The Southern Heritage Preservation Group, aptly named by Brooks Simpson as “The Gift That Keeps On Giving,” is at it again. The group’s owner [to his credit] posted a message questioning the popular view among white southerners that slaves were loyal and happy. He says, in part, that “we were ‘sold a bill of goods’ when it came to the supposed idyllic relationship between owner and slave.” Well, that ignited a small firestorm.
Here we have the first defense of slavery, ignoring the massive threat of violence that faced slaves every day. “Cooking did not just involve the preparation of food; it also demanded finesse to work with the mistress every day. The rewards were great if the cook maintained a successful relationship; the cook’s family ate — or at least tasted — the variety of foods prepared for the gentry table; they may have received extra clothing, blankets, or shoes for her family. But punishments could be severe or even horrifying if the cook disappointed the mistress of the house. Burned or wasted foods might bring on a whipping. Worse yet, cases of slave cooks poisoning their masters were known and gravely feared in the white community. Punishment for such an accused cook meant death.” [http://www.gunstonhall.org/georgemason/slavery/slaves.html] Retribution for poisoning or otherwise harming an “owner” or the “owner’s” family was both swift and severe. This brings up the question posed by blogger Alan Skerritt in another forum as to whether or not there was such a thing as a “good” slave owner. There were slave owners who treated slaves better than other slave owners, but a “good” slave owner is one who would set the slaves free, because slavery by definition is mistreatment of a person.
If the first response was a gingerly defense of slavery, the next one is all-out. This one purports to use religion to justify enslaving people. Six people in the group “Liked” this posts: Kari Elizabeth Hobbs, Mike Arnold, Art Miller, Waymond Greenfield, Confederate Cracka, and Jim Ballinger. In his follow-up he talks derisively of the “abolitionist position” and recommends Robert Lewis Dabney’s defense of slavery. The follow-up was “Liked” by six people: Art Miller, Glenn Green, Confederate Cracka, John Stones, Waymond Greenfield, and Jim Ballinger. Our next comment is another defense of slavery, claiming “those that painted slavery as cruel were in the minority. The majority of people interviewed said they were better off under slavery.” Oh, really? Four people “Liked” her comment, John Stones, Jim Ballinger, Waymon Greenfield, and Confederate Cracka. Next is “Confederate Cracka,” who identifies questioning the loyalty of slaves as “Yankee propaganda.” Two people “Liked” this comment, Joey Nelson and Art Miller, who commented “Ditto CC.”
This particular slavery defender has searched through the WPA Slave Narratives to find a former slave speaking well of slavery and “Ole Massa.” That’s what passes for historical research and analysis among neoconfederates.
One has to have a huge grain of salt when reading the slave narratives. Eugene Genovese discussed this in his book, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made:
“If the slave narratives were to be taken at face value, the moonlight-and-magnolias interpretation of slavery might appear to stand up reasonably well. However many reports we find of ‘de mean massa,’ we are flooded with those of ‘de good massa’ and of ‘de bestes’ massa in de worl’.’ Less ebullient ex-slaves also denied mistreatment and insisted that their masters, if not especially generous or lovable, behaved decently. Occasionally, a balanced estimate emerges, laconically delivered: ‘Some of us had good owners and some of us had bad. … ‘ Martin Jackson of Texas, who had had life fairly easy as the son of a cook with the Confederate army, clear-headed and articulate at the age of ninety, warns us of one of the pitfalls in the narratives:
” ‘Lot of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering.’ ” [Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, pp. 123-124]
Another factor to take into account is that the slave narratives were conducted in the 1930s, 70 years after slavery had been abolished.
These former slaves were interviewed 71-73 years after they were freed, and they were predominantly children when they were freed.
When they were freed:
28% of them were at ages 0-9.
47% of them were at ages 10-19.
14% of them were at ages 20-29.
3% of them were at ages 30-39.
0.3% of them were at ages 40-49.
8% were not given.
When they were interviewed:
0 were younger than 74.
18% were 74-79.
49% were 80-89.
18% were 90-99.
7% were 100 and over.
8% were not given.
[David Thomas Bailey, “A Divided Prism: Two Sources of Black Testimony on Slavery,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol XLVI, No. 3, August, 1980, p. 385]
House slaves tended to be treated more like members of the family than field slaves, so their experiences would be completely different, and children never felt the full brunt of slavery.
Those aren’t the only problems with the WPA Narratives.
“Interviews were conducted in seventeen states during the years 1936-1938 with approximately two thousand ex-slaves. Two-thirds of those interviewed were age fifteen or younger at emancipation; almost all of the remainder were in their late teens or twenties in 1865. Members of this group, therefore, were over eighty years of age when interviewed and more than seventy years removed from the events they were discussing. The ex-slaves were not randomly selected for interviewing; they were either volunteers or previously known to the interviewer. Therefore, the interviews cannot be used with statistical precision. The interviewers were, for the most part, untrained, but they were given general instructions which included not influencing the viewpoing of the informant, withholding their own view of slavery, and recording all stories ‘as nearly word-for-word as is possible,’ but to avoid dialect spelling where it would confuse the reader. The interviews were recorded in the interviewer’s handwriting, not via taperecorder, and later were typewritten.” [Thomas F. Soapes, “The Federal Writers’ Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source,” Oral History Review, 1977, p. 33]
There are, of course, several problems associated with these interviews:
“The first and most important question one must raise about these sources is whether the interview situation was conducive to the accurate communication and recording of what the informants remembered of slavery. In this regard, it should be noted that black interviewers were virtually excluded from the WPA staffs in all of the southern states except Virginia, Louisiana, and Florida. Discrimination in employment led to a distortion of information; during the 1930s caste etiquette generally impeded honest communication between southern blacks and whites. … Traditionally, any white man who is not ‘with’ black folks is inevitably viewed as being ‘against’ them. Anyone who doubts this should read the essay by William R. Ferris, Jr., on the problems he encountered while collecting oral lore in Mississippi in 1968. During his interviewing Ferris found that “‘It was not possible to maintain rapport with both Whites and Blacks in the same community, for the confidence and cooperation of each was based on their belief that I was ‘with them’ in my convictions about racial taboos of Delta society. Thus when I was ‘presented’ to Blacks by a white member of the community, the informants regarded me as a member of the white caste and therefore limited their lore to non-controversial topics. Blacks rarely speak openly about their society with Whites because of their vulnerability as an oppressed minority. … As the group in power, Whites can afford to openly express their thoughts about Blacks, whereas the latter conceal their feelings toward Whites as a means of self-preservation.'” [John W. Blassingame, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol XLI, No. 4, November, 1975, pp. 481-482]
Prof. Blassingame continues, “Since many of the former slaves still resided in the same area as their masters’ descendants and were dependent on whites to help them obtain their old-age pensions, they were naturally guarded (and often misleading) in their responses to certain questions. Frequently the white interviewers were closely identified with the ancien régime; on occasion they were the grandsons of the blacks’ former masters.” [Ibid., p. 482]
The answers cannot be separated from the racial climate of the times. There was tremendous pressure to give the “right” answers. Indeed, there are cases where the interviewers actually refused to accept the “wrong” answers and tried to ask leading questions to get the ex-slaves to say something nice about their time in slavery.
“A Georgia interviewer, for example, was disturbed by the responses of Nancy Boudry to her questions:
“‘Nancy’s recollections of plantation days were colored to a somber hue by overwork, childbearing, poor food, and long working hours. “‘Master was a hard taskmaster,’ said Nancy. “‘I had to work hard, plow and go and split wood jus’ like a man. Sometimes dey whup me. Dey whup me bad, pull de cloes off down to de wais’–my master did it, our folks din’ have overseer.’
“‘Nancy, wasn’t your mistress kind to you?’
“‘Mistis was sorta kin’ to me, sometimes. But dey only give me meat and bread, didn’ give me nothin’ good–I ain’ gwine tell no story.’
“‘But the children had a good time, didn’t they? They played games?’
“‘Maybe dey did play ring games, I never had no time to see what games my chillun play, I work so hard.'” [Ibid., pp. 482-483]
“Many of the WPA interviewers consistently referred to their informants as darkeys, [n-word]s, aunteys, mammies, and uncles. Reminiscent as these terms were of rigid plantation etiquette, they were not calculated to engender the trust of the blacks. Rather than being sensitive the white interviewers failed to demonstrate respect for the blacks, ignored cues indicating a tendency toward ingratiation, and repeatedly refused to correct the informants’ belief that the interviewer was trying to help them obtain the coveted pension. Not only did most of the whites lack empathy with the former slaves, they often phrased their questions in ways which indicated the kinds of answers they wanted.” [Ibid., p. 483]
And this was by far not the only weakness found in the interviews. There were cases of deliberate distortions made by the local WPA editors in southern states, deliberately editing out references to harsh treatment of slaves by masters.
“A second weakness of the WPA interviews is that many of them are not verbatim accounts. The informants’ stories were often edited or revised before they were typed and listed as official records. Even when the former slave’s views are purportedly typed in his own words, the interview may have been ‘doctored,’ certain portions deleted without any indication in the typescript, and his language altered. … The best evidence on the alteration of interviews appears in the words of Roscoe E. Lewis and a Georgia interviewer, J. Ralph Jones. In 1936 and 1937 Jones conducted five interviews
which were returned to the state office of the WPA. Three of the five transcribed by the state office are virtually identical to the copies that Jones retained. The other two were significantly reduced in length and seriously distorted.
“Jones’s interviews with Rias Body and Washington B. Allen were edited to delete references to cruel punishments, blacks serving in the Union Army, runaways, and blacks voting during Reconstruction. Jones had two interviews with W. B. Allen, and the second one is recorded in practically identical words in his record and the WPA typescript. The WPA typescript of the first interview, however, lists Allen’s date and place of birth incorrectly and does not include 1,700 words which appear in Jones’s record of the interview. About half of the section excluded from the WPA typescript referred to slave traders, the religious life of the slaves, the tricks they played on the patrollers, and the songs they sang. While the typescript refers to the kind treatment Allen received from his owners, Jones’s records show that he spent a great deal of time talking about the hard work and cruel floggings characteristic of the plantation. The WPA transcript gives the impression that Allen spoke in dialect, using such words as ‘fetched,’ ‘de,’ ‘dis,’ ‘chilluns,’ and ‘fokes.’ But in his records Jones observed that Allen ‘uses excellent English. … ‘
“J. Ralph Jones’s experience was not unique. The same kinds of distortions appear in the typescripts of the Virginia WPA.” [Ibid., pp. 484-485]
As already brought up, the ex-slaves were very young when they were freed, and the interviews were conducted over 70 years after the events. Additionally, these former slaves as a group were most probably not representative of slaves in the United States. These are other factors that distort the picture one sees from the interviews.
“A third factor which led to distortion of the WPA interviews was the average age of the informants; two-thirds of them were at least eighty years old when they were interviewed. And, since only 16 percent of the informants had been fifteen years or older when the Civil War began, an overwhelming majority could only describe how slavery appeared to a black child. Because all of the blacks were at least seventy-two years removed from slavery there was no sense of immediacy in their responses; all too often they recalled very little of the cruelty of bondage. A good way of determining the impact of age on the responses of former slaves is to compare the WPA interviews with the hundreds conducted by northern journalists, soldiers, missionaries, and teachers during and immediately after the Civil War. These informants were still close to bondage, and consequently they remembered far more of the details of slavery than the WPA respondents. … Since the average life expectancy of a slave born in 1850 was less than fifty years, those who lived until the 1930s might have survived because they received better treatment than most slaves. Taken at face value, there seems to have been a bias in many states toward the inclusion of the most obsequious former slaves. This is especially true when most of the informants had spent all their lives in the same locale as their former master’s plantation. Since the least satisfied and most adventuresome of the former slaves might have migrated to northern states or cities after the Civil War, the WPA informants may have been atypical of antebellum slaves. Geographically, the WPA collection is also a biased sample. Although 90,266 of the South’s 3,953,760 slaves (23 percent) lived in Virginia, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky in 1860, only 155 blacks from those states were included among the 2,194 published interviews (7 percent of the total). Consequently, the upper South (and especially the border states) is underrepresented. On the other hand, while Arkansas and Texas had only 293,681 or 7 percent of southern slaves in 1860, the 985 black informants in these states constituted 45 percent of all former slaves interviewed by the WPA.” [Ibid., pp. 486-487]
If one reads the South Carolina interviews of former slaves at face value, one would see virtually no mistreatment. This changes, however, for former South Carolina slaves who had moved to another state. “It is significant, for example, that former South Carolina slaves who were interviewed in Georgia had a far different view of bondage than those who were interviewed in South Carolina.” [Ibid., pp. 489-490]
And if one reads what was recorded by black interviewers, one gets a very distinctly different view:
“The former slaves who talked to black interviewers presented an entirely different portrait of their treatment from what they told white interviewers. Black scholars at Hampton Institute, Fisk University, and Southern University conducted approximately nine hundred interviews with ex-slaves between 1929 and 1938. The interviews they received run directly counter to the South Carolina image of planter paternalism. More important, none of the volumes of interviews conducted by whites reveal as much about the internal dynamics of slave life as these 882 accounts. The informants talked much more freely to black than white interviewers about miscegenation, hatred of whites, courtship, marriage and family customs, cruel punishments, separation of families, child labor, black resistance to whites, and their admiration of Nat Turner.” [Ibid., p. 489]
Kevin Levin has an outstanding example of the differences one can find in interviews of the same person here.
So one can easily see there are many problems associated with relying on the WPA Slave Narratives to give an accurate picture of slavery, including deliberate deception on the part of the white editors in the southern states.
“Uncritical use of the interviews will lead almost inevitably to a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation as a paternalistic institution where the chief feature of life was mutual love and respect between masters and slaves.” [Ibid., p. 490]
Over the years several former slaves wrote or dictated autobiographies, telling the story of their experiences in slavery and how they either escaped from slavery or gained their freedom. The autobiographers came from nearly all decades, except the 1860s, and none of them were older than 79 when they wrote. Most of them were younger than 60 when they wrote. Most of the autobiographers were also adults over 20 years old when they gained their freedom, as well as being from a good cross section of slave states. Their stories were written far closer to the events they were writing about, and they had, as a group, far more experience in slavery than the WPA interviewees.
These also have to be carefully evaluated, since escaped slaves would naturally have a negative view of slavery [imagine that] and some may have been influenced to accentuate the most negative aspects and in some cases might have exaggerated the negativeness.
Also, there were indeed some masters who treated their slaves as well as could be expected, considering they owned these people. After all, a slaveowner who was careful enough to allow his slaves to live stood to make a healthy profit from capital gains alone.
But likewise they didn’t hesitate to be as cruel as necessary to one slave if it meant keeping the others in line.
Not every master had a Simon Legree overseer, but also not every master was a Jefferson Davis. Slavery was a cruel system, even when the owners tried to be humane. Slaves were sold off and families were split apart on the auction block. Women were raped. The slave had nothing at all to really call his own, because anything he nominally “owned” was totally at the discretion of the master.
“Amid the myriad ways in which slave owners interfered in the lives of their slaves, two created particular resentment. Most basic was punishment, and slaves used this criterion above all others in rating their owners: a ‘good’ master was one who rarely or never subjected his people to corporal punishment while a ‘bad’ master was one who did so incessantly, cruelly, and for trifling or nonexistent offenses. Slave owners spanned the full range from gentle humanitarians who abjured use of the lash and whose fortunate charges were sometimes termed ‘free’ by neighboring slaves to sadistic psychopaths like Hoover, the North Carolinian who beat his pregnant slave Mira ‘with clubs, iron chains, and other deadly weapons’ over a period of four months, during which he also overworked, starved, and ‘burnt her’ until she died.
“The vast majority of slave owners fell between these extremes: convinced that their slaves were like children, these masters took it for granted that maintaining orderly behavior required the threat and at least the occasional application of ‘correction.’ At the same time, like proverbial parents, they gave lip service–and sometimes more than that–to the need to avoid excessive severity and to make sure that slaves understood under what circumstances they would be punished. ‘Much whipping indicates a bad tempered, or inattentive manager, & will not be allowed,’ declared Hammond in a typical instruction. ‘The Overseer must never on any occasion–unless in self-defence–kick a negro, or strike with his hand, or a stick, or the butt-end of his whip.’ Throughout the South, publicists denounced as un-Christian masters who mistreated those placed under their authority, and stressed the need for ‘moderate’ predictable punishment for offenses that were clearly spelled out. Such guidelines were dictated not simply by the much-vaunted ‘love’ that masters felt for their slaves, but also by intensely practical considerations: observant slave owners learned by experience that continual, random, or extreme punishment was likely to be counterproductive, producing confusion and seething resentment rather than cheerful and orderly deportment.
“Nevertheless, almost all masters punished, most more than they would have been willing to admit. By far the most common punishment was whipping, and it was a rare slave who totally escaped the lash. A whipping could be a formal occasion–a public, ritualized display in which a sentence was carried out in front of an assembled throng–or a casual affair in which an owner, overseer, or hirer impulsively chastised an ‘unruly’ slave. Either way, the prevalence of whipping was such a stark reminder of slave dependence that to the bonds people (and abolitionists) the lash came to symbolize the essence of slavery.
“Many owners resorted to additional methods to inflict pain and maintain order, methods that included stocks, private jails, and public humiliations, as well as fines and deprivation of privileges, and that less commonly embraced harsher physical tortures. Bennett H. Barrow, who denounced his neighbor as ‘the most cruel Master I ever knew of’ for castrating three of his slaves, devised numerous measures to keep his own people in line, including confinement in stocks, ‘whipping frolics’ in which all his slaves were subjected to the lash, and humiliating men by making them wear women’s clothing or exhibiting them ‘during Christmas on a scaffold in the middle of the Quarter & with a red Flannel cap on.’ Slave patrols (or ‘paddyrollers’), which whites formed to maintain local order, aroused particular fear among blacks, because these groups lacked any incentive to avoid unnecessary cruelty and often in fact engaged in erratic acts of violence against defenseless slaves. ‘Paddyrollers was mean ez dogs,’ recalled one ex-slave pointedly.
“Despite the widespread expressions of repugnance for arbitrary and excessive punishment, on a day-to-day basis flesh-and-blood masters–and overseers–were rarely able to adhere to the kind of rational and restrained punitive system that their most articulate spokesmen advocated; the despotic power of master over slave that inhered in slavery, together with the close contact between master and slave that inhered in American slavery, undercut the evenhanded application of rules and regulations in slave punishment. It was simply too easy for whites to react to the innumerable annoyances that slave relations produced by striking out at those in their power, and slave narratives are filled with accounts of ‘unjustified’ punishment, administered haphazardly or without cause.” [Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877, pp. 120-122]
We see here another case of a slavery defender cherrypicking one of the WPA Narratives. Then, in between this defender’s posts we have a previous defender of slavery coming back taking Dabney as the truth and mounting another Biblical defense of slavery.
Yet another case of cherrypicking from the WPA Narratives.
Here’s another Biblical defense of slavery. This has two “Likes,” John Stones and Rudy Ray.
To his credit, Mr. Adams then provides some links to narratives, though he doesn’t attempt any actual analysis.
Here we have a truly repugnant racist saying African-Americans as a race are liars. This racist comment is “Liked” by Rudy Ray and Confederate Cracka. Now we see clearly why that person chose that particular screen name.
Here we see the anti-intellectualism among neoconfederates. Mr. Miller asks, “How do we know that they are facts and not prejudice [sic] websites and authors?” What he’s saying is “how do we know they aren’t prejudiced in the way we want them prejudiced?” But we can see those sites ourselves. They include Duke University, the Library of Congress, and Washington State University. Again, to his credit, Mr. Adams attempts to refute the ignorant claims, but he’s lacking in specific analysis of the narratives.
Now we see another person claiming that this is “bashing” confederates. He then provides the famous Frederick Douglass quote that Brooks Simpson has expertly taken apart. These folks have no historical literacy at all. To highlight that, we have the claim that thinking slavery is bad is merely projecting our 21st Century values on 19th Century people. These folks are really idiots. Have they heard of antislavery in the 19th Century? Have they heard of free states that abolished slavery? Have they heard of other countries in the world abolishing slavery? Maybe not. And then we have the height [or perhaps more accurately the depth] of anti-intellectualism, “several of your sites above have an institution of higher learning name attached. In view of current events, and with the actions of these liberal institutions, I highly suspect falsehoods and prejudice.” More like he highly suspects they eschew his falsehoods and his prejudice. Four people “Like” this comment, Rudy Ray, John Stones, Paul Serpaggi, and Confederate Cracka.
Here we see one individual claiming, “And UNC was one of the institutions that repressed Southern expression during Reconstruction. Why should we listen to the empty theories of their liberal fellows and professors of this liberal age?” Three people “Liked” that manifestation of ignorance: Hazel Bell, Art Miller, and Confederate Cracka. Mr. Miller chimed in, “They are truly dishing out the dung.” Three people, Paul Serpaggi, Hazel Bell, and of course, Confederate Cracka showed their ignorance by “Liking” this comment.
Once again, Mr. Adams makes an attempt to clarify, pointing out that the sites are repositories for the documents. To no avail, though:
Not every neoconfederate may be a racist, but the pervasiveness of racism among neoconfederates is palpable. Notice that only Mr. Adams opposed their claims, and he received no support from others in the group.