13 The African American Women and Her Labor in Antebellum South Slavery

Hailey Morrison

Introduction

For years, slavery, whether the narrative told domestically or internationally, has been told from a perspective that most regarded only men and the punishments they received. While this narrative is true and should be analyzed extensively to understand the true perceptions of enslaved persons, the narrative of women has largely been erased. The erasure of women’s experience in slavery provides limitations for understanding women’s position in both the private and public sectors during slavery in the Antebellum South. Throughout this chapter, there will be an extensive analysis of the daily interactions of African American women in the Antebellum South during slavery, and how they navigated everyday life. Most accounts of which will be from interviews and or texts with authors who were enslaved, with other authors coming from more modern academic backgrounds. This chapter argues that black women’s positions in slavery need more scholarship granted towards the topic to be able to adequately study the lives of African American women throughout slavery.

Image 376 of Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 11, North Carolina, Part 2, Jackson-Yellerday

Ophelia Whitley

Ophelia Whitley was a formerly enslaved woman from Wake County, North Carolina.[1] Throughout her autobiography, recounted in an oral history-styled project to continue the histories of former slaves, she described the punishments that she once endured. It is important to note that the entire biography given by Ophelia Whitley, was typed out in the dialect in which she may have spoken. In portraying this about the language used in the interview, I do so because some white authors gave this dialect to depict African American speakers in a derogatory way. Throughout the Federal Writers’ Project, an initiative to relay the histories of the lives of former slaves, each interview is written out in this dialect, with each interview having an editor.[2] While editing any is part of the process for all transcriptions, who is to know what these editors may have erased or altered? Being that the history of this country with slavery has never been, and probably will not be depicted transparently, this is crucial to ponder while understanding slavery as the staple of this nation’s economy for numerous years. Though I trust that the content of the interview given by Ophelia Whitley was not tampered with, it is important to layout possibilities, ultimately highlighting the violent history this nation has regarding African Americans, and how the histories told by the government are not always consistent with what occurred.

Ophelia Whitley was born in 1841, to her mother Eliza, and father, Thomas—on a plantation owned by Agustus Foster.[3] The first account Whitley gives after explaining her family of eleven siblings was that of a whipping she received that she still remembered. On May 12, 1937, whenever this interview was conducted, was just four years shy of Ms. Whitley’s 100th birthday, and she still remembered a punishment she had received when she was little. She recalled:

“I ‘members one whuppin’ I got when I wus little ‘bout a big matter that looked little at de time. Mens would come by in kivered wagons (we called dem speckled wagons) an’ steal Marse Gus’ n***** chilluns. He had lost a heap of money dat way…”.[4]

In stating this, the stealing of enslaved children was rather popular during the time amongst different plantations. Ms. Whitley recalled being forbidden from going near the street, to keep her slave owner, Foster, from losing what was considered his property… his slaves. One time, Ophelia went down to the end of the street, to one of those speckled wagons that had been known for taking slaves, and she recalled the experience:

“One day we sees a drove of dese wagons comin’ an’ we flies down ter de road. De marster ketches us an’ I flies, but he hobbles ter our cabin on his crutches an’ he pinches me, pokes me wid de crutch an’ slaps my face”.[5]

Though this does not depict an immensely graphic image of a wound from slavery, the harassment and violent ways in which enslaved women alike to men were treated, were dehumanizing. Though this is just one account of the labor an enslaved woman from the south endured, this account shines a light on narratives that compare to ones such as these. Additionally, the intensity of the labor was evidently detrimental to the wellbeing, human rights, and familial relationships of these women.

Black Women in Antebellum South Slavery

The theme of labor holds a lot of weight for African American women and has since the institution of slavery finally ended. Though labor in slavery was divided by sex, for the most part, the labor that both men and women performed was equally back-breaking and unbearable. In “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow” by Jacqueline Jones, she states: “As blacks, slave women were exploited for their skills and physical strength in the production of staple crops; as women, they performed a reproductive function vital to individual slaveholders’ financial interests and the inherently expansive system of slavery in general”.[6] Black women and men were both exploited in ways that are different from one another and should be studied as such. Practices such as ‘buck breaking’ were popular amongst plantations; though there is little scholarship given regarding the practices of buck breaking in the United States. When referencing to the sexual division of labor, in early America, the work of black men and white women simply conformed to different patterns not limited to the slaveholding South.[7] This is important to note, because the idea of “Other” comes into play here, being that if you are not a white man or woman, you are thus subjected to the idea of “Otherness”; whether that is in regards to the education one is seen as “fit” to receive, or in simple occupations, this concept can be seen throughout the institution of slavery in the United States.

When considering the dress of these enslaved women, unquestionably, the attire required to be worn was not nearly seen as ethical. “Dressed in coarse osnaburg gowns; their skirts ‘reefed up with a cord drawn tightly around the body, a little above the hips’ (the traditional ‘second belt’); long sleeves pushed above the elbows and kerchiefs on their heads, female field hands were a common sight throughout the antebellum South.”[8] Especially in areas where cotton was grown, women worked in the heat of the sun for up to fourteen hours a day.[9] The labor of black women even included mistreatment by way of abusing the bodies of black women as vessels for reproduction and nothing more. Jones states: “If work is any activity that leads either directly or indirectly to the production of marketable goods, then slave women did nothing but work.[10] The concept that these women were only good for the area of reproduction and/or the production of goods, was a mindset adopted by slaveowners, lawmakers, and various other officials that were in seats to make monumental decisions regarding the institution of slavery. In some situations, women were impregnated with their slave master’s child, not having any agency over their bodies. On the same hand, black women were also told by the white men that owned them, that they did not want “runts” or even girls; slave women understood the economic benefits and downfalls, even down to the children that they bore with their bodies—forced, or not.[11]

An example of women knowing their places economically can be seen through the example given by Jones. A black enslaved woman from North Carolina, the mother to fifteen children brought her children with her on the field, sneaking to feed the child, and then returned to hoeing or picking.[12] This exemplifies the work that black women so frequently did, and how the presence of even children was never more important than the production of the plantation. The duality of roles that African American women played was nothing short of phenomenal given the circumstances they lived through. The violence of the Atlantic Slave Trade can evidently be argued as one of the first events that institutionally degraded the value of African American lives, and this trend is very much visible in the government and various other places in society currently.

Through analysis of historical accounts from women who endured slavery and texts that depict the labor and conditions that slavery so often presented; one may infer that even in the current day, black women are often marginalized from most narratives. This page not only calls for additional scholarship attributed specifically to the labor of black women throughout slavery but also calls to further examine and include the narratives of African American women. The inclusion of such narratives, however, are not monumental unless portrayed in a way that is transparent and depicts fully the violent history of black women in the Antebellum South.


Hailey Morrison is a third-year student with a double major in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Communication from Charlotte, North Carolina.


  1. Whitley, Image 376 of Federal Writers’ Project. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mesn.112.
  2. Whitley.
  3. Whitley.
  4. Whitley. Written in the dialect that may or may not have been spoken in. Though Ophelia Whitley does not delve into if she was involved with reproductive labor, the understanding of what her status means economically, was very clear to her; she understood that she was indeed property; this is a widely accepted notion by enslaved black women in the antebellum South.
  5. Whitley.
  6. Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 12.
  7. Jones, 12.
  8. Jones, 15.
  9. Jones, 15. The text refers specifically to North Carolina (and other states) in relevance to the Cotton Belt and the occupations enslaved women had regarding the cotton industry, which was extremely popular throughout the south.
  10. Jones, 14.
  11. Jones, 14. Many women were wet nurses as well, a concept that is also in direct relation with the concept that black women’s bodies are only good for reproduction purposes.
  12. Jones, 14.