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.
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.
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.