History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     The following is an article involving the Negro slave in the period of the 1800s. This was an atrocious time in which the Negro suffered at the hands of the plantation owners and, in general, the white population

     History tells us that hard labor on plantations offered some Negro slaves opportunities to discover specific skills, in particularly male slaves. This occasion required a great deal of direction on them. The greater opportunities were set in reserve for those slaves who worked off plantations and farms as laborers in backbreaking industries such as mining, lumbering, and skilled labor in the towns of cities.

     History also tells us that because cotton growing absorbed a great number of whites to small farms, a shortage of white labor was in a troubled condition, which included nearly all the nonagricultural divisions of the southern economy. As a result of this circumstance, a demand for slaves called for them to drive wagons, work as ship cargo handlers, man river barges, and to perform the many jobs in the mining and lumbering industry. Lumbering, at the time, employed about 16,000 workers, the majority being slaves. Their job was to cut the trees, haul them to sawmills and form them into practical objects such as tables, cupboards, chairs, etc. The African-American engineers employed in the sawmills repaired and fired steam engines, which provided power for the communities. Slaves, in the iron ore ranges and ironworks, were little more than laborers, they often supervising the less skilled white workers. The booming textile industry in New England provided work for the mill girls, slave women, and children who labored in the South's newly founded textile mills.

     A good number of southern blacks took pleasure in work in cities that was denied to blacks in northern cities. Most certainly, enslaved blacks that worked in factories or in lumbering or in mining were not owned by their employers. As an alternative, their rural employers hired them out. As the case may be, very possibly conditions of work in factories reduced to a level where slaves grew ill or died. Rural slave owners would cut back or simply refuse to provide urban employers with more slaves. Thus, white supervisors were forced to keep the conditions of work for slaves off plantations. Although, seemingly, slaves working in cities took pleasure in a number of opportunities for an improved life, but they were limited from many things and bound to their owners.


     Marriage was not a locked-in-condition. Strings were attached which had an effect on slaves who tried to marry and live in the cities. Moreover, "a house was not a home." Slaves families cold hardly exist in bondage. A marriage contract was not recognized as law, the circumstances being a negative response. Children of this marriage were to become the property of the master and not the parents. This situation was the general condition of slavery.

     Life in the city only inflated the unhappy consequences that left them. If the master moved, one partner would have to go with him. Such a circumstance could lead to the family being sold. Within the cities, many times husbands and wives belonged to different families. They mostly labored apart and had their meals separately. The union between these two individuals was very weak. The husband had no influence over anything. The master deprived him of the status of the "head family man."; his children belonged to his wife's master; the husband's first responsibility was to the master, not his family. Under these conditions, family ties were weak. Male and female slaves found their solace and love wherever possible, knowing these arrangements were only temporary. The children of these marriages had no formal family life.
Marriage in the cities between the slaves was to some extent possible, but it had its downside. The husbands were explicitly bound to their masters, and could not live in their own home and raise a family. Work in the city supplied sufficient work; however, it did not offer time for themselves and their loved ones.


     Work and clothing provided a role in telling apart a town slave from a rural slave. The rural slave wore a boorish type clothing described as "Negro cloth" and "Negro brogans." Because of the hard labor on the plantations these clothes were mended and re-mended. On the other hand, the urban slave had much better clothes. Not only did he have better clothing; he had clothing set aside for Sundays, which was always a tradition. Many times a city slave was dressed in broadcloth suits, blue coats, bright buttons, and gold chains, the latest style of fashion. This was more than a white man might have expected. The urban slave was quite distinguishable from his rural counterpart. The well-dressed urbanite with his straight posture was often mistaken by the whites as being proud of his master, while an ill-clad slave Negro reflected upon the care and taste of his master. In addition to style of clothing, music and dance helped the Negro slave to express their feelings, a tradition that still lives in America today. Slaves clapped their hands to the rhythm of the music because they were denied any kind of instrument. As a substitute, they played music and danced to the beat of tin buckets and banjos. Bodily movement was implemented into the rhythmic pattern of the music.


     Food quantities for the slaves were more available in the urban communities than in the rural areas. Both the quantity and quality of food were higher and, just as prominently, the diet was of a greater variety. Not only were the town slaves clothed more expensively, they were more elegantly fed than their rural counterparts. This was expected because many slaves were domestic servants and ate from their master's kitchen. Even those slaves, who fed elsewhere rather than their master's home, were better off than country house servants, and certainly better than field hands. Large corporate owners hired Negroes on the job and bought food in large volumes. The slaves were then allowed to eat more proficiently. Furthermore, the Negro chain gang workers, by law, received wholesome food such as meat, bread, rice and vegetables. This variation in food given to the urban slaves was far more nutritious, which explains why they fared better in health than plantation slaves where food was hardly ever varied.

     Although some slaves had better living conditions than others did, nothing can make up for the extreme hardships they lived through during the 1800s.

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