Children's Lives Under Slavery
Digital History ID 486
James W.C. Pennington
In 1849, James C.W. Pennington, the minister of a Presbyterian Church in New York City and the recipient of a degree from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, published a narrative of his life that revealed the astonishing news that he was a fugitive slave and a former blacksmith from Maryland. In his account of his life, Pennington offers the following reflections on the impact of slavery upon slave children.
My feelings are always outraged when I hear [ministers] speak of "kind masters,"- - "Christian masters,"- - "the mildest form of slavery,"- - well fed and clothed slaves," as extenuations of slavery; I am satisfied they either mean to pervert the truth, or they do not know what they say. The being of slavery, its soul and body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle; the cart- whip, starvation, and nakedness, are its inevitable consequences to a greater or less extent, warring with the dispositions of men....
Another evil of slavery [is]...the want of parental care and attention. My parents were not able to give any attention to their children during the day. I often suffered much from hunger and other similar causes. To estimate the sad state of a slave child, you must look at it as a helpless human being thrown upon the world without the benefit of its natural guardians. It is thrown into the world without a social circle to flee to for hope, shelter, comfort, or instruction. The social circle, with all its heaven- ordained blessings, is of the utmost importance to the tender child; but of this, the slave child, however tender and delicate, is robbed.
There is another source of evil to slave children, which I cannot forbear to mention here, as one which early embittered my life, -- I mean the tyranny of the master's children. My master had two sons, about the ages and sizes of my older brother and myself. We were not only required to recognize these young sirs as our young masters, but they felt themselves to be such; and, in consequence of this feeling, they sought to treat us with the same air of authority that their father did the older slaves.
Another evil of slavery that I felt severely about this time, was the tyranny and abuse of the overseers. These men seem to look with an evil eye upon children. I was once visiting a menagerie, and being struck with the fact, that the lion was comparatively indifferent to every one around his cage, while he eyed with peculiar keenness a little boy I had; the keeper informed me that such was always the case. Such is true of those human beings in the slave states, called overseers. They seem to take pleasure in torturing the children of slaves, long before they are large enough to be put at the hoe, and consequently under the whip.
We had an overseer, named Blackstone; he was an extremely cruel man to the working hands. He always carried a long hickory whip, a kind of pole. He kept three or four of these in order, that he might not at any time be without one.
I once found one of these hickories lying in the yard, and supposing that he had thrown it away, I picked it up, and boy- like, was using it for a horse; he came from the field, and seeing me with it, fell upon me with the one he then had in his hand, and flogged me most cruelly. From that, I lived in constant dread of that man; and he would show how much he delighted in cruelty by chasing me from my play with threats and imprecations. I have lain for hours in a wood, or behind a fence, to hide from his eye....
When I was nine years of age, myself and my brother were hired out from home; my brother was placed with a pump- maker, and I was placed with a stone- mason. We were both in a town some six miles from home. As the men with whom we lived were not slaveholders, we enjoyed some relief from the peculiar evils of slavery. Each of us lived in a family where there was no other Negro.
The slaveholders in that state [Maryland] often hire the children of their slaves out to non- slaveholders, not only because they save themselves the expense of taking care of them, but in this way they get among their slaves useful trades. They put a bright slave- boy with a tradesman, until he gets such a knowledge of the trade as to be able to do his own work, and then he takes him home. I remained with the stonemason until I was eleven years of age: at this time I was taken home. This was another serious period in my childhood; I was separated from my older brother, of whom I was much attached; he continued at his place, and not only learned the trade to great perfection, but finally became the property of the man with whom he lived, so that our separation was permanent, as we never lived nearer after, than six miles.
Source: The Fugitive Blacksmith or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington (2nd ed.; London, 1849).
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