By Kenzie Potter and Sarah Zeszotarski
Until the emergence of women’s history as a legitimate field of historical inquiry in the 1960s, historians overlooked distinct female experiences of slavery in favor of generalizing about men’s experiences. They also skewed their research towards agricultural laborers on large plantations, and, as a result, they ignored the range of places where enslaved women worked. The enslaved women of the Lacy household were not field hands. They performed domestic labor for the Lacy family and for Davidson College, whose boarding faculty and guests they hosted.
This is not to say that enslaved women did not work in fields. Most did. In most African societies, women were farmers, and slave owners quickly recognized them as skilled laborers. This was particularly true on rice plantations.1 As slavery grew and evolved throughout the South, many enslaved women continued to work as field hands on large plantations, and on smaller farms, they also performed agricultural labor. Labor organization systems differed depending on the crop being produced and the size of the plantation or farm, but a common thread was that these women worked hard. According to historian Laura Edwards, at least ninety percent of all enslaved females over sixteen years of age labored for their owners more than 261 days per year for eleven to thirteen hours each day.2 They then completed domestic labor, such as cooking and cleaning, for their own families – usually well into the night and after the sun had set.3
We have to consider this information in relationship to that on another form of labor – reproductive labor. Most enslaved women spent the majority of their fertile adult years pregnant or nursing. Pregnancy and childbirth did not spare these women from back-breaking workloads. In contrast, many slave owners believed that working their pregnant slaves more intensely made them healthier. This belief stemmed from white Southern society’s (mis)perceptions of black women’s physical bodies as inherently animalistic and less civilized.4 The Lacy slaves were not field hands, but in her letters, Mary Lacy discusses the family’s garden. It is reasonable to assume that the Lacy family’s slaves were performing some or much of the labor of planting, weeding, and harvesting these crops.
When not performing agricultural labor, enslaved women often worked within their owners’ houses. In other words, much of the burden of maintaining the ideals of domesticity lie on black women’s shoulders, and they assumed the bulk of cleaning, food preservation and preparation, and childcare. This was likely true for the Lacy slaves. Mistresses, for their part, ensured that enslaved women paid “attention to order, punctuality, and economy,” and they punished slaves severely for not meeting their standards.5 Although historians have paid more attention to labor strife between male field hands and overseers, mistresses and enslaved domestic workers regularly came into conflict, too. They disagreed over the pace and standards of work but also whether or not enslaved people should work at all. For example, Mary Lacy wrote to complain about Aunt Amy, one of her slaves, who claimed to have been extremely sick. Without Amy, Lacy was unable to leave home and had to take on additional domestic labor while she looked to hire additional help. (The term aunt commonly refers to elderly slave women. Considering that the life expectancy of enslaved men and women was 32.6 and 33.6 years respectively, Aunt Amy, if she was the forty-eight-year-old woman in the 1850 slave census owned by Rev. Lacy, was elderly when the letter was written. For women on large plantations, old age brought increased influence within the slave community even as their economic value to the master declined. Within the Lacy household, this seems not to be true as there were few other slaves.6
Most enslaved women did not experience their bondage as isolated individuals; rather, they belonged to families. The Lacy family owned slaves that we can logically assume formed family units of their own. In 1850, Rev. Lacy owned a forty-four-year-old man and a forty-eight-year-old woman identified as black. He also owned a teenaged girl categorized as mulatto. By 1860, Lacy owned what appears to be a young enslaved family: a twenty-eight-year-old woman; a twenty-seven-year-old man; girls aged seven-years, three-years and six-months-old; and a five-year-old boy. All were identified as black. (Because Benjamin Rice, Mary’s father, appears not have owned any slaves at the time of her marriage, we assume she did not bring them with her.) It is important to understand, however, that North Carolina did not recognize slave marriages as legal, and while we can assume that these individuals comprised families, we know that they did not enjoy the same protections as the Lacy family.7 Slave families regularly were broken up through sale when owners died or faced a financial crisis. Owners used the threat of sale to enforce obedience. An enslaved women sold by her master left behind her husband, children, and extended kin.8
As they lacked control over their own lives, so, too, did enslaved mothers expect to be forced apart from their children. Mothering in the context of slavery was incredibly difficult. Fewer than two of three black children lived past ten years old in the decade of 1850-60.9 If their children survived, masters could punish, sell, or kill their children without parents’ consent. Enslaved mothers bore the pressing task of teaching their children how to survive as quickly and effectively as possible before they might be separated. When the Lacy family sought to buy an enslaved girl from a nearby plantation, which would separate her from her family, Mary Lacy showed no concern or sympathy for the child. Rather, she was frustrated by the high prices being paid for these human commodities. Under these conditions, it is understandable that some enslaved women sought control over their bodies and tried to prevent pregnancy. There are records of enslaved women ingesting cotton root bar, a known abortifacient. Masters expressly forbid abortion, but some women had one in secret in an act of defiance and self-preservation.10
Bound by love to their kin, enslaved women rarely ran away or engaged in overt, violent resistance. Instead, they found other ways to express themselves and foster the bonds of community. Women turned to religion. Their faith and beliefs were a part of their identity that could not be controlled by masters or mistresses and that were portable no matter how far removed from home and family they were. Furthermore, adopting new Christian religious practices created a bond of righteousness and a conviction in the injustice of their bondage. Enslaved Christian women identified with feminized morality in defense of themselves and in defiance of stereotypes of enslaved women as licentious. They turned to the Bible and were inspired to exercise restraint, patience, and forgiveness in the face of injustice—a practice that must have been indescribably difficult considering the unimaginable horrors of slavery.11 We can assume the Lacy slaves were exposed to Presbyterianism, but we do not know whether or not they embraced this faith.
To escape from the stresses and burdens of enslavement, women and men also engaged in secret parties: they would amass alcohol, sew and knit new clothing, and build musical instruments for secret gatherings off-plantation grounds and away from the observation and control of whites. These parties were especially significant for women because their tasks rarely allowed them permission to move freely.12 Mary Lacy refers to a bootlegger who sold liquor to slaves, perhaps including her own, and students alike beyond the boundaries of town.
Enslaved women faced a kind of oppression that was uniquely gendered: they were raped and coerced to have sex with their owners and other white men. Because masters owned their slaves’ bodies, laws against rape did not apply to slaves. In addition, Southern whites perceived African and African-descent women as inherently sexually eager and available. They sexualized black female bodies and behavior.13 It is worth noting that owners profited from the birth of slave children. For all of these reasons, fertility rates among female slaves neared human capacity during the antebellum period, and these women experienced pregnancy and the subsequent care of infants for the majority of their years of reproductive capability. Enslaved women experienced sexual violence throughout their lives. Masters could force slaves into sexual relationships for their (the master’s) pleasure or for that of another white man. Women also faced sexual violence as punishment. Failure to complete a task could result in physical punishment, including being stripped naked and whipped and raped. Resistance to rape could result in additional physical punishment.14 This gendered cycle of brutality was unending. In 1850, Rev. Lacy owned a fifteen-year-old mulatto girl. While the forty-eight-year-old black women he owned may have been her mother, we do not know who her white father was.
Slave owners depended on female slaves to maintain their households, care for their children, and generate income for them. At the same time, they dehumanized them, treated them as commodities, and denied them basic human dignity. We can see hints of the lives of the enslaved women in the Lacy household in Mary Lacy’s letters. They give us a small window into the past where we can witness what everyday life was like for Lacy and the enslaved women and girls with whom she shared a home.