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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.

Photograph of The Hughes Family

Section IVTo Nurture

The hearts of enslaved women and girls forced to live with their enslavers remained with their families.

Photograph of The Hughes Family

Enslaved African American women outside Drayton’s House, May 1862

To Nurture

Photograph of The Hughes Family

Enslaved African American women outside Drayton’s House, May 1862

Living and working in an enslaver’s home allowed enslaved African Americans to hear the latest news and spread it throughout their community. But enslavers were quick to punish, and domestic workers were often close at hand. She "used to beat me like a dog," recalled Delia Garlic. Enslaved women and girls continually faced the threat of sexual violence. They were forced to live with and care for the people who enslaved them, but their hearts remained with their families.

A child's circular skirt in a floral print with a pleated flounce on the hem. The main fabric is a plain weave natural fiber fabric with a cream ground and a repeating pattern of small four-petal flowers in red, purple, blue, and tan. The skirt is predominantly hand-sewn. It has a waistband made from an undyed bast fiber fabric with the floral print gathered and whip stitched to the waistband. The skirt is more closely gathered on the back. There is a slit at the center back that divides the waistband completely. There is no attached closure method, but rust staining at the back opening of the waistband suggests the skirt was pinned to close. The bottom of the skirt has an extra flounce of the floral print that has a series of pleats around the skirt in sets of three alternating with straight sections. This flounce is machine-sewn at the top and 1 1/2 inches from the bottom using blue thread that is possibly a synthetic fiber. The bottom and top edges of the flounce are bound with blue fabric sewn on the bias. The interior of the skirt is lined only behind the extra flounce with a hand-pinked undyed bast fiber fabric. There is a previous repair on the back proper right side of the skirt where a panel of light brown synthetic fabric is hand sewn on the interior of the skirt from the gathering at the waist to the top of the older linen lining on the bottom.

Lucy Lee Shirley’s Skirt, ca. 1860

Life

A child's circular skirt in a floral print with a pleated flounce on the hem. The main fabric is a plain weave natural fiber fabric with a cream ground and a repeating pattern of small four-petal flowers in red, purple, blue, and tan. The skirt is predominantly hand-sewn. It has a waistband made from an undyed bast fiber fabric with the floral print gathered and whip stitched to the waistband. The skirt is more closely gathered on the back. There is a slit at the center back that divides the waistband completely. There is no attached closure method, but rust staining at the back opening of the waistband suggests the skirt was pinned to close. The bottom of the skirt has an extra flounce of the floral print that has a series of pleats around the skirt in sets of three alternating with straight sections. This flounce is machine-sewn at the top and 1 1/2 inches from the bottom using blue thread that is possibly a synthetic fiber. The bottom and top edges of the flounce are bound with blue fabric sewn on the bias. The interior of the skirt is lined only behind the extra flounce with a hand-pinked undyed bast fiber fabric. There is a previous repair on the back proper right side of the skirt where a panel of light brown synthetic fabric is hand sewn on the interior of the skirt from the gathering at the waist to the top of the older linen lining on the bottom.

Lucy Lee Shirley’s Skirt, ca. 1860

A seamstress took great care and attention with this skirt made for Lucy Shirley when she was about six years old and enslaved in Loudon County, Virginia. Most likely a mother, grandmother, or caregiver used her talents to make sure that Lucy had a fine pin-tucked skirt that fit her position—a little girl, well loved.

A taupe-colored bonnet with cross-stitched brim and chin straps believed to have been worn by Martha Miller Barnes while she was enslaved as a field laborer by E.A.J. Miller on his plantation near Waterproof, Louisiana.

The bonnet is a linen and cotton blend plain weave fabric. It has a short skirt that is cinched on the underside with a tied string. There is a decorative flap over the gathered portion that buttons on one side with a mother-of-pearl button. There are self-fabric short ties sewn at each interior side. The front of the bonnet has three layers, the brown linen/cotton blend is used as the facing and the lining, and there is an additional layer of  plain undyed muslin that is peeking out on the underside of the seam. The front is heavily stitched with off-white thread to make it stiff. It is machine sewn. There are some minimal brown spot stains concentrated in a scattered manner on the underside of the brim. The brim is creased at the center from being folded.

Martha Barnes’s Bonnet

A taupe-colored bonnet with cross-stitched brim and chin straps believed to have been worn by Martha Miller Barnes while she was enslaved as a field laborer by E.A.J. Miller on his plantation near Waterproof, Louisiana.

The bonnet is a linen and cotton blend plain weave fabric. It has a short skirt that is cinched on the underside with a tied string. There is a decorative flap over the gathered portion that buttons on one side with a mother-of-pearl button. There are self-fabric short ties sewn at each interior side. The front of the bonnet has three layers, the brown linen/cotton blend is used as the facing and the lining, and there is an additional layer of  plain undyed muslin that is peeking out on the underside of the seam. The front is heavily stitched with off-white thread to make it stiff. It is machine sewn. There are some minimal brown spot stains concentrated in a scattered manner on the underside of the brim. The brim is creased at the center from being folded.

Martha Barnes’s Bonnet

Bonnets like this family heirloom provided little relief from the sun during long days working in the fields. Enslaved women served as field hands and domestic workers. After working long days, they found ways to care for their families before tending to their own needs.

My maw was cookin’ in the house . . . she warn’t afraid. Wash Hodges tried to whop her with a cowhide and she’d knock him down and bloody him up.

Lulu Wilson, ca. 1938

A handsewn tucked petticoat with embroidered detailing. The white petticoat has a tie closure at the waist. The lower half of the petticoat has multiple tiers of tucked detailing alternating with rows of embroidered flora. Along the hem is more elaborate embroidery with a scalloped edge. The fabric is discolored with small areas of loss. There is a handwritten label sewn in the interior waistband.

Tucked and Embroidered Petticoat

Work

A handsewn tucked petticoat with embroidered detailing. The white petticoat has a tie closure at the waist. The lower half of the petticoat has multiple tiers of tucked detailing alternating with rows of embroidered flora. Along the hem is more elaborate embroidery with a scalloped edge. The fabric is discolored with small areas of loss. There is a handwritten label sewn in the interior waistband.

Tucked and Embroidered Petticoat

As dressmakers, milliners, and seamstresses, enslaved women produced much of the fine fashion and beautiful needlework associated with elite southern white women. They produced ornate heirloom quality textiles, including delicate whitework and lace. Highly skilled, they passed on these trades to their children when they could. Their skills were highly valued and featured prominently in runaway ads and on auction broadsides. Such expertise enabled some women to work for themselves and, over time, to buy their way out of slavery.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley, Activist Seamstress

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley, born in 1818 in Virginia, was an enslaved seamstress. Keckley purchased freedom for her son George and herself in 1855. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and became the personal dressmaker and confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She was also a philanthropist and activist devoted to the cause of freedom.

This 1/6 plate tintype photograph depicts a young black woman with a white baby. The young woman is seated, wearing a dark colored dress and light colored lace collar. She stands the baby up on her lap. The baby wears a long, light-colored dress and has tinted pink cheeks. The tintype is housed in a wooden case with gilt highlighting, gold colored metal framing and red velvet lining.

Enslaved Woman Holding a White Child, ca. 1865

This 1/9 plate cased ambrotype depicts a white baby being held for the camera by a black man whose shoulder and hands are visible, but is otherwise unseen. The baby's cheeks have been tinted pink. The photograph is in a decorative copper-colored metal oval frame with a floral, star, and scroll motif and is held in a brown case with red textile lining. There are decorative impressions on the front and back of the case, which fastens with a small metal hook and eye closure along one edge.

Enslaved Man Holding a White Child ca. 1855–1860

Raising Children of Enslavers

This 1/6 plate tintype photograph depicts a young black woman with a white baby. The young woman is seated, wearing a dark colored dress and light colored lace collar. She stands the baby up on her lap. The baby wears a long, light-colored dress and has tinted pink cheeks. The tintype is housed in a wooden case with gilt highlighting, gold colored metal framing and red velvet lining.

Enslaved Woman Holding a White Child, ca. 1865

This 1/9 plate cased ambrotype depicts a white baby being held for the camera by a black man whose shoulder and hands are visible, but is otherwise unseen. The baby's cheeks have been tinted pink. The photograph is in a decorative copper-colored metal oval frame with a floral, star, and scroll motif and is held in a brown case with red textile lining. There are decorative impressions on the front and back of the case, which fastens with a small metal hook and eye closure along one edge.

Enslaved Man Holding a White Child ca. 1855–1860

Enslaved African American men and women were often forced to raise children of their enslavers. They served as wet nurses, playmates and guardians of the child enslavers. Despite being forced to neglect their own children, overworked enslaved parents found ways to show care for their loved ones.

Small house whip made of a thick piece of leather that tapers outward from the square base and is cut into multiple tails at the end. The leather is a dark grey color and flat. There are several leather strips at the end of the whip, with the opposite end consisting of a cut leather handle. The leather is extremely stiff and cracking throughout.

Cowskin Whip, ca. 1850

Illustration of white woman whipping an enslaved person

Enslaver using a whip

Enslavement

Small house whip made of a thick piece of leather that tapers outward from the square base and is cut into multiple tails at the end. The leather is a dark grey color and flat. There are several leather strips at the end of the whip, with the opposite end consisting of a cut leather handle. The leather is extremely stiff and cracking throughout.

Cowskin Whip, ca. 1850

Illustration of white woman whipping an enslaved person

Enslaver using a whip

White enslaving women used special whips designed specifically for ladies, often called the cowskin. Notorious for their cruelty, women enslavers hit, whipped, or burned those who displeased them. Even worse, they sometimes blamed and punished enslaved women and young girls who were sexually assaulted by white men in the house. As Frederick Douglass recalled, "She would draw that cowskin and give them a blow, saying, ‘move faster.’"