Slavery as an institution matured greatly between 1619, when the first slaves from Africa arrived on the shores of North America, to its eventual conclusion in the year of 1865. Practises for mastering the ‘inferior race’ in the antebellum South had changed much throughout this period and varied from extreme butchery to paternalism were used to establish order in their plantation life, where arguably their masters had total authority. This essay shall explore the relationship between the slave and master at different stages within slave life, in order to establish the extent to which the authority of the master was unchallenged and absolute.

As of 1808 marks the end of the Atlantic slave trade, which had damaging potential the way of life in southern slave society, as it created a new inter-regional market of buying and selling of slaves(Dunaway, 2003, p.22). Therefore, childbirth in many regions of the antebellum south was seen as another means by which to secure financial gains, moving past the dependency of all wealth being extracted from the land. The female slaves themselves were perceived as a ‘cash cows’, providing a steady income for their masters through their childbearing, producing young slaves to be sold as commodities to various locations within the southern states. The purpose of the slaves was “to raise more slaves in the same sense and for the same purpose as stock raisers raise horses and mules, that is for work. A woman who could produce fast was in great demand and bought at a good price on the auction block in Richmond, Va., Charleston, S. C. and other places” (NC, vol. 14, p. 360). Though slave masters had the authority to sell slaves and break up family ties whenever they saw fit, a slaves opinion did not always fall on death ears, with mothers displaying their distress, the mistress of a plantation protecting her favorites and even in the most extreme of cases, self-mutilation to make the slave an undesirable purchase to buyers protected many slaves from being sold. (Nolen, 2001, p. 45)

The growing economies of the lower south was expanding faster than the population of their slaves, as such the plantation owners of the upper south acted to create a surplus population to supply the labor demand of lower south by breeding them like livestock, with the hearsay of stock slaves being used on other plantations as a means of increasing numbers, (Nolen, 2001, p. 46). However these clamis were never substantiated.

The birth of a slave is the first instance in which masters would impose their authority. Along with other slave mothers, family, friends, and the midwife, it was also common for the slave master to be present at the birth and to share in the celebration of new life (Schwartz, 2000, pp. 19- 20).  The slave masters attendance at the birth was to be the conductor of the unfolding events, as the birth represented so much more than just growth in wealth (Schwartz, 2000, pp. 20), it also represented stability by securing future ‘prime hands’ for the plantation. Moreover, it provided the perpetuation of the southern social order, whilst also providing a forum in which they can fuel their sense of self entitlement by interfering in the private lives of their slaves. (Schwartz, 2000, pp. 20; Nolan, 2001, p.48)

Naming of the newborns was a disputed area, many masters taking it upon themselves to select a name, whilst traditionally it is the place of the mother and father to select the name. This in turn lead to many slaves having two or more names, those given by their masters and those chosen by their family (Schwartz, 2000, pp.168-169). For example, when Thomas Watson purchased a slave named Louisa he then renamed her Amelia, however her on preference was for the name Juliet which is the name she was known by her family (Schwartz, 2000, p.169). Cheryll Ann Cody (1982, p.194) highlights that slave children were named after family members; siblings, parents, and extended kin. She argues that these naming practices created symbolic ties amongst the family members and reaffirmed the family as a unit in response to the threat of separation. Moreover, Gutman argues that children were most often named after paternal kin because these ties were more easily broken (Cody, 1982, p.203

A device which was used to exert influence from the slave owner over his slaves was the notion of paternalism. This was based on a reciprocal relationship of duty and obligation between the two which Genovese’s seminal text ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ explores (Genovese, 1975, p.6). The notion of duty and obligation is discussed within this text arguing that masters, in return for caring for their slaves wellbeing they were entitled to demand complete authority from the slaves. Paternalism was a coercive practice which sought to control slaves completely and reinforce ideas of racial subordination (Genovese, 1975, p.6). Paternalism created a system both in which slaves first identified their community through their masters rather than as a class and in which “racism undermined the slaves’ sense of worth as black people” (Genovese, 1975, p.6), furthering their dependence on white master. Nevertheless, slaves were able to transform paternalism into a weapon of resistance (Genovese, 1975, p.7).

Genovese uses the idea of family in relation to paternalism arguing that whites in many cases saw the slaves as part of their own family, so black and white family members were treated the same in affection and punishment. Resistance to paternalism did exist, for acknowledging such a concept increased dependency of the slave upon their master which many resisted totally.

Moreover, it has been argued that slave masters saw themselves as surrogate parents. Eugene Genovese argues that slave owners felt a sense of paternalism over their slaves and saw them as part of their black family. Johnson, a South Carolinian slave states, “My old masser was as good and kind to me as he could be, so was my missus. My mother died when I was ten years old, and Missus was just like a mother to me all the time” (SC, Vol.3, p.53), following up with “In slavery, us have all de clothes us need, all de food we want, and work all de harder ‘cause us love de white folks dat cared for us” (SC, Vol.3, p.53) This shows that though the slave master forced his influence over his slaves, seeing it as his responsibility to provide for the slaves and in doing it he commanded their respect and gained their love.

Genovese also looks at the way in which the slave resisted and opposed their masters authority. Running from a plantation was a recognised and very powerful statement of resistance, but was an action many slaves undertook. “All white people ain’t treat slave good. Some make un wuk haa’d all day, and ‘cuss um plenty” going onto say “he treated his niggers so mean dey was all de time runnin’ off.” (NC, Vol 15 P.45) however if a slave embraced his or her own servitude then they would be treated well and they would avoid abuse, “Behave yourself and you all right”. (NC, Vol 15, p.94



A mammy would be used as a communal wet nurse to ensure that the mothers could return to the field quicker as her responsibilities as a mother would not be her concern. The act of removing the child from the slave was an issue which had the opportunity to cause huge tensions within most plantations as it was seen as an annexation of the parents’ natural rights of raising their own child. This issue was protested by the slaves who caused the slave masters on the most cases caused the plantation owner to concede to the slaves to give the parents sufficient time to bond with their child. The maintenance and stability of the field work was the slave master primary concern, as the fields is where the wealth of the plantation comes emanated; however, even though allowing the parents to attend their child would have an adverse effect on the production of a marketable crop, it retained its own advantages, such as secured the future of the labor force and steered the slaves away from rebellious action.

“During slavery it seemed lak yo’ chillum b’long to ev’ybody but you,” (Dunaway, 2001, p.1)this statement by Katie Johnson of Virginia echoes the feelings of many slaves in the antebellum south. The family dynamic which existed for white folk of the era was almost the polar opposite of the slave family. The law reaffirmed the claim of the slaveholder to determine the conditions under which slave children advanced to adulthood (Schwartz, 2000, p.3). Thus limitations on the mother and father’s influences were common when it came to the upbringing of future ‘prime hands’ (Schwartz, 2000, p.156). They were seen as the next generation of slaves so their masters saw it as their right, even their duty, to become an overseer of the child’s life. Many slave-masters considered themselves heads of all of the families upon the plantation which warranted them a heavy involvement with all members of his ‘family’ members’ lives. However the master and mistress of the plantation could not be everywhere at once meaning that those who could be trusted in the ranks of slaves, largely in the form of overseers, were entrusted with supervisory roles.

The family of slaves could and regularly were disrupted through the sale of a family member; those most susceptible to being sold were the young, from as early as 8 years old when the economy demanded it. (Nolen, 2001, p. 46) The usual age for slaves to be sold would be in their teenage years, which lead for slave owners and the slaves to view their adolescence years very differently. For the slaves it was a time of sorrow because the likelihood grew as they reached their mid-teens that the owners would take it upon themselves to severe the family ties in the name of profit. (Nolen, 2001, p. 47) Owners viewed this era of their slaves’ lives as more positive as their value increased and thus so too did the wealth of the owners. The sales began dispersing the slaves further afield with the growing textile industries in New England and Britain; more land for cultivation was opened up requiring slave labor this upheaval was seen as a demographic revolution. This revolution translated to having 10% of all adolescent slaves living in the upper South between 1820 and 1860 being sold in inter-regional slave trades (Gallman, 1993, p.293). Hence, the slave was perceived as an economic asset, the absent of strong emotional ties between owners and slaves and as the masters saw it absent of strong emotional ties within their own family.

Slaveholders and traders saw no need of treating families with any due care in the process of selling their slaves in order to meet the demands of the market, the division of a slave family on the block was common practice. The welfare of the slaves was the concern of the masters, but only so far as to turn a profit, willing to sell young children as young as ten separate to their mother. Their complicity to sell and ‘destroy slave family’ was justified by the basis that Blacks were naturally deficient in family attachments (Dunaway, 2003, p.53; Nolen, 2001, p.44). The inability of slaves creating family ties in a world of uncertainty was a complete fallacy the family ties between slaves were as strong as any family tie his master felt towards his own family, slaves thus strongly resisted separation and the loss a child, parent or sibling, due to being sold and was mourned as a death for the family due to the likelihood of them ever being reunited (Schwartz, 2000, p.163; Nolen, 2001, p.45) An extreme example of the resistance , Annie Tate comments that “My mammy’s mammy, who also belonged ter de Jones family killed herself ‘cause dey sold her husban’” (NC, vol. 15, p.33). The fear of being sold, and divided from loved ones, was a very real threat as it was not uncommon for a slave to sold several times in their lifetime. This fear was in many cases used as a means in which to control the slaves which many plantation owners used, the fear of being sold when they had so much to lose, ensured order and obedience of a slave in their eyes, and the means of selling a slave was used to punish unruly slaves. (Schwartz, 2000, p.165)

Moreover, Willis Cofer stated that “When slaves got married, de man had to ax de gal’s ma and pa for her and den he has to ax de white folks to ‘low ‘em to git married.” (GA, vol. 12, p.207).Relationships between slaves were also areas in which the slave owner could control the potential formation of a slave family, wanting his. Marriage was never held in the same regard for slaves as it was for the white members of the southern states, the reason being it was never seen to be absolute, their union could be split though sale or gift. In a case study of William J. Minor’s plantation (Sitterson,1943, p. 60), slaves were given one months’ notice for their marriage and divorces. Owners were expected to dictate when courtship and coupling amongst slaves would take place, whilst at the same time restricting who slaves could choose for a partner “Courtship, marriage, and the entire life of the family were subject to slave masters’ arbitrary control” (Nolen, 2001, p.40). Slaveholders controlled courting practices whilst encouraging sexual relations within the slave quarter and the formation of new families, which resulted in the expansion of the slave population; all of these actions were seen as proper management of slaves. To manage slave growth efficiently marriage was encouraged, for it manufactured an environment where male slaves would be less likely to rebel against their masters and run away as it rooted them to a geographical location for fear of the safety of their family. Incentives were offered by some slave owners to female slaves whereby if she has given birth to ten children then she can secure freedom from having to work the field and in some cases freedom from slavery. “When the family increases to ten children living, I require no other labour from the mother than to attend to her children”, (Russell, 1954, p. 77). There was also a high degree of favouritism, towards couples which produced large numbers of offspring, “Dere wus twenty-two o’ us chilluns, an’ natu’ally Master Sam Davis lacked my mammy an’ daddy”. (NC, vol 14, p. 238).

Securing a marriage away from their own plantation was expressed by many slaves, in interviews and autobiographies, as being seen as more desirable, as they would not have to witness any ill treatment of their wives. However Willis Cofer commented that “if you married some gal on another place, you jus’ get to see her on Wednesday and sadday nights all de chillums belonged to de gal’s white folks.” (GA, vol.12, p.207).Moses Grandy stated, “no colored man wishes to live at the house where his wife lives, for he has to endure the continual misery of seeing her flogged and abused without daring to say a word in her defence” (Blassingame, 1979, p.165).   This statement is supported by Henry Bibb who said, “If my wife must be exposed to the insults and licentious passions of wicked slave-drivers and overseers (Blassingame, 1979, p.165).   . Heaven forbid that I should be compelled to witness the sight”(Bibb, 1849, p. 42) Marriage of a slave was never seen to be set in stone, as described in the book by Bethany Veney entitled, ‘A slave woman’ saying how she did “not want him [the minister] to make us promise that we would always be true to each other, forsaking all others, as the white people do in their marriage service, because I knew that at any time our masters could compel us to break such a promise” (Veney, 1889, p. 18).

Planters not only needed to accept the union of two slaves before it could take place, they also had the authority of dissolving the marriage as well. As shown in the statistics gathered by the freedman’s bureau after the war, over 30 per cent of marriages were dissolved by masters resulting in divisions within slave families. (Reiss, 2006, p. 53)

The domination of the Slave masters began at birth, dictating the lives of the individual slaves through the way they influenced how slave parents raised, what the owners saw as the, next generation of ‘prime hands’ or as the much needed cash injection with will subsidise their way of life. However the real distortion of the slave’s way of life came from the disregard their masters showed for their family ties, the dispersal of slaves showed the complete disregard for the slave’s lives. Small pockets of resistance were put up by the slave family, with regards to choosing a second name for their children, and the attempts of persuasion to protect the family unit from being sold. However little could protect them if they were being born to serve a purpose, for example to boost the slave population in other regions of the United States, or the plantation owners needed the extra capital. Finally the limitations for slave parents to act out traditional roles with the father in many cases residing at another plantation, also preventing him from being the protector of the house, being forced to allow the Plantation owners to exact punishment onto his family and being completely powerless to stop it.










Blassingame, J. W. (1979). The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cody, C. A. (1982). Naming, Kinship, and Estate Dispersal: Notes on Slave Family on a South Carolina Plantation, 1786 to 1833. The William and Mary Quarterly , 39 (1), 192-211.

Dunaway, W. A. (2003). The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gallman, R.E. (1993) American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, Chicago University of Chicago Press.

Nolen, C. H. (2001). African American xxerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Rawick, G. P. (1972). The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Georgia Narratives, Parts One and Two. (Vol.12). Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company.

Willis Cofer, 100128, pp.201-211.

Adella Dixon, 100045, pp.189-194.

John Cole, 100213, pp.226-230.


Rawick, G. P. (1972). The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: North Carolina Narratives, Part One. (Vol.14). Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company.

Martha Allen, 320276, pp.13-15.

Cornelia Andrews, 320280, pp.27-31.

Charity Austen, 320261, pp.58-62.

Lizzie Baker, 320244, pp.66-69.

Viney Baker, 320182, pp.70-72.

Alice Baugh, 320162, pp.82-86.

John Bectum, 320163, pp.91-98.

Alonzo Haywood, 320130, pp.382-384.


Rawick, G. P. (1972). The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: North Carolina Narratives, Part Two. (Vol.15). Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company.


Clara Jones, 320117, pp.30-33.

Jacob Manson, 320051, pp.95-99.

Roberta Lanson, 320049, pp.100-104.

Lila Nichols, 320155, pp.147-150.



Rawick, G. P. (1972). The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: South Carolina Narratives, Parts Three and Four. (Vol.3). Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company.

Ben Leither, 1655, pp.100-102.

Sena Moore, 1655, pp.209-212.



Schwartz, M. A. (2000). Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Sitterson, C.J, (1943), Transition from slave to free economy on the William J. Minor Plantations, Chicago: Periodicals Archive Online

Veney, B, The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman, Gloucester: Dodo Press.