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date: 26 November 2020

Children and Slaveryfree

  • Wilma KingWilma KingUniversity of Missouri


Boys and girls of European and African descent in Colonial America shared commonalities initially as unfree laborers, with promises of emancipation for all. However, as labor costs and demands changed, white servitude disappeared and slavery in perpetuity prevailed for the majority of blacks in the South following the American Revolution. Children were aware of differences in their legal status, social positions, life changing opportunities, and vulnerabilities within an environment where blackness signaled slavery or the absence of liberty, and whiteness garnered license or freedom.

Slavery and freedom existed concomitantly, and relationships among children, even black ones, in North America were affected by time and place. Slave societies and societies with slaves determined the nature of interactions among enslaved and emancipated children. To be sure, few, if any, freed or free-born blacks did not have a relative or friend who was not or had never been enslaved, especially in states when gradual emancipation laws liberated family members born after a specific date and left older relatives in thralldom. As a result, free blacks were never completely aloof from their enslaved contemporaries. And, freedom was more meaningful if and when enjoyed by all.

Just as interactions among enslaved and free black children varied, slaveholding children were sometimes benevolent and at other times brutal toward those they claimed as property. And, enslaved children did not always assume subservient positions under masters and mistresses in the making. Ultimately, fields of play rather than fields of labor fostered the most fair and enjoyable moments among slaveholding and enslaved children.

Play days for enslaved girls and boys ended when they were mature enough to work outside their own abodes. As enslaved children entered the workplace, white boys of means, often within slaveholding families, engaged in formal studies, while white girls across classes received less formal education but honed skills associated with domestic arts.

The paths of white and black children diverged as they reached adolescence, but there were instances when they shared facets of literacy, sometimes surreptitiously, and developed genuine friendships that mitigated the harshness of slavery. Even so, the majority of unfree children survived the furies of bondage by inculcating behavior that was acceptable for both a slave and a child.

At six years of age, Broteer, born in 1727, was aware of a foreboding message received by his father, Saungm Furro, prince of the tribe of Dukandarra in Guinea. It warned of an imminent invasion by a large, well-equipped army “instigated by some white nation” and on a mission to “subdue and possess the country.” A detachment threatened to deprive villagers of their liberties and rights unless Furro satisfied their demands for money and cattle. The prince refused and his enemies “cut and pounded on his body with great inhumanity,” as the child witnessed the death of his father. Afterward, the army forced the youngster and other villagers to march overland to the sea, where they “were put into the castle and kept for market.” “Market” served as a euphemism for a facet of the transatlantic trade in human beings destined for the New World where they participated in the production of a variety of commodities that were exchanged for human beings. Broteer was renamed Venture, by Thomas Mumford, who exchanged four gallons of rum and a piece of calico for the child.1

The “market” was part of the larger historical context in which the conversion of economic, social, and political dynamics associated with the loss in real wages, population growth, religious upheaval, and overseas expansion in 15th- and 16th-century Europe served as a catalyst for migration to the New World. Additionally, competition among European nations for overseas empires was rife. In 1606 King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London, a joint stock venture, authorizing colonization of the Chesapeake Bay area. Investors, who anticipated earning a profit from natural resources or production of commodities from fields and forests, purchased stock in the company and some proceeds went to underwrite settlement of persons without resources of their own. The following spring, 104 British boys and men disembarked along the James River and founded a settlement, Jamestown, Virginia.

By 1613 Virginia was producing salable tobacco, a less bitter West Indian variety than the one used by American Indians, after successful experiments by John Rolfe. Tobacco was the most valuable of the colony’s agricultural exports, with shipments of the cured leaf escalating from twenty thousand pounds in 1618 to over five hundred thousand pounds a decade later. According to historian Charles Reagan Wilson, “In 1775 tobacco represented 75 percent of the total value of export from the Chesapeake area, was worth $4 million, and accounted for 60 percent of the colonies’ total exports to England.” By 1860 overall tobacco exports amounted to eighteen million pounds. Of all agricultural productions in the Chesapeake Bay area, tobacco was the most labor intensive and required gang laborers.2

Indentured servitude, a form of unfree labor, proffered a solution to work demands in agriculture, commerce, and domestic service through arrangements involving young willing migrants, primarily males between fifteen and twenty-five years old, who sold their labor in exchange for the costs of passage from Europe and necessities for four to seven years. Literacy and skills factored into the length of contractual service. Some indentured servants, including Peter Williamson, a thirteen-year-old resident of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1743, were abducted, spirited or transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and sold unwillingly into years of service. Williamson described a familiar scenario when he wrote, “The trade of carrying off boys to the plantations in America, and selling them there as slaves, was carried on at Aberdeen . . . with amazing effrontery.” The abduction of potential laborers for the colonial American market “was not carried on in secret, or by stealth, but publicly, and by open violence,” added Williamson. Whether they entered indentures, contractual arrangements originating in Europe but sold in America, willingly or forcefully, more than 50 percent of the 306,000 young white immigrants in the colonies between 1700 and 1775 were unfree.3

Similarly, Africans, who numbered only three hundred out of the 18,500 persons in mid-17th-century Virginia, were unfree. Many people enslaved in Virginia had lived in African societies that practiced forms of bondage that varied from debt peonage to captivity through warfare. Unfree European (or white) and unfree African (or black) laborers were never equal. However, early on, Africans (primarily males) in colonial America and their European contemporaries shared commonalities in work experiences, harsh living conditions, restricted mobility, and brutal punishment. The historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the Europeans “endured a debilitating and disorienting Atlantic passage,” and historian Stephanie Smallwood comments about Africans enduring the ominous Middle Passage voyages as if sailing into hollow spaces. Once ashore, both Europeans and Africans, adds Hofstadter, “faced not only physical acclimatization in North America but psychological adjustment to a new condition; and both were locked into an intimate and oppressive contract with a hitherto unknown master.” Dismal though their unfree lots appeared, freedom, land ownership, and economic independence at the termination of indentures were possible. Once freed, servants were ostensibly at liberty to live independently within an environment of relative equality.4

However, freedom for the majority of Africans and their descendants in colonial America became more tenuous with the development of plantations producing staple crops for exportation, which caused a dramatic increase in the demand for unskilled laborers. Over time, these changes locally were connected to the larger South Atlantic system, which historian Philip D. Curtin defined as “a complex organism centered on the production in the Americas of tropical staples for consumption in Europe, and grown by the labor of Africans.” Extensive demands for unskilled laborers coincided with the diminishing number of unskilled Europeans willing to indenture themselves in the colonies, especially when working conditions in Europe were improving. In addition, the rising relative cost of white servants compared to that of black slaves made the transition to African laborers more economically feasible. By 1680 enslaved Africans outnumbered indentured Europeans in the Chesapeake, a slave society.5

Youthful white and black laborers witnessed the transition to slavery, which did not occur suddenly or in a vacuum. It developed simultaneously with the expansion of freedom for whites and growth of discrimination against blacks. Colonial practices distinguished between servants and whites, who enjoyed privileges denied to blacks. Two examples, one related to women and the other to men, will suffice.

First, the New World plantation system developed a distinctive use of women’s labor. Ordinarily, indentured white women did not perform field work, but it was a common practice for black women. Such agricultural work was customarily the province of men, yet black women worked alongside men. This pairing relegated black women to outdoor drudgery not shared equally by white women, and field work took the women away from their homes and families. Agricultural work left black women with little time for maintaining homes, producing household goods, and caring for their families, particularly young children.

Second, legal decisions regarding black and white servants revealed glaring differences in treatments. Boys and men tended to run away more frequently than did girls and women, especially in their child-bearing years. Consider the 1640 punishment of the Dutch, Scottish, and African male servants who fled from Virginia to Maryland together. Once the three men returned to Virginia, the General Court ordered thirty lashes for each fugitive but made clear distinctions in the indentures. The Europeans received an additional four years of service, but the African was to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life.” The life-long sentence for John Punch was the first clear indication of enslavement for life in the colonies.6

After 1660 Virginia codified color-based discrimination depriving blacks of rights to travel freely, testify against whites in court, own property, negotiate contracts, and shoulder arms. Other colonies enacted similar prohibitions. However, of great historical significance, in 1662 the Virginia Assembly ignored British common law and decreed that children of African descent inherited the legal status of their mothers, enslaved or emancipated, rather than that of their fathers. The law denied children the benefit of emotional and financial support along with a recognized heritage and legacy from fathers. This legislation guaranteed distinctions between children born to unfree white and black women. White servitude was never heritable whereas children born to unfree black women were enslaved in perpetuity.

Other statutes affected the offspring of mixed European and African couples. Due to imbalances in sex ratios in early America, it was difficult for men to unite with partners sharing the same ethnic background, if they desired. As a result, some African men formed conjugal unions with white women, primarily indentured servants. Their descendants, labeled “spurious issues” in colonial records, were considered African or black and bound out to service until thirty years old. After decades of unfree labor, the children, eventually described as “mulatto,” suggesting a visible indication of parents of different colors, were technically free. Although free, they were not given the same rights and privileges as descendants of two Anglo-European parents.7

Similar to the gradual freedom process for children of mixed parentage, the ideology of the Revolutionary War eroded involuntary servitude when states north of Delaware either ended slavery or made provisions for gradual emancipation. Initially, it appeared that the revolutionary spirit flowed generously from newly independent lawmakers to unfree males and females beneath them. The preamble to Pennsylvania’s 1780 emancipation bill declared: “We conceive . . . it our duty to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us, and a release from that state of thralldom.” The bill, effective March 1, 1780, the first of its kind, did not free anyone immediately. Enslaved children born before March 1, 1780, remained unfree while post nati children were freed at twenty-eight years of age. Freedom was more meaningful if all were free.8

Between 1777 and 1804 other northern states adopted gradual emancipation statutes, which freed slaves over time and created situations in which unfree and children destined for freedom shared the same parentage, homes, and conditions of slavery. In the meanwhile, before post nati children reached the age of emancipation, they owed “service” (labor) to “masters.” Like slaveholders, “masters,” albeit temporarily, expected satisfactory service, which varied little from jobs associated with enslavement.9

The labor of unfree African-descended children was integral to the economic growth of the United States, which received less than one million of the more than ten million Africans—men, women, and children—transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas before the legal trade ended in 1808. The recorded ages of children are problematic, especially when females less than ten years old at Cape Coast Castle in 1722 were occasionally listed as “women.” And, the defining line separating men from boys or women from girls is muddled by the categories “man boy” and “woman girl” in the records. Nevertheless, the presence of boys and girls is noted in official records, ship manifests, and journals, particularly those kept by medical doctors. Such sources make it possible to estimate that children comprised over 12 percent of the Africans transported to the Americas between 1663 and 1700. Between 1701 and 1809, between 23 to 28 percent of the Africans were children.10

The historian Ernest Obadele-Starks argues convincingly that smugglers and traffickers brought thousands of “foreign slaves” into the United States annually between 1808 and 1863. However, the percentage of children among those “foreign slaves” in the post-1808 era is unclear. Not knowing the specific number of Africans transported to North America or the percentage of children among them is significant, yet the disembarkation of Africans did not go unnoticed by local children in port cities.11

Notwithstanding the numbers and percentages, narratives by kidnapped Africans, written primarily by men since more of them were transported to North America and had more opportunities for literacy and access to publishers than women, recount childhood experiences when removed from Africa, victimized by traders and separated from loved ones. In his autobiography, Venture Smith recounted the warfare leading to his imprisonment and that of other villagers who marched toward the sea as the victorious army seized other “prisoners of all ages and sexes indiscriminately” along with “their flocks and all their effects.” Once at the coast, the Africans were sold and loaded on to ships such as the Rhode Island vessel, the Charming Susannah, which may have transported the six-year-old Broteer or Venture Smith to New England where he was enslaved.12

Similarly, the unpublished memoir by the African-born Florence Hall claimed she could “scarcely remember” her life before being kidnapped “and sold to the white people.” As an unclothed child at play one evening, writes Hall, “a party of the enemy came around and drove us into an enclosed place, and immediately secured us—our hands were tied—while in vain our cries and screams were raised, but raised unheard, if heard, unattended, and by force we were hurried along and rested not until the sun arose and marked our distress and distance from our homes . . . day and night succeeded each other, in hunger, weariness and grief. . .”13

Unlike the autobiographical productions of Smith and Hall, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself is lengthy and contains graphic descriptions of life aboard a crowded vessel as Equiano, who was less than ten years old, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, a facet of the transnational trade known as the “Middle Passage” in the forced removal of millions of Africans to the Americas. Astonished at first upon seeing the ocean and a large ship, the boy soon experienced terror as he boarded and underwent a physical examination. Equiano saw white men with long hair whose language was different from his own and convinced himself that he had entered “a world of bad spirits.” To further exacerbate his confusion, he saw dejected-looking Africans chained together near a boiling copper cauldron and suspected the whites would eat them. Overwhelmed by horror and anguish, Equiano fainted.14

Fear and ignorance prompted Equiano to think of alternatives to his enslavement of several months as he was traded from one African to another. What was preferable to his current state? The child’s emotional well-being was challenged to the extent that he “wished for the last friend, death, to relieve” him of the grief engulfing him. He eventually learned that he and his shipmates “were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them.” By that news, he was a bit “revived” but surrounded by misery on the slaver. He noted:

The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself . . . this wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains . . . and the filth of the necessary tubs into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. . . . In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of who were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries.

Death evaded him but millions of other Africans died in the Middle Passage. Equiano, like millions of other Africans and thousands of young unfree Europeans, survived crossing the Atlantic Ocean alone and experienced uncertainty. But white youngsters were never subjected to the same level of inhumane treatment as their black contemporaries.15

Although the exact number of African girls and boys transported to the Americas is not known, their numbers most likely varied across time and region. Similarly, the exact age of boys and girls aboard slavers remains unknown. Such details are often reflections of impressions or interpretations by record keepers. Height, however, suggested children’s commonplace presence on ships carrying Africans to be enslaved, since four feet four inches became a “standard” measurement for children among persons who calculated space allotments on slavers for girls, boys, women, and men occupying the ships’ shelf-like sleeping platforms.16

A space six feet long by sixteen inches wide and two feet seven inches high was assigned to men while women, who were assumed to be smaller, occupied a space measuring five feet ten inches long by sixteen inches wide. The space for boys was no more than five feet by fourteen inches, and girls’ spaces were four feet six inches by twelve inches. At best, however, the measurements appear to be “suggestions,” since ships varied in configuration and size. For example, the surgeon aboard the Wolf, sailing from New York in 1750, said the ship lacked a quarterdeck where women and girls ordinarily slept.17

Without designated spaces, young unfettered children wandered about and slept wherever they found a place. According to the physician, William Chancellor, the children “lie on casks,” or wooden barrel-like storage containers. Motions of the ship could cause casks to shift, and youngsters alone did not always understand the perilousness of their environment. “It is no wonder,” Chancellor wrote, that “we loose [sic] them so fast.”18

The apparent lack of regard for the lives of young children probably related to their availability and vulnerability. Children, who were less well developed and weaker than adults, were easier to seize. Whatever physical resistance youngsters displayed changed little, if anything, about the process of enslaving them. Additionally, boys and girls were more malleable than adults and required less space on slavers. Five children 4’4” tall or less could be transported aboard ships in the space normally occupied by four adults. However, children commanded less at sales than adults. Consider the March 1750 business agreement in which John Newton, a slave trader, negotiated the purchase of “4 slaves, 2 men, 1 woman girl, and 1 woman with a small child.” The “small child” does not figure into the transaction, suggesting an absence of economic value. In another instance Newton traded “No. 60, 61; 2 small boys (of 3 ft 4 in) for a girl (4 foot 3 in).” Less economic value was associated with small or young children in their own time. This raises the question: what labor would a “3 ft 4 in” child perform? Certainly, over time he or she would be mentally and physically able to complete tasks deemed valuable by owners. Ultimately, children’s economic worth rose in keeping with their ability to work.19

Enslaved children, whether male or female, labored in households of various sizes owned by whites, blacks, and American Indians located within southern plantations, farms everywhere, New England villages, northern cities, and southern ports. The lives and experiences of unfree children therein were not monolithic. Neither were the lives and experiences of their free white, black, or Native American contemporaries. Slavery and freedom existed concomitantly and it was not unusual for slaveholding children to interact personally with those they or their parents claimed, regardless of reasons for ownership.

Enslaved children, like enslaved adults, were chattel property and could be bought, sold, gifted, inherited, mortgaged, or won at raffles and sporting events. The historian Carter G. Woodson argued that free blacks held chattel slaves, primarily family members, for benevolent reasons. It is also known that relatives, friends, and sometimes others held newly freed individuals as personal property to avoid state laws requiring their egress within a year. In other instances, legal fees associated with manumission dissuaded owners from freeing slaves. To be sure, there were benevolent black owners, as Woodson argued, but there were also others (among the approximately 10 percent of free blacks in 1830) who owned slaves for pecuniary reasons.20

The January 15, 1845, last will and testament of Betsy Sompayrac, a free woman of color residing in Natchitoches, Louisiana, provides an example of how the mother of three minors living in her home and one adult offspring living away from home sought to secure their financial futures through the distribution of her personal property, five slaves. Sompayrac parceled out an enslaved boy to each of her minor sons and willed a “little girl” and a woman to her daughter. Two heirs would not enjoy the permanent or immediate benefit of their legacies. The will required one of Sompayrac’s sons to emancipate his “boy,” her godson, at thirty-five years of age. Before taking possession of the enslaved women, she was to be hired out to pay any debts associated with the estate. Furthermore, if the enslaved woman had any children, they would become the property of Sompayrac’s adult son if he returned to Natchitoches. The will would potentially secure legacies, satisfy debts, and separate family members.21

Notwithstanding the owners’ color, class, gender, location, and household size, they determined when enslaved children began systematic work for others outside their own humble abodes. It was not unusual for boys and girls as young as six or seven years old to perform a wide variety of simple domestic or housewifery chores, including gathering eggs, churning milk, fetching items, shelling corn, pulling weeds, and carrying wood, on their own. At other times, they assisted adults in the nursery, garden, dairy, house, or kitchen with caring for children, polishing furniture, harvesting vegetables, and preparing, preserving, or serving foods. The 19th-century New England–born author Joseph H. Ingraham, who had worked as a teacher in Mississippi, claimed an “army of juveniles [was] in full training to take the places, by-and-by, of those to whom they are appended.” Children, maidservants and manservants, also rendered more personal services to owners, old and young, such as combing hair, rocking cradles, polishing boots, and creating cool breezes with fans.22

Within agricultural households, enslaved girls and boys were designated as “fractional” hands, such as one-quarter or one-half, suggesting that they were unable physically to complete the tasks of adults cultivating cash or subsistence crops. Two or more fractional hands often worked together to complete tasks comparable to those of adults. Additionally, a boy’s chronological age was sometimes less important than his size in agricultural households. Ordinarily, young children wore basic garments without specificity in design but known as a “shift” or a “shirt” when donned by girls and boys, respectively. As boys matured physically and the shirt failed to cover them adequately, they received pants or trousers to cover their nakedness. Receiving pants indicated that boys were old enough to handle heavier work, like men, including the plowing of fields. There were no comparable designations for girls who performed agricultural work.

Domestic and agricultural work for youngsters under twelve years of age was often gender neutral, whereas the skills of artisans and maritime work were male domains. Boys learned the craft of smiths, cobblers, and carpenters as they worked with master craftsmen or as apprentices. They also learned about sailing by working aboard ocean-going vessels and navigating rivers. Girls capable of learning the trades did not have the opportunity. In all probability, absences from work that could not be completed by unskilled substitutes due to menstruation and pregnancy kept females out of the artisan trades. Furthermore, if trade skills were needed outside their own households, girls were not likely to travel abroad or hire their own time. Moreover, absences from home interfered with spinning and weaving, forms of skilled work, performed by women during the winter.

Learning to work satisfactorily was essential regardless of the tasks or skill sets. Missteps often resulted in quick and tart punishments. The place of work was the location where many enslaved children encountered great difficulties and oppressiveness. For example, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (nee Isabella von Wagenen, 1797–1883) recounts her 1810 sale to John J. Dumont, of New Paltz in New York, and work-related tensions and interactions with Mrs. Dumont and Kate, a hired white servant. John Dumont’s praises for Isabella’s “readiness and ability to work . . . seemed to foster a spirit of hostility” toward her from Mrs. Dumont and Kate. According to Truth, Kate evinced an imperial disposition and sought to “lord it over” and “grind” down the adolescent slave.23

A point of contention involved Isabella’s preparation of potatoes that appeared “dingy” or “dirty,” ostensibly due to carelessness when cooking over an open fireplace. She was “quite distressed . . . and wondered what she should do to avoid” the dinginess. Despite her best efforts to improve, Isabella failed and feared a severe punishment. The ten-year-old Gertrude Dumont pitied the enslaved girl and offered to assist with the potatoes. Ordinarily, Isabella left the food unattended when outside milking. In Isabella’s absence, Kate urged Gertrude to leave the room, but she was determined to stay and watch the potatoes. In the meantime, Kate swept around the fireplace, “caught up a chip, lifted some ashes with it, and dashed them into the kettle” containing the potatoes. Gertrude witnessed Kate’s deliberate attempt to undermine Isabella and reported the same to her parents. This information from a kindhearted contemporary served to relieve unnecessary distress created by a cruel contemporary.24

When at work, Venture Smith also experienced troubles created by a white youngster. The eight-year-old Smith received routine orders from his owner, James Mumford, but his teenaged son ordered Smith “to do this and that business” that differed from Mumford’s orders. According to Smith, the teen, who was “big with authority,” commanded him “very arrogantly” to stop following his owner’s instructions and “go directly” to tasks ordered anew. Smith objected and the boy “broke out in a great rage, snatched a pitchfork” and attempted to strike Smith, who defended himself. When unable to subdue the slave, the teenager called for help and ordered the three respondents to tie Smith with a rope. They failed. In the meanwhile, “my upstart master,” as Smith labeled him, told his own mother of the confrontation with the stubborn, beyond control “young VENTURE.” Ultimately, the “young master” demanded and received three dozen freshly cut peach “whips” (small pliable branches) to punish Smith but never used them. Instead, he had Smith suspended from the gallows for an hour. Afterward, Smith returned to work as usual. Why the teenager changed his mind about the whipping is not apparent. Unlike Smith, many enslaved children and adults did not escape punishment by slaveholding adults or children.25

In an observation about slaveholding children, Thomas Jefferson, who once owned 247 slaves, noted that those children were familiar with the “whole commerce between master and slave . . . a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other.” Jefferson continued, “Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.”26 Within such an environment, children not far removed from the cradle learned to behave like tyrants. Anna Matilda King, wife of a planter, was well aware of the potential for brutality and seemed to believe slavery could foster tyranny and laziness among slaveholding children. She was especially concerned about her own children.27 Likewise, the British actress Frances Kemble, wife of the Georgia planter Pierce Mease Butler, was concerned about the growth and development of her daughter while surrounded by slaves. When the child mentioned a swing, enslaved men responded quickly and enslaved children were ready immediately to push the swing for little “missis.” Kemble shuddered at the thought of her daughter learning to rule enslaved people despotically before understanding primary rules of self-government.28

A most poignant description of a white youngster assuming a tyrannical role is based on observations by the free-born New Yorker, Solomon Northup (1808–1863), who was kidnapped in Washington in 1841 and enslaved in Louisiana. Northup saw a boy ride into the field with a rawhide whip, which he used indiscriminately as he urged slaves to work with “shouts, and occasional expressions of profanity.” Northup added:

It is pitiable, sometimes to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict with much gravity and deliberation.

The child’s father commended him as a “thorough-going boy.” Behavior such as that exhibited by the “thorough-going boy” was not likely to create amicable relationships within the slave society.29

Although many enslaved children came of age under extremely difficult circumstances, parents and other loved ones encouraged boys and girls to face oppressiveness without causing negative repercussions for themselves and their families. Some children found it impossible to abide oppressive circumstances, real or imagined, and removed themselves by running away temporarily or permanently. In a relatively small number of other instances they resorted to violence. Selected court cases from various parts of the country provide insight into violent actions of enslaved children toward younger white children whom they served. In State v. Aaron (1818, New Jersey); State v. Mary, a Slave, 5 MO (1837, Missouri); State of Missouri v. Mat, a Slave (1855, Missouri); and Godfrey (a Slave) v. State (1858, Alabama), enslaved children were responsible for the deaths of white children. Apparently, enslaved children saw the white children as the cause of their oppression. Godfrey (a Slave) v. State is quite troubling, because the source of contention began when the four-year-old child of a slaveholder broke a kite made by an eleven-year-old enslaved boy, and the latter’s violent response to the broken kite and lack of contrition for killing the younger child was far out of proportion to the infraction, which was probably an accident.30

Interactions between young children of African and European descent within a slave society were generally more equal on playing fields than fields of work. Characteristic features of play, a voluntary, enjoyable, and liberating activity, make it a stark contrast to work, the keystone of slavery. Much of the play of children during slavery was not organized or supervised. Some enjoyed running through plum thickets, gathering blackberries, and hunting wild strawberries. Others frolicked in meadows, climbed trees, and swam in inviting waters. Some leisure activities had rules, individual or team goals, along with winners and losers. Included among those activities of children in rural or urban areas were horseshoes, marbles, and hopscotch along with ball and ring games. Still other activities, including representative play, mirrored events in the larger society and cast children as preachers, teachers, mothers, and fathers. Other kinds of leisure activities tested strength, skills, or endurance in jumping and running contests.

Games or representative play requiring decisions about specific roles were more open to discrimination based on color, gender, and age than games involving physicality. Consider an 1832 description of a funeral orchestrated by children on a Louisiana plantation after the death of a chicken. An observer wrote:

The boys made a wagon of fig branches, and [used] four of them as horses. We tied a bow of black ribbon around the chicken’s neck, and covered him with a white rag, and then marched in a procession singing . . . negro hymns, all the white children next to the hearses, marching two by two, and the colored children following the same order.

Afterward, a white girl offered the eulogy, “We must all die.” In all probability, a child or children in a “power position” based upon age or color decided the order of the possession and who delivered the sermon. Ordinarily, women did not speak from the pulpit; therefore, one must ask why a girl preached since boys were active participants in the activity.31

With respect to games requiring physical strength or endurance, the slave-born autobiographer Frederick Douglass declared that black boys “could run as fast, jump as far, throw the ball as direct and true, and catch it with as much dexterity and skill as the white boys.” A Douglass contemporary, Robert Ellett, participated in sports with “young masters” whom he viewed as friends and good sportsmen. Within the slave environment, the potential use or abuse of power was always present in relationships among “masters and slaves” regardless of their ages. For example, a young enslaved boy asked his owner, “Marse, will you give me a white man’s chance?” Obviously, the boys understood the racial and social differences between them and addressed fairness. The white child agreed to give his youthful companion a “white man’s chance” and “always lived up to [their] contract.” Long afterward, the former slaveholding child admitted “Sometimes the consequences were damaging.”32

Following the abolition of slavery, Hilary Herbert, lawyer, author, member of the House of Representatives (1877–1893), and Secretary of the Navy (1893–1897), remembered play days with his constant companion, an enslaved boy, and believed their bond was not an ordinary master-slave relationship. Herbert wrote, “We were friends.” Similarly, the Virginia-born Charles L. C. Minor, who inherited Ralph in 1808 or 1809, placed a high value on their friendship. After decades of owning Ralph, Minor freed him and wrote, “I am no longer your master, but I am still your friend, and as perhaps we shall never meet again, I have determined to give you this assurance of my esteem.” Charles reminisced about his playmate and nurse’s “good will” during their childhood. It was “still warmly cherished” as Charles ended one relationship but sought to maintain another. “No more your master,” he wrote, “but always your friend.” Without a comparable account from his former enslaved playmate, one will never know if he also shared the sentiments of his ex-companion in play who happened to own him.33

By way of comparison, the eleven-year-old slave Harriet Jacobs became the property of the three-year-old Mary Matilda Norcom, July 3, 1825. In her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs mentioned her young owner and wrote, “I loved her, and she returned my affection.” That relationship changed over time. As an adult, Jacobs fled to the North but was not safe from arrest and return to the South under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The frightened mother of two children contacted her owner, Mary Matilda Norcum Messmore, now a married adult, and requested to be sold. Rather than a letter granting permission, Jacobs received one urging her to return to North Carolina. “Come home. You have it in your power to be reinstated in our affections,” affirmed the writer. “We would receive you with open arms and tears of joy.” Jacobs refused the invitation and Messmore pursued her in New York. The “master-slave” relationship between them ended legally in 1852, but Messmore did not free Jacobs as did Minor, who emancipated Ralph. Instead, Messmore sold Jacobs. Cornelia Grinnel Willis, who employed Jacobs, arranged to purchase her from the woman she had “loved and [who] returned her affection.”34

Without additional information about a situation involving Sam T. Stewart, born December 11, 1853, and law enforcement officers, one may conclude that Stewart, like Ralph, was the recipient of a contemporary’s charitable behavior without extenuating circumstances. Events involving local constables and Stewart are unclear, but it is evident that a white youngster interceded on behalf of the enslaved boy. “I would have been whipped to pieces,” said Stewart, “if it hadn’t been for a white boy about my age by the name of Thomas Wilson.” The identity of “a white boy” is muddled whereas “a white boy” who was my “young master” is less vague. It does not appear from testimony by Stewart that Wilson actually owned him, yet if it “hadn’t been for a white boy” [Wilson] who “told them [that] I was his n-----” the whipping was inevitable. The assertion of ownership even by a white child carried weight. Stewart said, “[T]hey let me go.” Slaveholders did not take kindly to others interfering with their personal property by whipping or maiming them. In all probability, the constables desisted to avoid suggestions of usurping the authority of a slaveholder.35

There were many interpersonal relationships between unfree and free children at play, but there were other leisure activities involving the entire household or community after harvests and on special occasions. Corn shuckings, which combined work—shelling corn—with pleasure, dancing, and special dinners, were favorites on southern farms and plantations when owners and their children were sometimes present. In New York and New Jersey, children enjoyed Pinkster, a spring celebration with music, dancing, and games. Notwithstanding the locations, Frederick Douglass looked askance at holidays and festivities organized by slaveholders. They diverted attention from rigorous work and corporal punishment. According to Douglass, dangerous thoughts of resistance were kept at bay through “pleasures in prospect” and “pleasures of memory.”36

Some owners believed education and religion kindled “dangerous thoughts” and sought to prevent access to schools and churches. After the 1831 rebellion organized by Nat Turner, a literate preacher, legislators passed laws forbidding the teaching of blacks, enslaved or free, and restricted worship in churches of their own. The laws were never enforced systematically, but fear of enforcement and punishment caused blacks whose owners objected to behave secretly and establish “underground” schools as sites of knowledge and “hush harbors” as sites for worship.

The promulgation of prohibitive laws aside, there was never a consensus among southern slaveholders regarding education, sacred or secular, for slaves. John Hartwell Cocke, a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson, evaded the law and allowed enslaved children to receive instructions from an enslaved woman rather than the white New Englander he had hired. Charles Colcock Jones, a Liberty County, Georgia, minister, known by local whites as the “Apostle to the Negro Slaves,” and author of The Religious Education of Negroes in the United States (1842), cared deeply about the education of slaves and believed it was his moral duty to steer them along the correct religious path.37

What owners wanted for enslaved persons was not always what enslaved Africans desired for themselves and their children. Some Africans were Christians in early America and others practiced African traditional religions and Islam. Over time traditional religions and Islam were embraced less openly than Christianity. Slaves who professed Christianity recognized differences in religious rhetoric and practices by whites who sought to control enslaved persons through the “theology of slavery,” emphasizing obedience to “masters” and uplifting “barbarians.” Cornelius Garner, a teenager when slavery ended, said, “We ain’t Keer’d a bit ‘bout dat stuff.” As a result, it is not surprising that slaves fulfilled their religious needs surreptitiously in “hush harbors” and other private settings, where they embraced spiritual beliefs explaining mysteries and steeling them against slavery’s oppressions, including laborious tasks, arbitrary punishment, sexual abuse, and separations or threats of splitting families apart.38

Freedom to practice their own religions and opportunities for literacy were uneven, but some enslaved children learned to read and write under the tutelage of white women and children. Former slaves Frederick Douglass and Susie King Taylor both wrote about lessons learned from whites. When he no longer received lessons from his mistress, Douglass carried a “spelling book” in his pocket when running errands or playing and stopped long enough to “take a lesson in spelling” from boys in the streets of Baltimore. He paid the “tuition fee” with bread. Taylor received lessons from Katie O’Connor, a playmate in Savannah. Taylor paid her “tuition” with a promise not to tell Katie’s father. Aside from the Bible, The Columbian Orator, a popular 19th-century text covering a variety of subjects; Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary; and other books were not completely out of reach for enterprising children working in households with libraries or interacting with children away from home in their own time.39

In more formal schools run by Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans and the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, slave-born children could gain literacy. Additionally, there are references in the historical literature to schools run by free persons of color, including Mary Peake in Hampton, Virginia; John Chavis in Raleigh, North Carolina; and John Berry Meachum in St. Louis, Missouri. Learning to read and write was not as difficult for enslaved children in the North who attended the New York African Free School or gained literacy through arrangements associated with gradual emancipation or apprenticeships.

Whether literate or not, many maturing enslaved children established meaningful relationships with the opposite sex as they worshipped, attended parties, or gathered in their own communities after work. Sometimes courtships blossomed into loving unions. At other times, owners interfered and forced couples into conjugal relationships that were as exploitative for males as females. Neither voluntary nor involuntary unions were protected by the law or church. Couples were subjected to the will of owners who decided where they lived and whether or not they could be together. Owners also determined the kind of work they performed and whether or not leisure activities were mutually beneficial.

In southern households, some owners encouraged “marriage” and creation of families to ward off restiveness and rebelliousness. Married parents were less likely to run away than those without familial attachments. In small northern households, slaveholders who had little need or use for many slaves discouraged families for they did not wish to incur expenses of childrearing or release women from work to care for them. Ultimately, owners determined if couples with children complemented or interfered with the desired economic productivity of laborers and if it was or was not economically feasible to keep families together. The fear of splitting families apart was pervasive for slaves, and some owners used the threat of sales as control mechanisms.

Whether together or apart due to sales, living separately when owned by different persons, or hiring practices, enslaved parents understood the responsibilities of protecting their offspring from the vagaries of slavery. Consequently, it was not unusual for adults to entertain and educate children with proverbs, folk tales, and folk songs. Included in the lessons were cautionary tales against capricious behavior and talking too freely to whites. As a result, the axiom “What goes around comes around” was as useful as “Children are to be seen and not heard.” The proverb “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” was to divert attention from color prejudices and build self-esteem. And, animal trickster tales touted the creativity that small weak animals, including the rabbit, used against the stronger fox or bear to escape danger. Selective songs warned of dangers when at work. The former slave Bob Ellis remembered his mother singing:

Keep yo’ eye on de sun, See how she run, Don’t let her catch you with your work undone.

The final lines of the song, “I’m a trouble, I’m a trouble, / Trouble don’ las’ always,” suggest anxiety mixed with hope. Ultimately, the objective was to teach boys and girls behavior that was appropriate for a child and a slave. Such lessons passed down to children gave parents a measure of control over their lives.40

By contrast, some things, including high infant morbidity and mortality rates, were beyond their control. Still, parents sought to connect children to the kinship network with traditional day names, indicating the day of birth, and those of beloved ancestors. Girls often received names of grandmothers rather than their own mothers while boys frequently bore the names of their fathers. Sometimes owners interfered with the process, and slaves avoided conflicts by using names selected by owners publicly but privately used those honoring family members.

Parents taught children at early ages to work satisfactorily, exercise caution in social settings, and to avoid repercussions by balancing expectations from owners and from loved ones simultaneously. Boys and girls learned to behave like children and slaves by camouflaging their understanding of discrepancies with the “mask,” a protective psychological covering to hide emotions. One former slave said, “Got one mind for the boss to see; got another for what I know is me,” to illustrate the tactic.41

The protection of parents from some aspects of slavery, such as sexual abuse, was limited within an environment in which neither the law nor church held perpetrators accountable for sexual misconduct, including rape. That slaves, chattel property without rights to their own person, were vulnerable to sexual exploitation is documented in literature bulging with accounts of abuses. Proslavery critics claim abolitionists used stories of sexual exploitation to politicize their cause, but slaves passed accounts from generation to generation as truth.

One needs to look no further than Amanda America Dickson’s life for validation of this transferal of knowledge. Historian Kent Anderson Leslie’s Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege, a biography of Dickson, documents her life as beginning in February 1849, when David Dickson, a wealthy white bachelor in his early forties, raped Julia, a fourteen-year-old girl owned by his mother, Elizabeth Dickson. Julia and David’s daughter, Amanda, born in late 1849, enjoyed a childhood and came of age in her grandmother’s Hancock County, Georgia, home where enslaved people of all ages addressed her as “Miss Mandy.”42 Furthermore, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family by legal scholar Pauli Murray presents a narrative about Cornelia Smith, granddaughter of the North Carolinian James Smith, a medical doctor and politician. Cornelia’s birth resulted from the brutal rape of her mother, Harriet, by her father, Sidney. Cornelia came of age in the Smith household along with her siblings fathered by her uncle, Francis Smith, brother of Sidney.43

Aside from accounts of sexual exploitation in autobiographies and biographies, testimony recorded in the 1930s by Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewers offers insight into the sexual violation of enslaved girls. Mary Ester Peterson recounted the circumstances surrounding her own birth. Her mother, a fifteen-year-old girl, lived in a household with white males ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-one. On an occasion when the girl was alone, the three brothers “came in . . . threw her down . . . and tied her . . . so she couldn’t struggle, and one after the other,” according to Peterson, “used her as long as they wanted for the whole afternoon.” Enslaved girls, like Peterson’s mother who was impregnated as a result of the rape, were more accessible and vulnerable to exploitation by owners, overseers, and others than were white girls regardless of class. That accessibility and vulnerability fostered abuse by persons, including the three brothers, whom the girls neither loved nor chose as lovers.44

The preponderance of published accounts of sexual abuse focuses on white males’ exploitation of enslaved females. There is far less attention to the violation of enslaved boys, which also occurred. For example, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs mentions the “despotic habits” of an owner who frequently punished the partially clothed enslaved boy Luke, whom he chained to his bed. Jacobs described the situation as the “strangest freaks,” which she found “too filthy to be repeated.” The subject remains in need of systematic scholarly investigations. Similarly, a systematic investigation of the sexual violation of enslaved children by slaves would add to the literature. In the absence of published studies, public records offer some insight into the subject.45

Two court cases, Mississippi v. George (1859) and Commonwealth v. Ned (1859) defy received wisdom regarding the sexual violation of slaves, court actions, and community responses. First, George, an enslaved Mississippian was indicted, found guilty, and sentenced to hang for the rape of an enslaved child under ten years of age. His attorney entered a writ of error arguing that Mississippi had no law against the rape of an enslaved female. The court overturned the original decision and George, who had monetary value, went free. Afterward, the state legislature established punishment, death or whipping, for slaves guilty of raping enslaved children less than twelve years of age.46

Unlike George, Ned, an enslaved man indicted for the rape of two children under ten years of age, was tried, found guilty, and sentenced. The victims, Eunice Thompson, a white girl, and Betty Gordon, an enslaved girl, witnessed the rapes of each other. Their guardians, Jane Thompson and Virginia Gordon, filed separate charges against Ned and the court treated each complaint seriously before combining the two cases into Commonwealth v. Ned (1859). Each child provided testimony against Ned, who died on the gallows. Betty was six years old and Eunice was nine years old. In this unusual case, age seems to have trumped color.47

The worlds of enslaved children and white children were interconnected, but differences in their status, clothing, playthings, and opportunities existed. Children, black and white, were aware of these differences through lived experiences and lore passed from one generation to another. Children also learned about slavery from books such as The Child’s Book on Slavery: Or, Slavery Made Plain. According to its author, The Child’s Book provides “important information concerning [slavery] to all readers.” In that same vein, it presents pro- and anti-slavery arguments, interrogates the Old and New Testaments on the subject, and gives children opportunities to assess the meaning of holding another human in bondage. Toward the end of the book, it asks if “kind” slaveholders exist? The immediate response from the text is “No.” According to the text, anyone “who holds and keeps [slaves] as property; who will not let him have his freedom; who will not pay him the full value of his labor . . .” is not kind. The text confirms that “Good clothes and good food, and kind treatment, can not atone for all this.”48

The didactic structure of The Child’s Book seems designed to proselytize or catechize, and it maintains that “whoever does hold his fellowmen in real slavery, disobeys the son of God.” At its end, the text asks, “Children, have not you all some little work of feeling right, of speaking truthfully, and of praying daily and fervently, for the liberty, in both soul and body, of all the poor slaves?” This appears to be a call for action.49

Just as white children recognized differences in their legal, economic, and social status and that of enslaved children, the same was true of free-born and freed black children, especially in states where the gradual emancipation laws existed. Selected primary sources produced by children attending New York’s African Free School under the tutelage of Charles C. Andrews suggest that they were aware of slavery’s injustices as seen in essays or verses written in 1828. For example, the twelve-year-old George R. Allen asked:

Could we not feel a brother’s woes, Relieve the wants he undergoes; Snatch him from slavery’s cruel smart, And to him freedom’s joy impart?

Other examples in The History of the New York African Free-Schools indicate that the young authors were free but never free of thoughts about slavery and the desire to abolish it.50

Essays written by children at the New York African Free School did not differ substantially from the 1834 responses of African American pupils in Cincinnati, who answered the question “What do you think most about?” And, their responses reveal concerns about enslaved contemporaries in keeping with their levels of maturity. A seven-year-old child in Cincinnati addressed the question and revealed his long-range ambitions of becoming a man “to get the poor slaves from bondage.”51

Another response to the question written by a slave-born eleven-year-old uses a religious tone. “Bless the cause of abolition,” he wrote, and “bless the heralds of the truth that we trust God has sent out to declare the rights of man.” Without including details about his circumstances, he continued, “The Lord did let the oppressed go free.” From his point of view, divine intervention was responsible for his liberty and slavery was behind him. By way of contrast, a twelve-year-old boy seemed to believe mere mortals could make a difference in the lives of his enslaved contemporaries. “We are studying,” he projected, “to try to get the yoke of slavery broke and the chains parted asunder and slave holding [to] cease for ever.”52

How or if the children put their thoughts about slavery into actions remains unknown. One cannot claim that Henry Highland Garnet became an abolitionist solely because of his enrollment in the school; however, it is reasonable to posit that his ideas about enslavement and emancipation developed within an environment such as a school founded by an active abolitionist society.

What free black children actually knew about slavery or when they knew it is not always clear. But, observations of nearly thirty school children in the Juvenile Choir directed by Boston teacher, Susan Paul, a free woman of color, suggest an early awareness of bondage. The children, ranging in ages from three to ten, sang for the New England Anti-Slavery Society (NEASS) in 1833 and performed at churches, conventions, and rallies in the Boston area. Included in their repertoire was “Hark to the Clank!,” a criticism of human trafficking. The lyrics asked:

Hark to the clank! What means that sound? ‘Tis slavery shakes its chain! Say, what have these poor wretches done, That chains their lot should be? Are they not punished to atone For some great robbery: Or black atrocious homicide? Or treasonable plan?

Answers affirm that the “poor wretched” are not guilty of crimes but held “to pamper human pride.” By the song’s end, it condemns anyone who chains, buys, or sells “God’s noblest creatures.”53

Many of “God’s noblest creatures” suffered immeasurably from insecurities and fears of separations from loved ones, one of the most hated aspects of slavery. Anxieties associated with the absence of freedom, corporal punishments, and other oppressions took tolls upon adults and children. Only freedom would remove them from thralldom. Some children were freed by the last will and testament of owners, success in freedom suits, legislative actions, and running away. But the greater number of slaves received their freedom following the Civil War (1861–1865) with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.

One of the most memorable occasions marking the inevitable demise of slavery occurred on April 12, 1865, in Richmond, Virginia, when the Virginia-born Garland White, who was sold away from family as a young child and eventually fled to Canada, led the 28th United States Colored Infantry into the city. General Robert E. Lee had abandoned the capital of the Confederate States of America on April 2, 1865. The soldiers in the unit called upon Chaplain White, a Methodist minister, to address the crowd gathered along Broad Street. “I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices,” he wrote, and there was “fullness of joy” in his heart. Among the vast multitude was White’s mother “who had spent twenty years of grief about her son.” In all probability, the grief disappeared as the mother reunited with her son who had marched at the “head of the column” and “proclaimed freedom to all mankind.”54

Regardless of the manner in which slaves achieved liberty, they could sing “no more auction block for me” and “no more lash for me.” In the aftermath of slavery, some former slaves had an exaggerated idea of freedom and did not know what to expect in the future. A more immediate concern was to reunite families torn asunder by slavery. Freed children, like freed parents, searched for loved ones. Some were reunited; others were not. Yet, they moved forward, knowing some lessons learned during slavery would be applicable in freedom. Parents cobbled together the best of these lessons to make emancipation meaningful for their children and assure that African-descended boys and girls survived one generation after another with the glorious promise of “freedom to all mankind.”55

Discussion of the Literature

For nearly a half century the proliferation scholarly productions about slavery has continued virtually unabated. At the outset of the 1970s monographs appeared, including but not limited to: John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South; Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in 18th Century Virginia; Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made; Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion; Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery; and Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925.56 These studies recognized African cultural retentions and a desire for family integrity among unfree people, who used their voices and skills to fashion a community for themselves and their loved ones.

Studies of slavery in the 1970s add much to the literature and are clear departures from the interpretations of Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime, and the mythical Sambo introduced by Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Despite progress in the field, enslaved women and children were not central to any of the studies appearing in the 1970s. Children under twenty years of age made up 56 percent of the enslaved population in 1860, yet, according to the esteemed historian Willie Lee Rose, “few historians have stressed this aspect of slavery or described it adequately.” “The disturbing truth,” wrote Rose in 1970, “is that we know much less than we ought to know about childhood in slavery, although nearly every planter’s diary, almost all travelers’ accounts, and practically every fugitive slave narrative refer to the condition of children.”57

There is much to learn about childhood in bondage and many sources support research on the subject. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Data Base (CD-ROM) and narratives by Middle Passage survivors offer a glimpse of the transatlantic trade in the human commodity. And the autobiographical productions of former slaves, primarily males, across geographical regions describe growing up in North America over time. Complementing those sources are interviews collected in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and published in the multivolume series edited by George P. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, which are treasure troves about bondage in antebellum America despite criticism by historians and others about the ages of interviewees, regional biases, and the structure of interview questions.58

Public records, including newspaper advertisements along with last wills and testaments of slaveholders, often present terse information but remain informative. Local court records and police records are instructive but filtered through lenses of the recorders. These sources, combined with others such as Loren Schweninger’s Race, Slavery and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern County Courts, remain invaluable for recapturing history, especially on local levels.59

Rose called attention to enslaved boys and girls in her “Childhood in Bondage” at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in 1970. However, the first monograph on the subject, Wilma King’s Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America, appeared twenty-five years later. This was followed by Marie Jenkins Schwartz’s Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the American South. Paternalism, a concept articulated by Eugene Genovese, is clearly present in Born in Bondage, whereas Stolen Childhood rejects the idea. These general studies reveal different aspects of a complex institution and children within its boundaries.60

More specific examinations of unfree children include Benjamin Nicholas Lawrance, The Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery and Smuggling, which focuses on the removal of selected African children from their homeland to North America. Tiya Miles’s Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family highlights an understudied facet of slavery, ownership by American Indians. Finally, Mary Niall Mitchell’s Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery is not specifically about enslaved children but is appropriate here due to its focus on recently emancipated children as they make the transition from slavery to freedom.61

Scholarship on enslaved children appears routinely in articles, including R. P. Philip and Robert A. McGuire, “Diets Versus Diseases: The Anthropometrics of Slave Children,” and as chapters within anthologies or monographs. Ronald L. Baker’s Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The W.P.A. Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana is useful for its presentation of first-hand accounts of slavery, but the recollections of children when slavery ended must be culled out from those of adults.62

In all probability, the literature on enslaved children will be enriched further by scholars within the expanding field of childhood. The same applies to scholars with interests in girl studies and black girlhood. A challenge for them is to fill voids about unfree boys and girls outside the plantation South. Local and state studies of these children in the North, Mid-West, and West are as appropriate as those delving into the lives and relationships of enslaved children and free children without regard to color.

Primary Sources

Unpublished Primary Sources
  • Hall, Florence. “Memoir of Florence Hall.” Powel Family Papers. Historic Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, [1820?].
  • Hilary A. Herbert Papers. Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  • T. Butler King Papers. Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Published Primary Sources
  • Bontemps, Arna, ed. Five Black Lives: The Autobiographies of Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimes, The Rev. G. W. Offley, and James L. Smith. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
  • Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York, NY: Dover, 1969.
  • Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Northup, Solomon. “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup.” In Puttin’ on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup. Edited by Gilbert Osofsky, 225–406. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1969.
  • Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.
  • Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Vol. 19, God Struck Me Dead. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.
  • Taylor, Susie King. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1968.

Further Reading

  • Block, Sharon. Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
  • Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
  • Lawrance, Benjamin Nicholas. Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery, and Smuggling. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
  • Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Miles, Tiya. Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Low Country. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.


  • 1. Venture Smith, “A Narrative of the Life and Adventure of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America; Related by Himself,” in Five Black Lives: The Autobiographies of Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimes, The Rev. G. W. Offley, and James L. Smith, ed. Arna Bontemps (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 6–8.

  • 2. Charles Reagan Wilson, “Chesapeake Bay,” in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 379.

  • 3. Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 32.

  • 4. See Richard Hofstadter, “White Servitude,” in America at 1750: A Social Portrait (New York, NY: Knopf, 1971); Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 122–152; and David W. Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  • 5. Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 3. See David W. Galenson, “White Servitude and the Growth of Black Slavery in Colonial America,” Journal of Economic History 41 (March 1981): 39–47; and Oscar Handlin and Mary F. Handlin, “Origins of the Southern Labor System,” William and Mary Quarterly 7 (April 1950): 199–222.

  • 6. Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1977), 75–77; and Timothy H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640–1676 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1980), 28.

    See Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1975).

  • 7. See Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 187–211.

  • 8. Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 61–63.

  • 9. Painter, Sojourner Truth, 23; Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 84–118; Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, “Philanthropy at Bargain Prices: Notes on the Economics of Gradual Emancipation,” Journal of Legal Studies 3 (June 1974): 381; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 228, 234; Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison: Madison House, 1990), 34; and Gary B. Nash, Red, White & Black: The Peoples of Early North America, 4th ed. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1999), 279–280.

  • 10. Elizabeth Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1930), I:293, 441–442, II:571–572; and Lisa A. Lindsay, Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008), 4–5. See also Paul Lovejoy, “The Children of Slavery: The Transatlantic Phase,” Slavery & Abolition 27 (August 2006): 197–217.

  • 11. See Ernest Obadele-Starks, Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007); Sylviane A. Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Study of the Last “Black Cargo, ed. Deborah G. Plant (New York, NY: Amistad, 2018).

  • 12. Smith, “A Narrative,” 9–10.

  • 13. Florence Hall, “Memoir of Florence Hall,” [1820?], Powel Family Papers, Historic Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Emphases added.

  • 14. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995), 53–54. For a discussion regarding the validity of The Interesting Narrative, see Paul E. Lovejoy, “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,” Slavery & Abolition 27 (December 2006): 317–347; and Vincent Carretta, “Response to Paul Lovejoy’s ‘Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,’” Slavery & Abolition 28 (April 2007): 115–119.

  • 15. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, 56.

  • 16. Shelia Lambert, ed., House of Commons Sessional Papers of the Eighteenth Century (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1875), 68, 73–76.

  • 17. Donald D. Wax, “A Philadelphia Surgeon on a Slaving Voyage to Africa 1749–1751,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 92 (1968): 468.

  • 18. Wax, “A Philadelphia Surgeon,” 468.

  • 19. Bernard Martin and Mark Spurrell, eds., The Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton) 1750–1754, with Newton’s Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (London, U.K.: Epworth Press, 1962), 41.

  • 20. See Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985); and R. Halliburton Jr., “Free Black Owners of Slaves: A Reappraisal of the Woodson Thesis,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 76 (July 1975): 129–142.

  • 21. Last Will and Testament of Betsy Sompayrac,” Parish Clerk, Natchitoches, Louisiana.

  • 22. Joseph H. Ingraham, Not “A Fool’s Errand”: Life and Experience of a Northern Governess in the Sunny South (New York, NY: Carleton, 1880), 180.

  • 23. Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Bondswoman of Olden Times, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the Early Part of the Present Century, with a History of Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her “Book of Life” (Boston: Self-published, 1875), 30–32.

  • 24. Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 30–32.

  • 25. Smith, “A Narrative,” 12–13.

  • 26. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1982), 162.

  • 27. [Anna Matilda King] to Thomas Butler King, December 27, 1844, T. Butler King Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

  • 28. Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, ed. John A. Scott (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984), 93.

  • 29. Solomon Northup, “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup” in Puttin’ on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup, ed. Gilbert Osofsky (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1969), 370.

  • 30. Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1969), 1:152, 3:221, 4:333; “State vs. Mary, a Slave 5 MO (1837),” Abraham Brinker File 93, Mine au Breton Historical Society, Potosi, Missouri; and Harriet C. Frasier, Slavery and Crime in Missouri (Jefferson: McFarland, 2001), 170–174.

  • 31. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1974), 515. See also David R. Roediger, “And Die in Dixie: Funerals, Deaths, and Heaven in the Slave Community 1700–1865,” The Massachusetts Review 22 (Spring 1981): 163–183.

  • 32. Dickson J. Preston. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (Baltimore: University of Maryland Press, 1980), 92; and Hilary Abner Herbert, “Reminiscences” (unpublished manuscript, Hilary A. Herbert Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 19).

  • 33. Herbert, “Reminiscences,” 19; and Launcelot Minor Blackford, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Story of a Virginia Lady, Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, 1802–1896, Who Taught Her Sons to Hate Slavery and to Love the Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), 39–31.

  • 34. Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 20, 171.

  • 35. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, ser. 2, vol. 15 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971), 321. See also Jenny Bourne Wahl, The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  • 36. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York, NY: Dover, 1969), 254; Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 40–41; Shane White, “‘It Was a Proud Day’: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741–1834,” Journal of American History 81 (June 1994): 13–50; and Shane White, “Pinkster: Afro-Dutch Syncretization in New York City and the Hudson Valley,” Journal of American Folklore 102 (January–March 1989): 68–75.

  • 37. Louisa Cocke to John Hartwell Cocke, January 9, 1830, John Hartwell Cocke Papers, Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; and Louisa Cocke Diary, January 2, 1831; June 3, 1831; June 21, 1831; July 11, 1831; July 27, 1831; August 1, 1831, John Hartwell Cocke Papers, Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

  • 38. Charles Perdue, Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 100. See also Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978); and Michael A. Gomez, “Muslims in Early America,” Journal of Southern History 60 (November 1994): 671–710.

  • 39. Douglass, My Bondage, 155; and Susie King Taylor, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (New York, NY: Arno Press, 1968), 5–6.

  • 40. Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, Weevils in the Wheat, 88–89. See also John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979), 23, 114–130; and Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987), 3–97.

  • 41. Charshee Charlotte Lawrence-McIntyre, “The Double Meanings of the Spirituals,” Journal of Black Studies 17 (June 1987): 360; and Wyatt-Brown Bertram, “The Mask of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South,” American Historical Review 93 (December 1988): 1228–1252.

  • 42. Kent Anderson Leslie, Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 1849–1893 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).

  • 43. Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978).

  • 44. Rawick, The American Slave, 328.

  • 45. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life, 192. See also Thomas Foster, “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 20 (September 2011): 445–464 (while his article is informative, it does not focus specifically on enslaved boys in the United States).

  • 46. George (a Slave) v. The State, 37 MS, High Court of Errors and Appeals, October Term, 1859, 316–317.

  • 47. Commonwealth v. Ned, Circuit Court, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1859.

  • 48. The Child’s Book on Slavery: Or, Slavery Made Plain (Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1857) (1857), 38, 51.

  • 49. The Child’s Book, 148.

  • 50. Charles C. Andrews, The History of the New York African Free-Schools from Their Establishment in 1787, to the Present Time Embracing a Period of More than Forty Years: Also a Brief Account of the Successful Labor of the New York Manumission Society, With an Appendix (New York, NY: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 66–68; and Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, “Strategies of Survival: Free Negro Families and the Problem of Slavery,” in In Joy and in Sorrow: Women, Family, and Marriage in the Victorian South, 1830–1900, ed. Carol Bleser (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 89.

  • 51. Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States from Colonial Times through the Civil War (Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1973), 157–158 (emphasis in the original); and Nikki M. Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802–1868 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005), 161–174.

  • 52. Aptheker. A Documentary History, 158.

  • 53. William Lloyd Garrison, “Miss Paul’s Concert,” The Liberator April 14, 1837, 63; “Miss Paul’s Juvenile Concert,” New York Evangelist (February 25, 1837): 1; and Lois Brown, “Out of the Mouths of Babes: The Abolitionist Campaign of Susan Paul and the Juvenile Choir of Boston,” New England Quarterly 75 (March 2002): 64. See also James Oliver Horton, “Generations of Protest: Black Families and Social Reform in Ante-Bellum Boston,” New England Quarterly 49 (June 1976): 242–256.

  • 54. Edwin S. Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 175–177.

  • 55. Jubilee and Plantation Songs: Characteristic Favorites, as Sung by the Hampton Students, Jubilee Singers, Fisk University Students, and Other Concert Companies (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1887), 35; and Redkey, A Grand Army, 175.

  • 56. Blassingame, The Slave Community; Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in 18th Century Virginia (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1972); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, NY: Pintage, 1976); Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974); Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston: Little Brown, 1974); and Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1976).

  • 57. Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1918); Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1959); and Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom, expanded ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982), 39.

  • 58. Rawick, The American Slave.

  • 59. Loren Schweninger, ed., Race, Slavery and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern County Courts, 1775–1867 (Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1998).

  • 60. Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011); Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the American South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); and Willie Lee Rose, “Childhood in Bondage,” in Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom ed., William W. Freehling, expanded edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982), 37–48.

  • 61. Benjamin Nicholas Lawrance, The Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery and Smuggling (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); and Mary Niall Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2008).

  • 62. Philip R. P. Coelho and Robert A. McGuire, “Diets Versus Diseases: The Anthropometrics of Slave Children,” Journal of Economic History 60 (March 2000): 232–246; and Ronald L. Baker, Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The W.P.A. Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).