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Slave Narratives

Charles Ball in Life of an American Slave describes the despair of being separated from his wife and children without even the chance to say goodbye: "The thought of my wife and children I had been torn from in Maryland, and the dreaded undefined future which was before me, came near to driving me mad." His loss combined with the physical deprivations of slavery made his a life of despair. The same resentment resounds in Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave: "Ten years I toiled for that man (Edwin Epps, his slave master) without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions ... I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes." To the men and women who suffered slavery, there was no benevolence in the institution.


These views of former slaves contradict South Carolina Governor James Henry Hammond's letters to English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in 1845 where he argued that slavery is benevolent to Africans brought to America in that it allowed them to "... emerge from darkness into light, from barbarism to civilization, from idolatry to Christianity, in short from death to life." Their stories tell of beatings, deprivation and despair. The emotional toll on slave families from separation through sale of a parent, spouse or child was incredible with the inter-state slave trade resulting in: (a) one half of all slaves being separated from a spouse; (b) 1/4 of slaves marriages being destroyed; (c) 1/2 of nuclear families being eliminated; and (d) 1 in 3 youth aged 14 or younger separated from a parent. The slave trade brought about the wholesale destruction of black families across the South and some of the most heart wrenching stories involves the loss of loved ones. In terms of physical deprivations, passages from Charles Ball’s Life of an American Slave and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery speak of the hunger slaves felt and in both cases an animal was stolen and cooked in secret. Ball was caught cooking a sheep he had stolen and was severely punished while Booker T. Washington tells the story of his mother cooking a chicken late at night which he presumed was stolen. The slave life, especially in the Deep South, was clearly one of grueling working conditions, little food, and a constant threat of physical abuse. Solomon Northup wrote of the punishment that was part of everyday life: “It is the literal, unvarnished truth, that the crack of the lash, and the shrieking of the slaves, can be heard from dark till bed time, on Epps' plantation, any day almost during the entire period of the cotton-picking season.”


This justification of slavery by Southerners that slaves were well cared for and slavery was a benevolent institution was not born out in the testimony provided by former slaves. The benefit clearly went to the slave owners, merchants, insurance companies and financial institutions involved in the production, sale, shipment and processing of cotton. The economic wealth derived from cotton created a planter elite that would stop at nothing to protect slavery; even if it meant the destruction of the United States.

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