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What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? (1863)

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See a problem on this page? In denying slaveholders their children, enslaved women effectively disrupted the regime. Other historians who have written about women's ability to resist their enslavement through their reproductive capacities include R. Okihiro Ed. Aside from using methods of contraception or attempting to induce abortions, especially when pregnancy resulted from sexual assault, female slaves also simply fought off sexual attackers, most commonly white men. View all notes Since slaveholders gained profits from any child their slave women bore, they had a real motive for sexually assaulting and raping them.

Some used their physical strength to fight back, regardless of the consequences their actions might bring. The enslaved woman Celia, just nineteen years of age, hit her slaveholder, Robert Newsom, with a stick after he raped her. She was later found guilty of murder and executed. View all notes Other women simply cowered in terror when sexually assaulted. View all notes But she also used her propensity to reproduce as a means of seeking to improve her situation. Enslaved women did not enter purely loving and consensual relationships with their owners because of the power dynamic involved.

Some, including Harriet Jacobs, tolerated sexual relationships with white men in the hope of gaining a better life for themselves and—crucially as mothers—for their children. See also Rachel L. Paul Finkelman believes enslaved women probably had a better chance of gaining freedom than enslaved men because of their intimate interracial relationships with them.

See Finkelman Ed. Historians have spent more time researching the extent of sexual assaults on enslaved women than on considering what the offspring of sexual violence mindful that not all rape resulted in pregnancy and birth symbolized for slave mothers. View all notes WPA testimony, evidence that mostly came from the perspective of the children of intimate relationships rather than mothers themselves, suggests that, like Harriet Jacobs, women loved all their children equally, whether born of sexual violence or not.

Well, just say he was a white man and dat my mother never did marry nobody while he lived.

View all notes Ann Barber was probably a victim of sexual abuse by her slaveholder, who also forbade her from marrying an enslaved man. His actions ensured enslaved offspring as well as his own personal sexual gratification. Somewhat differently, Alexander Robertson described how the identity of his father was kept a secret from him, although he suspected he was the son of his master.

View all notes For this family at least, then, enslaved people drew together in mutual systems of support, to raise children born in slavery. Slave mothers and fathers did not differentiate between children born in or out of wedlock, of sexual assault or within loving relationships. Instead they stood together and helped each other survive the regime and the raising of children within it.

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View all notes Occasionally slaveholders deliberately forced or cajoled women into intimate relationships with men with a view to producing valuable children, but evidence of this is fairly scant. They cajoled and persuaded women to bear valuable children. Gregory D. WPA respondents portrayed their experiences of sexual violence in this way because it was the only way they knew how to conceptualize their experiences to white interviewers.


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View all notes However, for young women who were already anxious about the prospect of becoming a mother under slavery this must have been a terrifying ordeal. Two female WPA respondents described being forced into intimate relationships against their will. Mary Gaffney, described above, recalled how she initially hated the man her slaveholder forced her to marry, but she eventually relented and remained with him after slavery, when she finally bore him free, rather than enslaved, children.

And seeking to find rape within marriage under slavery is obviously harder still. Moreover, US states only legislated against rape within marriage in the second half of the twentieth century. By it was deemed a crime in all 50 states. A man named Hawkins bought her, along with her mother. After about a year, aged sixteen, Hawkins told her to go and live with a slave man named Rufus in his cabin.

Naively, Williams thought that Hawkins intended her to perform domestic work for Rufus, but when he climbed into her bunk at night, she realized his true intentions and protected herself with a poker. No doubt he felt his expectation of sexual relations with a woman deemed to be his wife were reasonable; in this sense of course both were victims of the power of slaveholders. View all notes But Williams also disliked Rufus and was fully aware of his ability, as a man, to impose himself on her.


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The unnamed WPA interviewer noted that their relationship did not survive and that Williams left Rufus after slavery and never married. However, she bore him two children, one of whom was born after emancipation. Sexual assaults committed by enslaved men in positions of relative power and authority were more common than enforced intimate relationships, although both could force slave women into motherhood against their will.

He have strength to make me. Regardless of the circumstances by which enslaved women became mothers, the biological process of giving birth could be less significant than cooperating with each other to care for and nurture needy infants under a regime of oppression, so women often shared childcare responsibilities in a more communal way than in white society.

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Women adopted flexible forms of parenting, including relying on the support of step-parents, wider kin networks, and their female peers. Sometimes women shared their breast milk with other enslaved babies. WPA respondent Charlie Davenport stressed this sense of camaraderie among enslaved women, who no doubt felt a sense of feminine pride in their ability to suckle their young and use this skill to help assist their peers.

Mississippi Narratives , Pt 1, p. See also Emily West with R. Rather, they represented one of the myriad of ways in which women strove to survive, and hence to indirectly resist, their enslavement through mutual support.

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In the next ward, stretched upon the ground, apparently either asleep or so overcome with sickness as to be incapable of moving, lay an immense woman ; her stature, as she cumbered the earth, must have been, I should think, five feet seven or eight, and her bulk enormous. She was wrapped in filthy rags, and lay with her face on the floor. As I approached, and stooped to see what ailed her, she suddenly threw out her arms, and, seized with violent convulsions, rolled over and over upon the floor, beating her head violently upon the ground, and throwing her enormous limbs about in a horrible manner.

Immediately upon the occurrence of this fit, four or five women threw themselves literally upon her, and held her down by main force ; they even proceeded to bind her legs and arms together, to prevent her dashing herself about ; but this violent coercion and tight bandaging seemed to me, in my profound igno- rance, more likely to increase her illness by impeding her breathing and the circulation of her blood, and I bade them desist, and unfasten all the strings and ligatures not only that they had put round her limbs, but which, by tighten- ing her clothes round her body, caused any obstruction.

How much I wished that, instead of music, and dancing, and such stuff, I had learned something of sickness and health, of the conditions and liabilities of the human body, that I might have known how to assist this poor creature, and to direct her ignorant and helpless nurses! The fit presently subsided, and was succeeded by the most deplorable prostration and weakness of nerves, the tears streaming down the poor woman's cheeks in show- ers, without, however, her uttering a single word, though she moaned incessantly.

I have seldom seen finer women than this poor creature and her younger sister, an immense strapping lass called Chloe tall, straight, and extremely well made who was assisting her sister, and whom I had re- marked, for the extreme delight and merriment which my cleansing propensities seemed to give her, on my last visit to the hospital. She was here taking care of a sick baby, and helping to nurse her sister Molly, who, it seems, is subject to those fits, about which I spoke to our phy- sician here an intelligent man residing in Darien, who visits the estate whenever medical assistance is required.

He seemed to attribute them to nervous disorder, brought on by frequent childbearing. This woman is young, I sup- pose at the outside not thirty, and her sister informed me that she had had ten children ten children, E! Fits and hard labor in the fields, unpaid labor, labor exacted with stripes how do you fancy that? I wonder if my mere narration can make your blood boil as the facts did mine?

Among the patients in this room was a young girl, apparently from fourteen to fifteen, whose hands and feet were literally rotting away piecemeal, from the effect of a horrible disease, to which the negroes are subject here, and I believe in the West Indies, and when it at- tacks the joints of the toes and fingers, the pieces abso- , lutely decay and come off, leaving the limb a maimed and horrible stump!

I believe no cure is known for this dis- gusting malady, which seems confined to these poor crea- tures. Another disease, of which they complained much, and which, of course, I was utterly incapable of account- ing for, was a species of lock-jaw, to which their babies very frequently fall victims in the first or second week after their birth, refusing the breast, and the mouth grad- ually losing the power of opening itself.

The horrible diseased state of head, common among their babies, is a mere result of filth and confinement, and therefore, though 40 JOUBNAL OF I never any where saw such distressing and disgusting ob- jects as some of these poor little woolly skulls presented, the cause was sufficiently obvious. Pleurisy, or a tend- ency to it, seems very common among them ; also peri- pneumouia, or inflammation of the lungs, which is terribly prevalent, and generally fatal.

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Rheumatism is almost universal ; and as it proceeds from exposure, and want of knowledge and care, attacks indiscriminately the young and old. A great number of the women are victims to falling of the womb and weakness in the spine ; but these are necessary results of their laborious existence, and do not belong either to climate or constitution. I have ingeniously contrived to introduce bribery, cor- ruption, and pauperism, all in a breath, upon this island, which, until my advent, was as innocent of these pollu- tions, I suppose, as Prospero's isle of refuge.

Wishing, however, to appeal to some perception, perhaps a little less dim in their minds than the abstract loveliness of cleanliness, I have proclaimed to all the little baby nurses that I will give a cent to every little boy or girl whose baby's face shall be clean, and one to every individual with clean face and hands of their own.