Tagged: Antebellum slavery

Faithful Slaves Monument: Thanks, But No Thanks

This is a monument in York County, South Carolina, to memorialize the “Faithful Slaves” of the the Civil War.


Faithful Slaves Memorial, York County, South Carolina; from The Historical Marker Database

The monument reads in part:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.

Full details of the monument are here. The comments at the link say that the thirteen-foot marble monument “is a tribute to the faithfulness of the Southern negro to the women and children of the South during the war… (and) probably the only one of its kind in the South.”

The folks who built this monument may well have been heartfelt in their motivations. But looking at it from my own vantage point, I find the thing disturbing and perverse.

I am going to describe the memorial with a metaphor that some might find objectionable… don’t say I didn’t warn you. To me, this memorial is akin to a rapist thanking a rape victim for being quiet during the act, thereby not alerting others to what was happening.

In both cases, thanks are being given for an action that benefits the victimizer, but does nothing to help the victim.

I can see why these folks would feel gratitude toward the slaves that are honored by this monument. In 1860, there were over three and a half million slaves in the South. But by the end of the Civil War, some estimates say that over 500,000 slaves fled their masters to go to contraband camps, head North, or otherwise seek freedom. Many males slaves joined the Union army or served the army in support roles. Meanwhile, many of the slaves who didn’t flee aided and abetted the Union effort by serving as spies, guides, or providing other support.

So, any slave who stayed with and supported their masters and masters’ families was undoubtedly seen as a blessing.

The thing is, this memorial is all about what the slaves did for their masters. I think it’s fair to ask, what did the slaves receive in return? Did they receive their freedom? Did they receive land or property, or reimbursement at a fair wage for their labors? Did they receive any political rights? The answer to these questions appears to be no.

Ultimately, I find this memorial to be self-serving and hollow.

I’m sure that the monument’s builders believed they were doing a good thing. But thanking a slave for being a good slave… that doesn’t resonate with me at all. If I was a slave, my reaction would be “thanks massa… thanks for nothing.”

Now, here’s a memorial I’d like to see. It features a huge statue, with a group of white men on one side, and a group of slaves on the other. The white men include Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy), Alexander Stephens, (Vice-President of the Confederacy) or John C. Calhoun (a leading proponent of slavery and secession prior to the Civil War). Their mouths are open, their faces etched with a mournful apology. On the other side, the slaves have a blank but measuring stare, as if they are trying to make sense of words that they never expected to hear.

On the base of the monument, there are two words: “We’re Sorry.”

Are there any such monuments in the South, or anywhere in this country? There should be.

(Hat tip to cwmemory.com )

Birthing a Slave: Reproduction and Inhumanity during America’s Slavery Era

Most people know of slavery, but we don’t know about slavery. Specifically, we don’t know how dehumanizing it was to be a slave.

We might understand what it’s like to be denied freedom or dignity at an intellectual level. But for many of us, we don’t have a grasp on how horrible the institution was, in the day to day life of an enslaved person. Most of us don’t “get” what it was about inhuman bondage that made it so inhuman.

For example: what was it like to be slave mother?

Some insights on this are given in the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. The book tells the history of a somewhat esoteric subject: the need of slaveholders, and the doctors they hired, to control and manage the bodies and reproductive lives of slave women.

But while the subject is esoteric, the details of how this played out in plantation life are chilling and disturbing.

Birthing-a-Slave
Cover of Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz.

The first chapter of the book, titled “Procreation,” has a gripping account of the stakes involved in the reproductive ability of slave women. I’ve provided some excerpts from that chapter below. Upon reading this, you will understand how lacking in humanity and dignity this peculiar institution was:

…an important aspect of slavery… has been all too often ignored: slaveholders expected to appropriate and exploit the reproductive lives of enslaved women. Control of one’s body was not a fundamental right of slaves. Emboldened by law and custom to do with human chattels as they wished, (slave) owners felt entitled to intervene in even the most intimate of matters. Women’s childbearing capacity became a commodity that could be traded on the open market.

During the antebellum era the expectation increased among members of the owning class that enslaved women would contribute to the economic success of the plantation not only through productive labor but also through procreation. The idea was at once both powerful and seductive and shaped the way women experienced enslavement, the way owners thought about the future of slavery, and the way doctors practiced medicine.

As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade… the only practical way of increasing the number of slave laborers was through new births. If enslaved mothers did not bear sufficient numbers of children to take the place of aged and dying workers, the South could not continue as a slave society.
***

Women entering their childbearing years-especially those who had proven their fertility through the birth of a baby-sold easily and for a high price. Former slave Boston Blackwell, who witnessed the sale of two women in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that a girl of fifteen who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500.

Human reproduction was so important to the continuation of slavery that members of the South’s ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living people. Anna Matilda King of Georgia assured her daughter that she would inherit not only the slave Christiann but also “her child and future children.” This wish to benefit future generations of slaveholding families pressed owners to look for ways of ensuring that enslaved mothers bore plenty of children. “If it was not for my children I would not care what became of the negroes,” Elizabeth Scott Neblett wrote her absent husband during the Civil War… Neblett maintained that she would gladly do without slaves to save the bother of managing them, but for her children’s sake she could not let them go.
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