Slavery, United States

The enslaved population in the United States increased significantly from the initial arrival in 1619 of twenty Africans until 1808, when the transatlantic slave trade was legally ended in the United States. For nearly two hundred years the direct importation of Africans fueled the slave population's growth; however, once the direct trade ended reproduction accounted for the continued increase. As a result, in 1860 there were 3,953,760 slaves in the United States. By December 1865, when Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the numbers had escalated to more than four million. More than one-half of the slaves emancipated were under twenty years of age.

Published and unpublished accounts by young Middle Passage survivors often mention their childhood prior to being kidnapped. One child remembered her chores, primarily guarding poultry from hawks. Others wrote about playing with peers when traders raided their villages and captured them. They protested, but it was of no consequence for the traders who hurried the children along to the seacoast where they boarded ships that transported them across the Atlantic to the New World.

Their accounts of the capture, overland trek from the interior to the coast, and voyage from AFRICA to America via the Middle Passage is akin to one rendered by Olaudah Equiano. He was eleven years old in 1756 when kidnappers stole him and his sister from their village in Nigeria. The girl's fate remains unknown, but the intruders sold the boy to overseas traders. They were unable to sell him to sugar planters in Barbados, who perhaps believed he was too young to perform arduous work in the cane fields, so the traders carried the child to Virginia, where a tobacco planter bought him. Olaudah Equiano and Florence Hall were among the more than eleven million Africans of all ages spirited away from their homeland between 1518 and 1850 and brought to the Americas, where they toiled as agricultural laborers, skilled mechanics, miners, or domestic servants. Less than 10 percent of the Africans reached continental North America where their initial legal status was uncertain.

Some Africans in the British colonies of North America were indentured for a specified period, usually four to seven years of service. As a result, the possibilities of gaining freedom were greater than would be the case years later. Between 1630 and 1660, perpetual servitude for blacks became an accepted practice, and the law soon followed suit. In 1662 the Virginia Assembly passed an act declaring that all children born in the colony were "bond or free only according to the condition of the mother." Whether in Virginia or elsewhere in English-speaking North America, free women bore free children; however, the mulatto offspring of unmarried white women were considered black and subjected to bound apprenticeships until adulthood. Afterwards, they were indeed free. By contrast, the legislation relegated the children of enslaved women, regardless of color, to a life of bondage for generations to come. Among the perpetually bound were "quasi-slaves," people who lived, worked, and behaved as if they were emancipated. "We were free," declared the biracial Cornelia Smith, who came of age in the home of her grandfather, a North Carolina planter, while her mother and half-brother lived across the yard in the slave quarters. "We were just born in slavery, that's all," she explained (Murray, p. 49). For a variety of reasons, Smith, along with an untold number of other slaves in similar circumstances, enjoyed a form of liberty and suffered little or no interference from owners. Only legal documents made them chattel.

Enslaved parents often linked their offspring to kinship circles by NAMING them in honor of real and fictive kin. More often than not girls received a grandmother's name, while a firstborn son frequently carried his father's name. Traditional African day-names, which named children based on the day of their birth, are present in early records, but disappear in the nineteenth century as a reflection of the actual birth day. Instead, day-names became kin names passed from one generation to another as signs of respect for cherished members of immediate and extended families.

If slave children survived long enough to receive a name, the most critical period of their existence followed, when health challenges snuffed out the lives of children up to four years of age at rates more than double that of white children in the major slaveholding states. Aside from nutritional deficiencies, complications from teething and illness from lock-jaw and tetanus were among the life-threatening maladies that endangered slave children. Records of slaveholders include "suffocation" as a cause of death, but contemporary scholars believe SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME (SIDS) was responsible, contradicting earlier theories of exhausted mothers accidentally smothering the children who slept alongside of them.

Both parents and planters lamented the deaths of enslaved children, for they were valuable. Parents were vested in their welfare for sentimental reasons, but their owners' investments were economic. Healthy children represented capital assets while sickly ones signaled forbidding pecuniary losses. As a result, it was not unusual for owners to worry about their youthful chattel, especially after the closing of the overseas slave trade in 1808. Comments from slave-owners reflect their concern as those made by Andrew Flinn who wrote, "The children must be particularly attended to for rearing them is not only a duty, but also the most profitable part of plantation business" (Kiple and King, p. 96). In Thomas Jefferson's opinion, "a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man" (Cohen, p. 518). Enslaved children were worth little economically at birth but increased in value as they matured enough to enter the work place, where they were subjected to arduous labor and arbitrary power.

There was no set age or season at which slave children began work in fields, homes, or shops, since the needs of owners determined when and where the youngsters worked and what chores they performed. According to Frederick Douglass, who spent his formative years on a Maryland plantation, slaves toiled in all weather. "It was never too hot, or too cold; it could never rain, blow, snow, or hail too hard for us to work in the field" (Douglass, p. 124). Whether laboring inside or outside girls and boys who were too young to assume full work responsibilities assisted adults and performed simple chores. They carried water, swept yards, churned milk, gathered kindling, chased birds away from crops, and attended to children younger than themselves.

Thomas Jefferson gave specific orders for "children till 10 years old to serve as nurses," meaning child care providers, without gender distinction. "From 10 to 16," wrote Jefferson, "the boys [were to] make nails, the girls spin" (quoted in Betts, p. 7). According to gender conventions only boys learned the trades of coopers, cobblers, wrights, smiths, and other artisans, while girls were relegated to skills concerned with domesticity. Differences in opportunities meant selected boys had more chances of earning extra money to purchase necessities, luxuries, or freedom than girls. Such gender distinctions in the work place were common, but some owners ignored them. One former slave told Works Progress Administration interviewers in the 1930s that she "split rails like a man," and another reported that her "Mama plowed wid three horses." She asked, "Ain't dat somp'n?" and appeared more intrigued by the number of draft animals used than by the fact that her mother "worked like a man." The ex-slave commented, "Thought women was 'sposed to work' long wid men, I did" (Perdue et al., p. 292). Indeed, many enslaved males and females worked together and shared a mean sort of equality. Both were exploited.

Although Frederick Douglass said "Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night" (p.124), and Booker T. Washington claimed he had no recreation, enslaved children had some leisure time and participated in ring, rope, and ball games. Furthermore, there were opportunities for play that reflected events in everyday life, and spontaneous play after work, on Sundays and holidays, or after the lay-by and harvest. Slaves did not spend all of their leisure in play, however, since some managed to carve out enough time for sacred and secular lessons to restore the mind and spirit. It was also on their own time that children learned life lessons from folktales and stories told by their elders at nightfall. But no amount of leisure was sufficient to shield the children from the abuses associated with bondage, including arduous labor, corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, and family separations. There was little if any direct action children could take that would change their situations unless slavery was abolished. Until that time, parents and others taught children how to work satisfactorily, handle injustices, and pay deference to whites while maintaining their self-respect. This was vital to their well-being. As the children matured and had children of their own, they passed the lessons from one generation to another to ensure that they all survived.

See also: African-American Children and Youth; Work and Poverty.


Betts, Edwin Morris, ed. 1953. Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book: With Commentary and Relevant Extracts from Other Writings. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Cohen, William. 1969. "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery." Journal of American History 56 (December): 503–526.

Douglass, Frederick. 1962. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. New York: Collier Books.

Equiano, Olaudah. 1995. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Ed. Robert J. Allison. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Handler, Jerome S. 2002. "Survivors of the Middle Passage: Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in British America." Slavery and Abolition 23 (April): 23–56.

Hening, William W. 1923. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia. New York: Bartow.

King, Wilma. 1995. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

King, Wilma. 1997. "Within the Professional Household: Slave Children in the Antebellum South." The Historian 59 (spring): 523–540.

Kiple, Kenneth F., and Virginia Himmelsteib King. 1981. Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Leslie, Kent Anderson. 1992. "Amanda America Dickson: An Elite Mulatto Lady in Nineteenth-Century Georgia." In Southern Women: Histories and Identities, ed. Virginia Bernhard, Betty Brandon, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, et al. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Leslie, Kent Anderson. 1995. Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Meyer, Leland Winfield. 1932. The Life and Times of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky. New York: Columbia University Press.

Murray, Pauli. 1987. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. New York: Harper and Row.

Perdue, Charles L., Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds. 1980. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.