Skip to Content
Photograph of A Black Family at the Hermitage Plantation, Savannah, GA

Chapter 04

Life & Work

African Americans who endured slavery created cultures instilled with wisdom, beauty, and vitality. Living a dual life—one of hardship and one of community and faith—enslaved people turned their focus towards family, knowledge, neighbors, and joy, wherever it might be found. They found pleasure in a job well done, a child well-loved, a song, a story, or a gathering that rejuvenated the soul. Life was more than enslavement.

Tintype of Emmaline, a formerly enslaved woman. Emmaline is pictured seated in front of a studio backdrop. She wears a skirt, jacket and gloves of the same dark fabric. The jacket has a single row of small buttons up the center. She also wears a white collar with a dark ribbon, earrings, and a small hat. Her proper right arm is down by her side and her proper left hand is on her lap. She is smiling and is looking straight ahead at the camera. There are small losses to the tintype on the lefthand top and bottom corners.

Section VTo Be a Woman

Enslaved women relied upon great physical and mental strength to endure the inhumanity of breeding, sexual violence, hard labor, and maternal loss.

There has ben one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you.

Harriet Newby, to her husband Dangerfield Newby, 1859

Photograph of woman and child

Woman and child, Edisto Island, South Carolina, ca. 1862

The Mothers

Photograph of woman and child

Woman and child, Edisto Island, South Carolina, ca. 1862

For an enslaved woman, motherhood was precarious. Before their children were even born, African American mothers understood that their enslaved children faced a harsh life. Mothers worked through pregnancy, and many babies did not survive their first year. Enslaved women often had to leave their newborns to work in the fields or to nurse the children of their enslavers. Once the children grew, they could be sold away.

Generations of Enslavement

Enslaved mothers gave birth to enslaved children. However, the men, women, and children who endured slavery passed on much more. Enslaved families made their children’s lives more bearable by fashioning furniture, clothing, quilts, and toys out of available materials. With each generation, they left powerful lessons about what mattered most. What people share, and how they share, deeply impacts the future. Through their stories, songs, memories, and personal artifacts, they proved that the human voice lives on. They showed that the love of family, friends, and strangers heals.

"During slavery it seemed like your children belong to everybody but you," Caroline Hunter recalled. Delia Garlic agreed. "I could tell you ‘bout it all day, but even then you couldn’t guess de awfulness of it."

A wooden cradle made by an enslaved person consisting of 5 wooden boards nailed together to form a five-sided bed with open top on 2 rockers. The long sides are sloped, and the short sides have a rounded top edge.

Cradle, ca. 1830

Metal shackle connected by a four link chain to a pair of metal loops. Shackle has a small hole for a key. Key (.2) consists of as thin piece of metal with small loop at end the faces forward. A flat loop is found at the opposite end of the key.

Shackles

This is a handstitched long-sleeved dress with a full skirt made from a balanced plain-weave printed cotton. The sleeves are gathered at the back shoulder seam and the shoulder seam is dropped in the back. The bodice is gathered at the front waist and has a neck band with no collar. Both the neck band and the waist band are fussy cut to display the printed design. Piping is attached at the armholes and along the bottom of the waistband. The skirt is gathered at the front hips and the back with a flat panel along the center front waist. On the proper back bodice, three (3) glass buttons are sewn on the left side of the back opening (placket), with four (4) button holes on the right side. At the waist, two (2) decorative buttons are sewn on the right side of the opening, without corresponding button holes on the left side. The hem is turned up 3 1/2". The bodice and sleeves are lined with muslin, while the skirt is unlined. The printed pattern on the fabric is four (4) colors and black, with a base color of reddish brown, on top of which is a repeating pattern of columns of red roses alternating with columns of diamonds and clubs on a cream background inside a black, orange, and red border.

Dress Made by an Unidentified Enslaved Woman, 1840–1860

Life

This is a handstitched long-sleeved dress with a full skirt made from a balanced plain-weave printed cotton. The sleeves are gathered at the back shoulder seam and the shoulder seam is dropped in the back. The bodice is gathered at the front waist and has a neck band with no collar. Both the neck band and the waist band are fussy cut to display the printed design. Piping is attached at the armholes and along the bottom of the waistband. The skirt is gathered at the front hips and the back with a flat panel along the center front waist. On the proper back bodice, three (3) glass buttons are sewn on the left side of the back opening (placket), with four (4) button holes on the right side. At the waist, two (2) decorative buttons are sewn on the right side of the opening, without corresponding button holes on the left side. The hem is turned up 3 1/2". The bodice and sleeves are lined with muslin, while the skirt is unlined. The printed pattern on the fabric is four (4) colors and black, with a base color of reddish brown, on top of which is a repeating pattern of columns of red roses alternating with columns of diamonds and clubs on a cream background inside a black, orange, and red border.

Dress Made by an Unidentified Enslaved Woman, 1840–1860

Adults taught children that one of the greatest acts of resistance was to embrace the joys life can bring. They taught self-esteem and self-expression, in part, through adornment. Taking a small cut of inexpensive cloth, they sewed fine clothing to reflect their sense of self-worth. They made necklaces by piecing together seeds and dyeing them rich colors. Food, stories, songs, and prayers all taught children who they were and how much they were loved.

Work

Women were valuable on the slave market because of their sexual and reproductive potential. Enslaved women who demonstrated the ability to give birth brought high prices. Young women and girls marketed as sex slaves or fancies to white men sold for as much as five times the amount as field hands.

A slave girl was expected to have children as soon as she became a woman. Some of them had children at the age of 12 or 13 years old.

Hilliard Yellerday, c.a. 1937

Photograph of J. Marion Sim's tools

Gynecological Surgical Instruments, ca. 1852

Enslavement

Photograph of J. Marion Sim's tools

Gynecological Surgical Instruments, ca. 1852

Enslaver Dr. J. Marion Sims became famous as the father of American gynecology. Sims made his fortune after experimenting on ten enslaved women over four years without using anesthesia. He operated on Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsy multiple times, demonstrating complete disregard for their dignity and pain. Medical experimentation on enslaved African Americans was commonplace.

Tintype of Emmaline, a formerly enslaved woman. Emmaline is pictured seated in front of a studio backdrop. She wears a skirt, jacket and gloves of the same dark fabric. The jacket has a single row of small buttons up the center. She also wears a white collar with a dark ribbon, earrings, and a small hat. Her proper right arm is down by her side and her proper left hand is on her lap. She is smiling and is looking straight ahead at the camera. There are small losses to the tintype on the lefthand top and bottom corners.

Tintype of Emmaline, ca. 1853

Tintype of Emmaline, a formerly enslaved woman. Emmaline is pictured seated in front of a studio backdrop. She wears a skirt, jacket and gloves of the same dark fabric. The jacket has a single row of small buttons up the center. She also wears a white collar with a dark ribbon, earrings, and a small hat. Her proper right arm is down by her side and her proper left hand is on her lap. She is smiling and is looking straight ahead at the camera. There are small losses to the tintype on the lefthand top and bottom corners.

Tintype of Emmaline, ca. 1853

Emmaline, purchased at age 14 in New Orleans, was a wedding present for wealthy enslaver William Montgomery’s 16-year-old bride. As an enslaved woman she was forced to nurse and raise 14 Montgomery children, also considered her enslavers. This image of Emmaline helps to humanize the story of so many enslaved African American women who were commodified, subjected to physical violation, and deprived of their womanhood.