To Be a Slave
Digital History ID 351
Under southern law, slaves were considered chattel property. Like domestic animals, they could be bought, sold, leased, inherited, and physically punished. Slaves were prohibited from owning property, testifying against whites in court, or traveling without a pass. Partially in response to abolitionist attacks on slavery, southern legislatures enacted laws setting minimum standards for housing, food, and clothing. These statutes, however, were difficult to enforce.
Slave marriages lacked legal sanction and as a result, slave families were extremely vulnerable to separation. The most conservative estimates indicate that at least 10 to 20 percent of slave marriages were severed by sale. Even more common was the sale of slave children. Well over a third of slave children grew up in households from which one or both parents were absent.
Even in instances in which marriages were not broken by sale, slave spouses often resided on separate plantations, owned by different individuals. On large plantations, one slave father in three had a different owner from his wife and could only visit his family at his master's discretion. On smaller holdings divided ownership occurred even more frequently. Just a third of the children on farms with 15 or fewer slaves lived in a two-parent family.
In the following letter, an unidentified slave writes to his mother to inform her that he will soon be forced to leave Virginia.
I take this opportunity of writing to you to let you know that I am still in Alexandria [Virginia]. I expect to start about next Tuesday. There is a young lady here that I am very much taken with and I think that my Master will buy her and take her out with us.... I do not think I can leave Virginia without carrying out a Virginia wife with me.... If I succeed in my undertakings I will send you all the good news when I get home.…
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: An unidentified slave to his mother
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