Archive for the ‘Slave Narratives’ Category

Free Slaves, Black Codes and Good Masters

FREE SLAVES

Despite the fact many books often contain some variation of the phrase “slaves were free,”  this statement is absolutely incorrect.  Slaves may have been free to leave the plantation, but in 1865 State Governments in the south enacted laws created to keep slaves in invisible chains.  These “Black Codes” were actually revised slave codes created to subjugate and exploit Black people in general, and they were strictly enforced.  The Black Codes are only one of the hundreds of reasons why it’s historically incorrect to refer to slaves as being free.  According to the Black Codes:

If former slaves failed to secure jobs they were charged with vagrancy and jailed.  Since they weren’t able to pay their fines,  local white authorities farmed them out to work on chain gangs.

Former slaves were prohibited from congregating in a group unless a white person was present.

Former slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write.

Many former slaves worked on farms, were paid meager wages and had their hours and duties strictly regulated by whites.  These are just a few of the laws Blacks were subjected to and if  they violated them Blacks were whipped or branded.

FORMER SLAVE INTERVIEWS

During the 1930s the WPA dispatched workers to interview former slaves and to record their experiences on tape.  I listened to some of these interviews a few years ago and heard white sounding male interviewers ask, “You’re master was good to you?”  These men were asking the slaves a leading question.  Were these interviewers trying to sway the slaves to say “yes?” Former slaves were being questioned by men who looked like their ruthless ex-captors who used guile  and trickery to exploit and deceive them.  Given this reality and the way the question is phrased, I don’t doubt a lot of former slaves said that their masters were good to them.  Nudging slaves to say that their masters treated them decently gives people the wrong impression that slavery wasn’t that horrible after all.

In that same vein, I heard what sounded like a white interviewer ask a former slave if her master was good to her.  She immediately said, “Yes.” He asked if she knew how to read.  She relied, “No.”   They conversed some more and again he asked if she knew how to read and again she said, “No.”  The woman told him she attended a church and that she sang.  He asked how she was able to remember all the songs and she  slipped up and said something about using a book.  Clearly she knew how to read, but she lied about that and most likely the “good master” bit because she didn’t know if this man, who resembled her master, was friend or foe and she wasn’t taking any chances.

I met someone who knew a man who had interviewed former slaves for the WPA.   I don’t know the WPA man’s race but some slaves detailed how cruelly the masters and their wives treated them.  When the WPA employee submitted that information to his white boss, the boss destroyed it.  How many others distorted,  sanitized and gave this type of Black history the deep six?