Owning Slaves. . . or maybe just benefitting from them.


Belle Mead Plantation

We left Nashville and drove to Belle Mead Plantation. This was an old plantation, where they reared horses, and owned slaves. It was advertised as telling the story of the slaves, rather than simply showing the affluent lifestyle of 1800’s Americans (which is what many plantation tours focus on). We paid for a one-hour tour/lecture.

The tour started in a slave cabin (actually, it was reconstructed as all the original slave cabins had fallen down over the years). From the outside, it looked like a log cabin from a cowboy film. Inside, it was a two-roomed structure, with a central fireplace. We heard that 10 slaves would live in each room. Given the size, we could fit about 10 slaves into our garden shed. Imagine—10 people to do all the work we hate doing, and we wouldn’t have to pay them. . . you can understand the temptation in a society where it was acceptable.

There were 132 slaves living and working on the plantation. It was illegal for slaves to read or write, and they were allowed to have ‘Christian’ services as long as they were quiet and didn’t sing. Our guide was a direct descendent from one of the slaves, and she spoke with passion about their lives, though her talk was more about the politics of the situation, and less about specific details of daily life for the slaves.

Religion was allowed, but only the ‘right’ sort of religion. There was a translation of the Bible aimed specifically at slaves, with certain passages omitted.

White people bought slaves, owned them and could sell them as they pleased. Sometimes they were given as gifts. Family groups could be split up (you could return from your daily work to find your husband had been sold to another plantation and you would never see him again). Any children born to slaves were also owned. Over time, the slaves accepted their role, they considered themselves to be below white people, they lost all self-respect. It wasn’t uncommon for a slave woman to give birth to a white-skinned child. The wife of the plantation owner would know that the baby was her husband’s, but what could she do? She would have huge resentment towards the slave woman. The slave’s husband would also know, but what he could he do? The owner would consider the baby to be his possession, not his child, and the baby would grow up as a slave, possibly owned by their own half-siblings. It made for an unhappy situation. Our guide told us that she was descended from one such child. When she was growing up, if it was sunny, she was warned to stay in the shade, in case she got ‘too black’. Being black, even today, is considered by some people to be less good than being fair-skinned.

The Smoke House

One slave role would have been to smoke the pork. The plantation kept 200 pigs, and these were killed twice a year. They were boiled in a huge vat, salted, and smoked in the smoke-house. The smoke-house was surprisingly near to the house where the family lived—it must have been smelly!

We heard that around the time of the civil war, society began to change, and people started to refer to ‘benevolent owners’ or ‘paternal owners’. They tried to refute the image of the cruel owner who mistreated their slaves. However, the fact was, they thought it was acceptable to own people, to buy and sell people, to keep people captive. Owning slaves enabled plantation owners to grow very rich. This benefitted the population as a whole, including people living in the North, as they would trade with Southern people, selling goods at inflated prices because they knew people could afford to pay. Slavery was good for the economy. It just needed people to not think about the moral issues too deeply.

The civil war resulted in emancipation for the slaves—they were no longer owned. However, they were uneducated, homeless, unemployed. Many had been born into slavery, it was the only life they knew, and they were in affect institutionalised. Although free, they actually had no real choices, and many continued to work for their previous owners, usually for a pittance, because where else would they go?

After the civil war, poor Irish people arrived in the South. They were hated, because unlike poor Americans (who would rather starve or steal than do manual work) the Irish were prepared to do the same work as the freed slaves. There they were, in the fields, working hard doing menial jobs in the hot sun, next to ex-slaves. And because their skin was white, they encouraged the question: “Are blacks and whites the same?” The ex-slaves began to watch the Irish, saw them start at the bottom of society with low-paid work, and gradually rise to better positions, and the black people began to wonder if perhaps they could also aspire to greater things.

When the talk finished, I went to speak to our guide. As I said, she was very passionate about the wrongs of slavery, the injustice of the system, the way that society ‘turned a blind eye’ because everyone was wealthier when slavery was allowed. The abolition of slavery meant a drop in the standard of living of all whites, even those who didn’t own slaves. I asked her what she thought about slavery today.

Today, some countries have people who are slaves. Girls are trafficked for the sex-trade, and poor people are forced to work, for no wage, in factories and on farms. Some of our cheaper brands of clothing are possible only because the workers, often in Asia, have no rights. We hear rumours of child labour, of unsafe factories, of people trapped in poverty. Should therefore, we buy clothes from shops who don’t check where their products are being manufactured? Should we buy cheap jeans and decide we won’t think about the ethics? We don’t see the slaves—they are in Asia—so does that mean that we’re not culpable? I asked our guide if she would avoid buying cheap brands unless she knew they resourced responsibly, or if her anti-slavery passion only applied to the black people of another age. It’s a tough question, but one which perhaps we should all be asking. It’s very easy to judge a by-gone age, and to think we would never do those things. But are we the same?

I challenge you to try and check where your clothing brands were manufactured, and to not buy cheap brands if they are made by slaves.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

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