Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: A CHILD'S REASONING. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER VI.: A CHILD’S REASONING. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
A CHILD’S REASONING.
Early reflections on slavery—Aunt Jennie and Uncle Noah—Presentiment of one day becoming a freeman—Conflict between an overseer and a slave woman. Advantage of resistance—Death of an overseer—Colonel Lloyd’s plantation home—Monthly distribution of food—Singing of Slaves—An explanation—The slave’s food and clothing—Naked children—Life in the quarter—Sleeping places—Not beds—Deprivation of sleep—Care of nursing babies—Ash cake—Contrast.
THE incidents in the foregoing chapter led me thus early to enquire into the origin and nature of slavery. Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters? These were perplexing questions and very troublesome to my childhood. I was told by some one very early that “God up in the sky” had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters. I was told too, that God was good and that He knew what was best for everybody. This was, however, less satisfactory than the first statement. It came point blank against all my notions of goodness. The case of Aunt Esther was in my mind. Besides, I could not tell how anybody could know that God made black people to be slaves. Then I found, too, that there were puzzling exceptions to this theory of slavery, in the fact that all black people were not slaves, and all white people were not masters. An incident occurred about this time that made a deep impression on my mind. One of the men slaves of Captain Anthony and my aunt Jennie ran away. A great noise was made about it. Old master was furious. He said he would follow them and catch them and bring them back, but he never did it, and somebody told me that Uncle Noah and Aunt Jennie had gone to the Free States and were free. Besides this occurrence, which brought much light to my mind on the subject, there were several slaves on Mr. Lloyd’s place who remembered being brought from Africa. There were others that told me that their fathers and mothers were stolen from Africa.
This to me was important knowledge, but not such as to make me feel very easy in my slave condition. The success of Aunt Jennie and Uncle Noah in getting away from slavery was, I think, the first fact that made me seriously think of escape for myself. I could not have been more than seven or eight years old at the time of this occurrence, but young as I was, I was already a fugitive from slavery in spirit and purpose.
Up to the time of the brutal treatment of my Aunt Esther, already narrated, and the shocking plight in which I had seen my cousin from Tuckahoe, my attention had not been especially directed to the grosser and more revolting features of slavery. I had, of course, heard of whippings and savage mutilation of slaves by brutal overseers, but happily for me I had always been out of the way of such occurrences. My play time was spent outside of the corn and tobacco fields, where the overseers and slaves were brought together and in conflict. But after the case of my Aunt Esther I saw others of the same disgusting and shocking nature. The one of these which agitated and distressed me most, was the whipping of a woman, not belonging to my old master, but to Col. Lloyd.
The charge against her was very common and very indefinite, namely, “impudence.” This crime could be committed by a slave in a hundred different ways, and depended much upon the temper and caprice of the overseer as to whether it was committed at all. He could create the offence whenever it pleased him. A look, a word, a gesture, accidental or intentional, never failed to be taken as “impudence” when he was in the right mood for such an offence. In this case there were all the necessary conditions for the commission of the crime charged. The offender was nearly white, to begin with; she was the wife of a favourite hand on board of Mr. Lloyd’s sloop, and was besides the mother of five sprightly children. Vigorous and spirited woman that she was, a wife and a mother, she had a predominating share of the blood of the master running in her veins. Nellie, for that was her name, had all the qualities essential to “impudence” to a slave overseer. My attention was called to the scene of the castigation by the loud screams and curses that proceeded from the direction of it. When I came near the parties engaged in the struggle, the overseer had hold of Nellie, endeavouring with his whole strength to drag her to a tree against her resistance. Both his and her faces were bleeding, for the woman was doing her best. Three of her children were present, and though quite small, from seven to ten years old I should think, they gallantly took the side of their mother against the overseer, and pelted him with stones and epithets. Amid the screams of the children “Let my mammy go! Let my mammy go!” the hoarse voice of the maddened overseer was heard in terrible oaths that he would teach her how to give a white man “impudence.” The blood on his face and on hers attested her skill in the use of her nails, and his dogged determination to conquer. His purpose was to tie her up to a tree and give her, in slave-holding parlance, a “genteel flogging;” and he evidently had not expected the stern and protracted resistance he was meeting, or the strength and skill needed to its execution. There were times when she seemed likely to get the better of the brute, but he finally overpowered her, and succeeded in getting her arms firmly tied to the tree towards which he had been dragging her. The victim was now at the mercy of his merciless lash. What followed I need not here describe. The cries of the now helpless woman, while undergoing the terrible infliction, were mingled with the hoarse curses of the overseer and the wild cries of her distracted children. When the poor woman was untied, her back was covered with blood. She was whipped, terribly whipped, but she was not subdued, and continued to denounce the overseer, and pour upon him every vile epithet she could think of. Such floggings are seldom repeated by overseers on the same persons. They preferred to whip those who were the most easily whipped. The doctrine that submission to violence is the best cure for violence did not hold good as between slaves and overseers. He was whipped oftener who was whipped easiest. That slave who had the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he might have many hard stripes at first, became, while legally a slave, virtually, a freeman. “You can shoot me,” said a slave to Rigby Hopkins, “but you can’t whip me,” and the result was he was neither whipped nor shot. I do not know that Mr. Sevier ever attempted to whip Nellie again. He probably never did, for not long after he was taken sick and died. It was commonly said that his death-bed was a wretched one, and that the ruling passion being strong in death, he died flourishing the slave whip, and with horrid oaths upon his lips. Such a death-bed scene may only have been the imagining of the slaves. One thing is certain, that when he was in health his profanity was enough to chill the blood of an ordinary man. Nature, or habit had given to his face an expression of uncommon savageness. Tobacco and rage had ground his teeth short, and nearly every sentence that he uttered was commenced or completed with an oath. Hated for his cruelty, despised for his cowardice, he went to his grave lamented by nobody on the place outside of his own house, if, indeed, he was even lamented there.
In Mr. James Hopkins, the succeeding overseer, we had a different and a better man, as good perhaps as any man could be in the position of a slave overseer. Though he sometimes wielded the lash, it was evident that he took no pleasure in it and did it with much reluctance. He stayed but a short time here, and his removal from the position was much regretted by the slaves generally. Of the successor of Mr. Hopkins I shall have something to say at another time and in another place.
For the present we will attend to a further description of the business-like aspect of Colonel Lloyd’s “Great House” farm. There was always much bustle and noise there on the two days at the end of each month; for then the slaves belonging to the different branches of this great estate assembled there by their representatives to obtain their monthly allowances of corn-meal and pork. These were gala days for the slaves of the out-lying farms, and there was much rivalry among them as to who should be elected to go up to the Great House farm for the “Allowances;” and indeed, to attend to any other business at this great place, to them the capitol of a little nation. Its beauty and grandeur, its immense wealth, its numerous population, and the fact that Uncles Harry, Peter, and Jake, the sailors on board the sloop, usually kept trinkets on sale, which they bought in Baltimore to sell to their less fortunate fellow servants, made a visit to the Great House farm a high privilege, and eagerly sought. It was valued, too, as a mark of distinction and confidence; but probably, the chief motive among the competitors for the office was the opportunity it afforded to shake off the monotony of the field, and to get beyond the overseer’s eye and lash. Once on the road with an ox team, and seated on the tongue of the cart, with no overseer to look after him, he felt himself comparatively free.
Slaves were expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave was not liked either by masters, or by overseers. “Make a noise there! make a noise there!” and “bear a hand,” were words usually addressed to slaves when they were silent. This, and the natural disposition of the negro to make a noise in the world, may account for the almost constant singing among them when at work. There was generally more or less singing among the teamsters at all times. It was a means of telling the overseer, in the distance, where they were, and what they were about. But on the allowance days those commissioned to the Great House farm were peculiarly vocal. While on the way, they would make the grand old woods for miles around reverberate with their wild and plaintive notes. They were indeed both merry and sad. Child as I was, these wild songs greatly depressed my spirits. Nowhere outside of dear old Ireland, in the days of want and famine, have I heard sounds so mournful.
In all these slave songs there was ever some expression of praise of the Great House farm—something that would please the pride of the Lloyds.
These words would be sung over and over again, with others, improvised as they went along—jargon, perhaps, to the reader, but full of meaning to the singers. I have sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of these songs would have done more to impress the good people of the North with the soul-crushing character of slavery, than whole volumes exposing the physical cruelties of the slave system; for the heart has no language like song. Many years ago, when recollecting my experience in this respect, I wrote of these slave songs in the following strain:—
“I did not, when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was, myself, within the circle, so that I could then neither hear nor see as those without might see and hear. They breathed the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with the bitterest anguish. They depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness.”
The remark in the olden time was not unfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy labourers in the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to their aching hearts. It is not inconsistent with the constitution of the human mind, that it avails itself of one and the same method for expressing opposite emotions. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace.
It was the boast of slaveholders that their slaves enjoyed more of the physical comforts of life than the peasantry of any country in the world. My experience contradicts this. The men and the women slaves on Col. Lloyd’s farm received as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pickled pork, or its equivalent in fish. The pork was often tainted, and the fish were of the poorest quality. With their pork or fish, they had given them one bushel of Indian meal, unbolted, of which quite fifteen per cent. was more fit for pigs than for men. With this, one pint of salt was given, and this was the entire monthly allowance of a full-grown slave, working constantly in the open field from morning till night every day in the month except Sunday. There is no kind of work which really requires a better supply of food to prevent physical exhaustion than the field work of a slave. The yearly allowance of clothing was not more ample than the supply of food. It consisted of two tow-linen shirts, one pair of trousers of the same coarse material, for summer, and a woollen pair of trowsers and a woollen jacket for winter, with one pair of yarn stockings and a pair of the coarsest description. Children under ten years old had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers. They had two coarse tow-linen shirts per year, and when these were worn out they went naked till the next allowance day—and this was the condition of the little girls as well as the boys. As to beds, they had none. One coarse blanket was given them, and this only to the men and women. The children stuck themselves in holes and corners about the quarters, often in the corners of huge chimneys, with their feet in the ashes to keep them warm. The want of beds, however, was not considered a great privation by the field hands. Time to sleep was of far greater importance. For when the day’s work was done most of them had their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or no facilities for doing such things, very many of their needed sleeping hours were consumed in necessary preparations for the labours of the coming day. The sleeping apartments, if they could have been properly called such, had little regard to comfort or decency. Old and young, male and female, married and single, dropped down upon the common clay floor, each covered up with his or her blanket, their only protection from cold or exposure. The night, however, was shortened at both ends. The slaves worked often as long as they could see, and were late in cooking and mending for the coming day, and at the first gray streak of the morning they were summoned to the field by the overseer’s horn. They were whipped for over-sleeping more than for any other fault. Neither age nor sex found any favour. The overseer stood at the quarter door, armed with stick and whip, ready to deal heavy blows upon any who might be a little behind time. When the horn was blown there was a rush for the door, for the hindermost one was sure to get a blow from the overseer. Young mothers who worked in the field were allowed an hour about ten o’clock in the morning to go home to nurse their children. This was when they were not required to take them to the field with them, and leave them upon “turning row,” or in the corner of the fences.
As a general rule the slaves did not come to their quarters to take their meals, but took their ash-cake—called thus because baked in the ashes—and piece of pork, or their salt herrings, where they were at work.
But let us now leave the rough usage of the field, where vulgar coarseness and brutal cruelty flourished as rank as weeds in the tropics, where a vile wretch, in the shape of a man, rides, walks, and struts about, with whip in hand, dealing heavy blows and leaving deep gashes on the flesh of men and women, and turn our attention to the less repulsive slave life as it existed in the home of my childhood. Some idea of the splendour of that place sixty years ago has already been given. The contrast between the condition of the slaves and that of their masters was marvellously sharp and striking. There were pride, pomp, and luxury on the one hand, servility, dejection, and misery on the other.