SLAVERY AND BLACKS
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Any analysis of African-Americans in the nineteenth century must deal mainly with slavery. That was the condition of the great majority of blacks until the Civil War, and slavery cast its long shadow over blacks until the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The slave system was mainly a southern plantation system, producing commercial crops for a domestic and world market. The main crops were cotton, tobacco, rice, sugar, and hemp. Slaves who produced these commodities were themselves commodities, a fact that differentiated them from all other workers. Blacks made up one-third of the South's population at the time of the Civil War--4 million out of 12 million. There were about 1.25 million white households in the South, of which about one-fourth owned slaves. The majority of southerners were family farmers, even those who owned one to five slaves. Only 8,000 southern households owned more than fifty slaves, the number required for a large plantation. A majority of blacks worked in agriculture, with most in cotton cultivation. Only 20 percent were involved in growing tobacco, rice, sugar, and hemp. In short, southern commercial agriculture in the nineteenth century was a cotton culture sustained by slave labor.
The lives of slaves were affected day in and day out by the basic reality that they were not their own masters. If a slave's workload was reasonable, or if slaves were allowed to till their own plots and sell their own products, it remained so only at the master's discretion, not because the slave decided such matters. If slaves married or visited family and friends on other plantations, it was only with the permission of his master. If slaves married they remained together only so long as their master did not separate them through sale. In every act, every expression or gesture, slaves had to consider the consequences of their masters' response. In that sense the line between freedom and slavery penetrated every corner of a slave's life. It was absolute and overwhelming. Even the most poverty-stricken white living in the worst hovel never asked to be a slave.