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

By a Mississippi Planter

Reprinted from the Commercial Review, June 1851 Vol. X

The regulation and treatment of the slave labor force on plantations was obviously a subject of considerable interest and importance to many of the readers of DeBow’s Commercial Review, and the editor catered to that interest. The selection below, by an anonymous planter, stresses the benefits that accrued to master and slaves when the latter were"treated with humanity," but with an ye to economy of expense.

[we regard this as a practical and valuable paper for the planters, and hope that those of them who have been experimenting in the matter, will give us the results] —DeBow

Some very sensible and practical writer in the March No. of "The Review," under the "Agricultural Department," has given us an article upon the management of negroes, which entitles him to the gratitude of the planting community, not only for the sound and useful information it contains, but because it has opened up this subject, to be thought of, written about, and improved upon, until the comforts of our black population shall be greatly increased, and their services become more profitable to their owners. Surely there is no subject which demands of the planter more careful considerations than the proper treatment of his slaves, by whose labor he lives, and for whose conduct and happiness he is responsible in the eyes of God. We very often find planters comparing notes and making suggestions as to the most profitable modes of tilling the soil, erecting gates, fences, farm-houses, machinery, and, indeed, everything else conducive to their comfort and prosperity; but how seldom do we find men comparing notes as to their mode of feeding, clothing, nursing, working, and taking care of those human beings intrusted to our charge, whose best condition is slavery, when they are treated with humanity, and their labor properly directed! I have been a reader of agricultural papers for more than twenty years, and while I have been surfeited, and not unfrequented disgusted, with those chimney-corner theories (that have no practical result, emanating from men who are fonder of using the pen than the plough-handle) upon the subject of raising crops, and preparing them for market, I have seldom met with an article laying down general rules for the management of negroes, by which their condition could be ameliorated, and the master be profited at the same time. One good article upon this subject, would be worth more to the master than a hundred theories about "rotations" and scientific culture; and infinitely more to the slave than whole volumes dictated by a spurious philanthropy looking to his emancipation. For it is a fact established beyond all controversy, that when the negro is treated with humanity, and subject to constant employment without labor of thought, and the cares incident to the necessity of providing for his own support, he is by far happier than he would be if emancipated, and left to think, and act, and provide for himself. And from the vast amount of experience in the management of slaves, we can not deduce some general, practicable rules for their government, that would add to the happiness of both master and servant? I know of no other mode of arriving at this great desideratum, than for planters to give to the public their rules for feeding, clothing, housing, and working their slaves, and of taking care of them when sick, together with their plantation discipline. In this way, we shall be continually learning something new upon this vitally interesting question, filled, as it is, with great responsibilities; and while our slaves will be made happier, our profits from their labor will be greater, and our consciences be made easier.

I would gladly avail myself of the privilege of contributing my mite to the accomplishment of this end, by giving my own system of management, not because there is anything novel in it - that it is better, or differs essentially from that of most of my neighbors - but because it may meet the eye of some man of enlarged experience who will necessarily detect its faults, and who may be induced to suggest the proper corrections, and for which I should feel profoundly grateful. To begin, then, I send you my plantation rules, that are printed in the plantation book, which constitute a part of the contract made in the employment of the overseer, and which are observed so far as my constant and vigilant superintendence can enforce them. My first care has been to select a proper place for my "Quarter," well protected by the shade of forest trees, sufficiently thinned out to admit a free circulation of air, so situated as to be free from the impurities of stagnant water, and to erect comfortable houses for my negroes. Planters do not always reflect that there is more sickness, and consequently greater loss of life, from the decaying logs of negro houses, open floors, leaky roofs, and crowded rooms, than all other causes combined; and if humanity will not point out the proper remedy, let self-interest for once act as a virtue, and prompt him to save the health and lives of his negroes, by at once providing comfortable quarters for them. There being upwards of 150 negroes on the plantation, I provide for them 24 houses made of hewn post oak, covered with cypress, 16 by 18, with close plank floors and good chimneys, and elevated two feet from the ground. The ground under and around the houses is swept every month, and the houses, both inside and out, white-washed twice a year. The houses are situated in a double row from north to south, about 200 feet apart, the doors facing inwards, and the houses being in a line, about 50 feet apart. At one end of the street stands the overseer’s house, workshops, tool house, and wagon sheds; at the other, the grist and sawmill, with good cisterns at each end, providing an ample supply of pure water. My experience has satisfied me, that spring, well, and lake water are all unhealthy in this climate, and that large under-ground cistern, keeping water pure and cool, are greatly to be preferred. They are easily and cheaply constructed, very convenient, and save both doctors’ bills and loss of life. The negroes are never permitted to sleep before the fire, either lying down or sitting up, if it can be avoided, as they are always prone to sleep with their heads to the fire, are liable to be burnt, and to contract disease; but beds with ample clothing are provided for them, and in them they are made to sleep. As to their habits of amalgamation and intercourse, I know of no means whereby to regulate them, or to restrain them; I attempted it for many years by preaching virtue and decency, encouraging marriages, and by punishing, with some severity, departures from marital obligations; but it was all in vain. I allow for each hand that works out, four pounds of clear meat and one peck of meal per week. Their dinners are cooked for them, and carried to the field, always with vegetables, according to the season. There are two houses set apart at mid-day for resting, eating and sleeping, if they desire it, and they retire to one to the weather-sheds or the grove to pass this time, not being permitted to remain in the hot sun while at rest. They cook their own suppers and breakfasts, each family being provided with an oven, skillet, and sifter, and each one having a coffee-pot (and generally some coffee to put in it,) with knives and forks, plates, spoons, cups, &c., of their own providing. The wood is regularly furnished them; for, I hold it to be absolutely mean, for a man to require a negro to work until daylight closes in, and then force him to get wood, sometimes half a mile off, before he can get a fire, either to warm himself or cook his supper. Every negro has his hen-house, where he raises poultry, which he is not permitted to sell, and he cooks and eats his chickens and eggs for his evening and morning meals to suite himself; besides, every family has a garden, paled in, where they raise such vegetables and fruits as they take a fancy to. A large house is provided as nursery for the children, where all are taken at daylight, and placed under the charge of a careful and experienced woman, whose sole occupation is to attend to them, and see that they are properly fed and attended to, and above all things to keep them as dry and as cleanly as possible, under the circumstances. The suckling women come in to nurse their children four times during the day; and it is the duty of the nurse to see that they do not perform this duty until they have become properly cool, after walking from the field. In consequence of these regulations, I have never lost a child from being burnt to death, or, indeed, by accidents of any description; and although I have had more than thirty born within the last five years, yet I have not lost a single one from teething, or the ordinary summer complaints so prevalent amongst the children in this climate.

I give to my negroes four full suits of clothes with two pair of shoes, every year, and to my women and girls a calico dress and two handkerchiefs extra. I do not permit them to have "truck patches" other than their gardens, or to raise anything whatever for market; but in lieu thereof, I give to each head of a family and to every single negro on Christmas day, five dollars, and send them to the county town under the charge of the overseer or driver, to spend their money. In this way, I save my mules from being killed up in summer, and my oxen in winter, by working and hauling off their crops; and more than all, the negroes are prevented from acquiring habits of trading in farm produce, which invariably leads to stealing, followed by whipping, trouble to the master, and discontent on the part of the slave. I permit no spirits to be brought on the plantation, or used by any negro, if I can prevent it; and a violation of this rule, if found out, is always followed by a whipping, and a forfeiture of the five dollars next Christmas.

I have a large and comfortable hospital provided for my negroes when they are sick; to this is attached a nurse’s room; and when a negro complains of being too unwell to work, he is at once sent to the hospital, and put under the charge of a very experienced and careful negro woman, who administers the medicine and attends to his diet, and where they remain until they are able to work again. This woman is provided with sugar, coffee, molasses, rice, flour and tea, and does not permit a patient to taste of meat or vegetables until he is restored to health. Many negroes relapse after the disease is broken, and die, in consequence of remaining in their houses and stuffing themselves with coarse food after their appetites return, and both humanity and economy dictate that this should be prevented. From the system I have pursued, I have not lost a hand since the summer of 1845, (except one that was killed by accident,) nor has my physician’s bill averaged fifty dollars a year, notwithstanding I live near the edge of swamp of Big Black River, where it is thought to be very unhealthy.

I cultivate about ten acres of cotton and six of corn to the hand, not forgetting the little wheat patch that your correspondent speaks of, which costs but little trouble, and proves a great comfort to the negroes; and have as few sour looks and as little whipping as almost any other place of the same size.

I must not omit to mention that I have a good fiddler, and keep him well supplied with catgut, and I make it his duty to play for the negroes every Saturday night until 12 o’clock. They are exceedingly punctual in their attendance at the ball, while Charley’s fiddle is always accompanied with Ihurod on the triangle, and Sam to "pat."

I also employ a good preacher, who regularly preachers to them on the Sabbath day, and it is made the duty of every one to come up clean and decent to the place of worship. As Father Garritt regularly calls on Brother Abram, (the foreman of the prayer meetings,) to close the exercises, he gives out and sings his hymn with much unction, and always cocks his eye at Charley, the fiddler, as much as to say, "Old fellow, you had your time last night; now it is mine."

I would gladly learn every negro on the place to read the bible, but for a fanaticism which, while it professes friendship to the negro, is keeping a cloud over his mental vision, and almost crushing out his hopes of salvation.

These are some of the leading outlines of my management, so far as my negroes are concerned. That they are imperfect, and could be greatly improved, I readily admit; and it is only with the hope that I shall be able to improve them by the experience of others, that I have given them to the public.

Should you come to the conclusion that these rules would be of any service when made known to others, you will please give them a place in the "Review."

A Mississippi Planter.