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How To> 19th c. Race Relations > Management of Negroes (Small farmer's view, 1851)

By A Small Farmer

Reprinted from Debow’s Review, Vol. XI October 1851

Although similar in some respects to the article by the anonymous Mississippi planter (reprinted in the October edition of the Monthly Virginia Defender), this letter to DeBow by "A Small Farmer" is especially noteworthy for what it reveals of the differences in approach to slave regulation between the large plantation owner and the small scale farmer. Near the end of his account, The writer voices his desire, which was no doubt shared by many others like him, to join the ranks of the plantation lords.

J. D. B. DeBow, Esq. - Your number for June contains an article upon this subject, and whilst I agree with your writer in the main, I have also some notions of my own, which you are at liberty to use.

The public may desire to know the age of the writer, the length of time he has been managing negroes, and how long he has tried the mode of management he recommends. It is sufficient to say, I have had control of negroes in and out of the field for thirty years, and have been carrying out my present system, and improving it gradually, for twenty years.

I do not deem it needful to follow "a planter," nor shall I strike a blow at book-farming or theories, as I am an advocate for both, believing that even an error has its advantages, as it will frequently elicit inquiry and a good article in reply, whereas a statement of facts will sometimes pass unnoticed.

Houseing[sic] for negroes should be good: each family should have a house, 16 by 18 feet in clear, plank floor, brick chimney, shingle roof; floor elevated 2 feet above the earth. There should be no loft, no place to stow away anything, but pins to hang clothes upon. Each house should be provided with a bed stead, cotton mattress, and sufficient bed-clothes for comfort for the heads of the family, and also for the young ones.

Clothing should be sufficient, but of no set quantity, as all will use, or waste what is given, and many be no better clad with four suits than others with two. I know families that never give more than two suits, and their servants are always neater than others with even four.

My rule is, to give for winter a linsey suit, one shirt of best toweling, one hat, one pair of shoes, a good blanket, costing $2 to $2.50, every other year (or I prefer, after trying three years, a comfort). In the summer, two shirts, two pair pants, and one straw hat. Several of my negroes will require two pair pants for winter, and occasionally even a third pair, depending mostly upon the material. Others require another shirt and a third pair of pants for summer. I seldom give two pair of shoes.

Food is cooked by a woman, who has the children under her charge. I do not regard it as good economy, to say nothing of any feeling, to require negroes to do any cooking after their day’s labor is over.

The food is given out daily, a half pound to each hand that goes to the field, large and small, water carriers and all; bread and vegetables without stint, the latter prepared in my own garden, and dealt out to the best advantage, endeavoring to have something every day in the year. I think four pounds of clear meat is too much. I have negroes here that have had only a half pound each for twenty years, and they bid fair to outlive their master, who occasionally forgets his duty, and will be a gourmand. I practice on the plan, that all of us would be better to be restrained, and the health is best subserved by not over-eating.

My cook would make cotton enough to give the extra one pound. The labor in making vegetables would make another pound. I say this to show I do not dole out a half pound per day from parsimony.

My hours of labor, commencing with pitching my crop, is from daylight until 12 M.; all hands then come in and remain until 2 o’clock, P.M., then back to the fields until dark. Sometime in May we prolong the rest three hours; and if a very hot day, even four hours. Breakfast is eaten in the field, half an hour to an hour being given; or they eat and go to work without being driven in and out - all stopping when my driver is ready.

I give all females half of every Saturday to wash and clean up, my cook washing for young men and boys through the week. The cabins are scoured once a week, swept out every day, and beds made up at noon in the summer, by daylight in winter. In the winter, breakfast is eaten before going to work, and dinner is carried to the hands.

I do not punish often, but I seldom let an offence pass, making a lumping settlement, and then correct for the servant’s remembrance. I find it better to whip very little. Young ones being rather treacherous in their memory, pulling an ear, or a sound box, I will bring every thing right. I am almost afraid I will subject myself to the "chimney corner theorist’s" animadversion, if I say more, but I will risk it. Put up a hewed log-house, with a good substantial door, lock and key, story 12 feet high, logs across above, so as to make a regular built jail. Have air holes near the ceiling well protected by iron bars. The first negro that steals, or runs away, or fights, or who is hard to manage in order to get a days work, must be locked up every night as soon as he comes in from work and turned out next morning; kept up every Sunday. Negroes are gregarious; they dread solitariness, and to be deprived from the little weekly dances and chit-chat. They will work to death rather than be shut up. I know the advantage, though I have no jail, my house being a similar one, yet used for other purposes.

I have a fiddle in my quarters, and though some of my good old brethren in the church would think hard of me, yet I allow dancing; ay, I buy the fiddle and encourage it, by giving the boys occasionally a big supper.

I have no overseer, and do not manage so scientifically as those who are able to lay down rules; yet I endeavor to manage so that myself, family and negroes may take pleasure and delight in our relations.

It is not possible in my usual crude way to give my whole plans, but enough is probably said. I permit no night-work, except feeding stock and weighing cotton. No work of any kind at noon, unless to clean out cabins, and bathe the children when nursing, not even washing their cloths.

I require every servant to be present each Sabbath morning and Sabbath evening prayers. In the evening the master or sometimes a visitor, if a professor, expounds the chapter read. Thus my servants hear 100 to 200 chapters read each year anyhow. One of my servants, a professor, is sometimes called on to close our exercises with prayer.

Owning but few slaves, I am probably able to do a better part by them than if there were one or two hundred. But I think I could do better if I had enough to permit me to systematize better.

I would keep a cook and a nurse. I would keep a stock feeder, whose whole duty should be to attend to stock in general, to clean out the stable, have troughs filled with food, so that the plow hands would have nothing to do but water, clean down, and tie up the teams. I would build a house large enough, and use it for a dance house for the young, and those who wish to dance, as well as for prayer meetings, and for church on Sunday - making it a rule to be present myself occasionally at both and my overseer always. I know the rebuke in store about dancing, but I can not help it. I believe negroes will be better disposed this way than any other. I would employ a preacher for every Sabbath. One of my negroes can read the Bible, and he has prayer meeting every Sabbath at four o’clock, P.M. - all the negroes attend regularly, no compulsion being used.

I have tried faithfully to break up immorality. I have not known an oath to be sworn for a long time. I know of no quarreling, no calling harsh names, and but little stealing. "Habits of amalgamation" I can not stop; I can check it, but only in the name. I am willing to be taught, for I have tried everything I know.

Yours, truly,

A Small Farmer

P.S. - I endeavor to have regularity on going to bed; forbid sitting or lying by the fire after bed time. I require fire makers to be up before day in winter, but forbid getting up before day, trotting off to the field, and waiting for daylight, as some persons are said to do. I forbid my driver from keeping hands in the field when there is an appearance of rain. 

My negroes get baits of fresh meat occasionally, but always seasoned high with red pepper. At times I give molasses, sugar, coffee, and flour, generally lying out about $10 per hand for such luxuries.