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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.

Image of enslaved people picking cotton

Section IITo Cultivate

To Cultivate

Image of enslaved people picking cotton

Cotton is King, Plantation Scene in Georgia

Much of America’s most fertile farmland from Maryland to Texas was cultivated with the knowledge and skill of enslaved African Americans. Many died from the hard labor. Under harsh conditions, they turned swamps into fields, controlled rivers with large dams and levees, and expertly planted and harvested tobacco, indigo, rice, cotton, sugar, and corn. Their labor fed, clothed, and financed America.

Image of enslaved people picking cotton

Cotton is King, Plantation Scene in Georgia

A draw hoe with a wooden handle. The hoe is mounted perpendicularly to the handle through an eye at the base of the hoe head. The hoe blade has rounded shoulders and a straight cutting edge. The handle is long and rounded. Near the top of the handle, the wood is split diagonally.

Grub Hoe

A large, woven, wooden basket for carrying cotton. This basket has been constructed using a basic under-and-over-weaving pattern with flat, wide basket strands made from strips of medium toned wood. Throughout the body of the basket, weavers and spokes vary between approximately .75” and 1” in width. At the bottom of the basket, the weavers become increasingly narrow towards the center of the base, ranging from approximately .3” to .5” in width.  The basket is roughly circular in shape, with two basket strands on the exterior and one on the interior securing the rim with wrapped metal wire. The basket has two, square, wooden handles, notched and bent at each corner and held in place by the weave of the basket body and metal wire, which has been double-wrapped in some places to provide additional support to the handles.

Cotton Basket


With a strong family and a patch of land (hidden or in plain sight), a skilled enslaved farmer could grow something to eat and sell. African Americans sold corn for chickens, chickens for pigs, and pigs for cows. Each small surplus could help maintain a family by providing better food, medicine, or clothing.

All them rice field been nothing but swamp. Slavery people cut canal and dig the ditch . . . All been cleared up for plant rice by slavery people.

Gabe Lance, 1937

Sites of Slavery

The mark of slavery was everywhere in America. Out of swamps and forests, enslaved people cleared and reconstructed the rural landscape. In urban settings, they built entire cities. Enslaved people built railroads, constructed canals, dug the intercoastal waterway, designed beautiful homes, and crafted fine furniture. They lived in cities, small towns, on farms, and on huge plantations. Each experience was different and left a small opening for freedom and ingenuity. Regardless of the place, the threat of violence or punishment was never far away.