Green, 13). But they were exceptions to the general rule. Most blacks in America were slaves on plantation-sized units in the seven states of the South. And with the invent of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, more slaves were needed to work the ever-growing cotton game (Frazier, 14). The size of the plantations varied with the wealth of the planters. There were small farmers with two or three slaves, planters with ten to thirty slaves and big planters who owned a thousand or more slaves. Scholars generally agree that slaves received better treatment on the small farms and plantation that did not employ overseers or general managers. Almost half of the slaves, however, live, worked and died on plantations where the owners assigned much of their authority to overseers.
The plantation was a combination factory, village and police precinct. The most obvious characteristic was the totalitarian regime placed on the slave. One example of this was a communal nursery, which prepared slave children for slavery and made it possible for their mothers to work in the fields. The woman who cared for black children was commonly designated “aunty” to distinguish her from the “mammy”, the nurse of white children. Sometimes one women cared for both white and black children. Boys and girls wandered in around in a state of near-nudity until they reached the age of work. On some plantations they were issued tow-linen shirts, on others they wore guano bags with holes punched in them for the head and arms. Children were never issued shoes until they were sent to the fields, usually at the age of six or seven. Young workers were broken in as water boys or in the the “trash gang.” At the age of ten or twelve, children were given a regular field routine. A former slave recalls, “Children had to go to the fiel’ at six on out place. Maybe they don’t do nothin’ but pick up stones or tote water, but thy got to get used to bein’ there.” (Johnson, 40-45)
Cooking on the plantation was a collective project. On most plantations food was prepared in a common kitchen and sent to the workers in the field. In most cases, however, slaves were expected to cook the evening meal in their cabins. The food, which was issued once a week, was generally coarse and lacking in variety. The usual allocation was a peck of corn and three of four pounds of bacon or salt pork. They were also given milk, potatoes, peas and beans, molasses, and fish. Fractional amounts, usually one-half, were allotted to each child in the family. Most slaves supplemented this meager fare by trapping coons and opossums in the fields or by stealing corn from the master’s corncribs and chickens from his chicken coops. Slaves made a distinction between taking and stealing. It was considered right to take anything that belonged to white folk but it was wrong to steal the property of other slaves (Olmsted 69-72).
While the diet provided to the slave kept them alive and functioning, it lacked many important nutrients, and diet-related diseases plagued slave communities. The diseases and other inflictions that befell slave include hernia, pneumonia, and lockjaw. Because of the lack of proper sanitation, slaves also suffered from dysentery and cholera more severely than the whites (Berkin, 266-267).
Twice a year the slave was issued a clothes ration. A South Carolina planter described a typical allowance in his plantation manual: “Each man gets in the fall two shirts of cotton drilling, a pair of woolen pants and a woolen jacket. In the spring two shirts of cotton shirting and two pair of cotton pants…. Each woman gets in the fall six yards of woolen cloth, six yards of cotton drilling and a needle, skein of thread and a half dozen buttons. In the