Editor’s note: This is the third piece in a series by Larry L. Rowe on the history of slavery and the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley before the Civil War, and Booker T. Washington’s boyhood heroes after the war.
The most important story of slavery is the adaptation of people held in slavery as they formed committed relationships with marriages, adoptions and extensive kin networks. Against all odds, they connected widely to people who were beloved by their immediate families but not always related to them.
Families were the center of all life for education, governance, vocational training and socialization. People held in slavery volunteered for work for extra goods to improve the family diet, clothes and household goods. Families guided the courting practices, marriage rituals, child-rearing practices and the division of domestic labor. They were the centers for resistance to abusive slavers.
The ultimate control of people held in slavery was the threat that a family member could be sold away from the family — forever. In the Revolutionary period, sales of slaves occurred from time to time. But after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794 and cotton production soared in the 19th century, slaves were sent by the thousands from Virginia and other Upper South states to Deep South plantations.
The machine could clean field cotton rapidly by combing out seeds, stems and other impurities. Cotton fabric was the most popular commodity in the world because it was more comfortable than wool, flax and other fabrics of the day. The fast development of the cotton and slave industry created one of the largest forced migrations of any peoples in history.
Cotton exports made the American cotton industry vital to world trade, and, with high volume sales to Northern textile mills, it started the American Industrial Revolution. Raw cotton became more than 60 percent of the nation’s goods sold outside the United States. Historian Sven Beckert wrote in 2014, in “Empire of Cotton” for The Atlantic, that, by the late 1850s, cotton grown in the South made up 77 percent of all cotton consumed in Britain, 90 percent of the cotton used in France and 92 percent of the cotton used in Russia.
Historian Edward E. Baptist, in his 2014 book “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” found that cotton created many support industries, from agriculture and transportation to manufacturing, shipping and banking. Economic support activities and mass slave migration spread across the Deep South and into new Western territories, completely reorganizing the American economy.
In the North, cotton capitalism, with industrialization and urbanization, changed the national economy, politics and population growth. Slavery was a key force for America’s westward expansion, and, in the South, new states were created that would rebel against the Constitution approved before they were states.
Baptist calculated that, while baled cotton was only 5 percent of the goods produced in America in 1836, the cotton and slavery industry as a whole had indirect impacts that affected as much as 50 percent of the nation’s goods and services. Antebellum cotton became the business of America, supported by the lives and raw, hard work of hundreds of thousands of people in slavery. Baptist found that, while these workers comprised only 6 percent of the American workforce, they were the drivers of the American economy.
When people were sold as commodities in the slave trade, they were cut off from family life. The high number of persons sold, especially young people, was devastating to them and to their families left behind. Many enslaved men and women had to adapt to new lives on Deep South cotton plantations by starting over with new spouses and new kin networks. Their families would never know anything about the sold persons — where they were, what and how they were doing or if they survived the long and dangerous trails of tears away from the Upper South.
Virginians sold into the slave trade forever lost all contact with loved ones.
Slave sales were used deliberately by slavers to signal their absolute authority to assure what they expected to be the “perfect” submission of slaves. Slave sales are the story lines of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Kentucky state song “My Old Kentucky Home.” In each, a beloved slave is “sold downriver” to sugarcane fields to pay slaver debts.
The prices for people sold in 1856 help explain the dramatic shifts in slave populations from the Upper South to the Deep South. Men 18 to 25 years old were sold for very high prices — $950 to $1,300.
The sale of one slave could pay for the purchase of a small farm or home. Boys 5 feet tall were priced $850 to $950 and smaller boys up to 4 feet tall sold for $375 to $450. Young women sold for $700 to $1,000, and girls who were 5 feet tall sold for $750 to $850. If they were only 4 feet tall, girls sold for $350 to $452. Especially beautiful young women or girl slaves would be sold for much, much higher prices.
A special brand developed for “Virginia Negroes” to signal a superior product — compliant and ready-for-work. Prices paid for Virginians fluctuated. In the 1830s, prices were as high as $1,250 per person and fell to below $700 in the 1840s, then rose again in the 1850s to as much as $1,450.
The denial of stable, enduring family structures is a fundamental horror of slavery. Informal, hoped for, prayed for, slave families could not withstand the forces of white domination that could, with no notice, separate them from their loved ones. Children in slave families were livestock, like their parents, and could be separated at any time. In Virginia, an infant could be sold separately from the infant’s mother.
Historian Eugene D. Genovese, in his 1974 book, “Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” wrote in favorable terms about the lives of some children held in slavery. They played games and were not forced to work until perhaps 7 to 12 years old, he wrote. Early in life, they might play with sons and daughters of their slavers. Enslaved children played at being whipped using switches and being auctioned off, acknowledging the reality for the adults in their lives — and for their own futures.
Genovese found from post-war slave narratives that some slave children had to eat from feeding troughs, like pigs. The quantity of food was always the same, and the children had to scramble to get as much as they could. Time and time again, ex-slaves referred to eating like pigs. Booker T. Washington wrote, in “Up from Slavery,” that slave children were treated like livestock. They did not have meals. Without referring to children eating at troughs — which his mother, as farm cook, would certainly never have allowed — he wrote: “Meals were gotten by the children very much as dumb animals get theirs.” Feedings from troughs were to show slave children every day that they were livestock animals, not human beings.