Growing Up in Slavery

Slave children took on adult roles and had experiences that today’s children could never imagine. Five-year-old slave children might work in the tobacco fields while others picked cotton and cleared ditches. Food rations from masters increased as children grew into full-time workers. As a result, their parents often pushed them into work earlier for the benefit of the family.

Children also faced the constant possibility that they could be separated from their parents. Slaves could be sold to other masters or worked to death. The memories of these separations haunted slaves even after they were freed. Slave Charles Ball was separated from his mother at age five. Fifty years later he remembered her pleadings with the slave owners and said that the “terrors of the scene return to him with painful vividness.”

Some slave children were spared separation from their families because members of the master’s family became attached to them as childhood playmates. Other slaves benefited from having white fathers. Slave James Rapier was born to a black mother and a white owner/father in 1839. Rapier’s father provided him with a college education and openly acknowledged James as his son.

When aid from outside the slave quarters could not be found, slave families and the larger slave community seldom failed to help anyone in need. For example, Mingo White helped his mother spin thread in the evenings so she would not be whipped for not finishing her heavy workload. For those who had no blood relations, the slave community became a substitute family. The slave community felt responsible for all its members, not just blood relatives. Slave children were taught to address all older slave men and women with kin titles like mother or aunt to prepare them in case a sale or death separated them from their parents. Even in the absence of parents, slave children would not be abandoned by the adult slaves who were left behind.