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Strategies for Survival

Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia

William Dusinberre
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Strategies for Survival
    Book Description:

    Strategies for Survivalconveys the experience of bondage through the words of former slaves themselves. The interviews-conducted in Virginia in 1937 by WPA interviewers-are considered among the most valuable of the WPA interviews because in Virginia the interviewers were almost all African Americans; thus the interviewees almost certainly spoke more frankly than they would otherwise have done. Dusinberre uses the interviews to assess the strategies by which slaves sought to survive, despite the severe constrictions bondage imposed upon their lives. Religion and escape were common means of coping with the indignity of family disruption, contempt, and the harsh realities of slavery. However, while Dusinberre recognizes the creativity and variety of slaves' responses to oppression, he acknowledges the dispiriting realities of the limits of slave resistance and agency.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2836-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book presents a view of antebellum North American slavery as experienced by the slaves themselves. Although it focuses on the state of Virginia, I believe most of its conclusions are suggestive for nearly all of the “Middle South” and for most of the

    “Deep South.”¹ The book discusses how far slaves’ experiences varied depending on whether they had a “good” master or not; whether they lived in a city or not; and whether they were members of a privileged “third caste” or not. It attempts to define the nature and the extent of the slaves’ oppression, and to convey...

  5. Part I. Alleviations

    • 1 Good Mistresses and Masters
      (pp. 15-27)

      Before the Civil War, and for more than a century thereafter, apologists for the slave regime of the Old South claimed that the typical slavemaster was a benevolent figure who treated his “servants” indulgently and was loved by them. Although Eugene Genovese strongly dissented from that view, his brilliant and groundbreakingRoll, Jordan, Roll(1974), which placed paternalism at the center of its analysis, may have exerted an unintended influence toward perpetuating a rose-colored view of plantation slavery. Descendants of slaves, some critics of Genovese’s work, and so-called neo-abolitionist historians have naturally been tempted to dismiss talk of slavemaster benevolence...

    • 2 Mixed-Race Ancestry and Long-Term Relationships
      (pp. 28-49)

      Just as there was great diversity among slavemasters, so was there vast diversity among African Americans. In New Orleans and in seaports in the Deep South like Charleston and Mobile, there existed a three-caste system resembling that of Brazil or the West Indies, where free people of mixed-race ancestry occupied a status somewhere between that of a free white person and an enslaved black. A species of three-caste system may also have functioned in the Middle South, possibly mitigating the harshness of slavery for some enslaved people of mixed-race background.

      The best-known account of such a system appears in Harriet...

    • 3 Cities and Industry
      (pp. 50-70)

      The harshness of a slave’s existence might be mitigated by a good mistress/master, or if the enslaved person chanced to have mixedrace ancestry. A further factor might also lessen slavery’s rigors: urban life. Just over 5 percent of Virginia’s bondpeople lived in small cities where they could experience, by associating with substantial numbers of free blacks, a wider world than that of the plantation. Slavery has sometimes been seen as incompatible with urban life; but Virginia’s urban tobacco factories depended on slave labor, and the growth of the state’s tobacco-manufacturing towns (even during the 1850s, when slave labor was in...

  6. Part II. Offenses

    • 4 Family Disruption
      (pp. 73-84)

      Seventy years after Emancipation one Virginia interviewee after another boiled with indignation at how black people had been treated. I have already touched on the problem of family disruption for slaves working in urban factories. All slaves lived with the omnipresent threat that families would be disrupted when a master decided to sell some of his slaves, inevitably making black people feel they were being treated like animals. “They used to sell slaves . . . ,” Robert Ellett reported angrily, “jes’ like you sell sheep, cattle, or horses.” The Reverend Ishrael Massie was equally enraged: “Dey put ya on...

    • 5 Physical Abuse
      (pp. 85-94)

      In Virginia physical brutality toward slaves was supposed to be less prevalent than in the Deep South, but the firsthand slave accounts make one question the meaning of such hopeful relativism. The old black people interviewed in 1937 found a kind of catharsis in talking about the physical violence they had experienced.

      It was seldom feasible for a woman openly to resist a whipping, yet the spirit of resistance is often present in slave accounts. Thus, when Marrinda Singleton was very young, and hunger led her to steal vegetables from the plantation vegetable patch, she willingly undertook the risk. “Sometimes...

    • 6 Regimentation
      (pp. 95-103)

      Eugene Genovese labeled the constant intrusion by resident antebellum slavemasters upon the lives of their thralls as “paternalism.” The same word may also denote the paternalist ideology that was devised in order to justify holding human beings in bondage.¹ The termregimentationto describe masters’ efforts to regulate almost every detail of their slaves’ lives avoids confusion between the two meanings ofpaternalism.

      The regimentation of a slave’s life began early. “When I’se five years ole,” recalled Caroline Hunter, “I had to wuk. I had a job cleanin’ silver an’ settin’ de table. A few years after dat I was...

    • 7 Contempt
      (pp. 104-109)

      In addition to family disruption, physical abuse, and regimentation, there were other means by which white people demonstrated contempt for slaves. Some of these, occurring alone, might have seemed relatively insignificant; cumulatively, however, their effects could be devastating.

      Armaci Adams, after telling her interviewers her name and her place of birth, immediately pointed out that she did not know her date of birth. “Dey never give me my age,” she lamented. “White folks kept hit an’ never give it ter me.” Similarly, Arthur Greene claimed that in “dem days . . . none us slaves knowed our ’zact age. Old...

    • 8 Deprivation
      (pp. 110-118)

      Famine did not stalk the antebellum South, as it did the Russian countryside in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed (according to recent economic historians), the average antebellum Southern slave not only received food with a high calorific—and substantial protein—content, but often could supplement this basic ration with vegetables, sour milk, and a Sunday treat of wheaten biscuits.¹Didslaves really feel deprived of proper food and clothing allowances? And if they did feel deprived, why?

      A handful of former slaves actually expressed enthusiasm for the food that came their way. Levi Pollard grew up in a privileged family on...

  7. Part III. Responses

    • 9 Religion
      (pp. 121-140)

      The slaves’ religion, as historians have convincingly demonstrated, moulded together African and Christian elements. African components were significant in this synthesis, both in early North America and—as late as the 1860s—in the Carolina Low Country.¹ But the Low Country was an atypical region, because African-born slaves were still being legally imported there until 1808 (much later than to the Upper South) and because Low Country slaves so heavily outnumbered local white people that influences from whites were weaker than elsewhere in the South. Consequently, several questions remain unsettled: How far (in other parts of the American South) did...

    • 10 Dissidence
      (pp. 141-167)

      The slaves’ strongest bulwark against dehumanization—stronger even than their Afro-Christianity—was their nearly universal spirit of dissidence. Although fostered by Afro-Christianity, this spirit of dissent would almost certainly have thrived even in the absence of that religion. Bondpeople stole from their masters, deceived them, disobeyed rules, protested ill treatment, went absent at nighttime without leave, fled the plantation for extended periods or sometimes permanently, and occasionally fought their masters. Stories of their own, or their ancestors’, dissent were dearly cherished by former slaves. Dissidence was a tremendous morale booster, as bondpeople affirmed their active agency, denying that they were...

    • 11 Families
      (pp. 168-179)

      In the 1950s scholars—black and white alike—believed that slavery had weakened African American family institutions. A powerful reaction against this view surfaced during the 1970s, marked particularly by the publication of Herbert Gutman’sThe Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.Gutman observed that slave women often bore their first child before marrying, but he argued that once the woman married, long-lasting nuclear families were the norm. During recent years, however, Gutman’s view has come under increasingly close examination. Perhaps the most explicit challenge has been made by the historian Brenda Stevenson, especially her article “Distress and Discord in...

    • 12 The Black Community
      (pp. 180-186)

      Among slaves—as among any other people—tension existed between group solidarity and the pursuit of individual interest. Although the two did not always conflict, they sometimes did. Since 1970 historians of slavery—notably John Blassingame and Eugene Genovese—have stressed group solidarity. Genovese argues persuasively that enslaved preachers, mammies, artisans, and even drivers often used their privileged positions for the benefit of the slave community.¹ Insofar as historians have examined the slaves’ pursuit of individual and family self-interest, attention has focused particularly on the slaves’ “internal economy”—for example, on their raising chickens and growing vegetables (on small parcels...

    • 13 Self-Development
      (pp. 187-204)

      This chapter first considers literacy. It then examines the privileges accorded to certain bondpeople. Finally, it discusses how far these privileges pulled favored individuals away from other slaves.

      Some slaves learned to read, and even to write, despite the huge legal and customary obstacles placed in their way.¹ How did they acquire these skills? How many did so, and who were they?

      One must first distinguish between reading and writing. “I can’t write or spell,” Jane Pyatt lamented, “but strange as it sounds I can read anything I wish.” Similarly, although Candis Goodwin complained that in general “de white folks...

  8. Part IV. Retrospect

    • 14 Oppression and Self-Determination
      (pp. 207-210)

      Perhaps the strongest impression left by Virginia’s WPA interviewees is the heartening sense that the morale of these old people had not been broken by their experiences of slavery. They felt pride in how they and their ancestors had responded to oppression. Stories abounded of the slaves’ spirited dissidence. The slaves’ religion sustained belief in the ultimate triumph of justice. Personal loyalties were deep, especially to mothers, but also to many fathers, siblings, and other members of extended families. A substantial number of interviewees had managed to develop skills, even when they were slaves, that helped them to make better...

  9. Appendix
    (pp. 211-212)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 213-242)
  11. Index
    (pp. 243-252)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)