Slave Communities

Slavery undermined all ties between slaves, yet slaves in Mississippi, as elsewhere, formed many communities—communities of work, kinship, struggle, religious fellowship, to name but a few. These communities, in turn, were grounded in neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were a geographic terrain—a place marked by boundaries and a state of mind that mapped an imagined community. The geographic boundaries of neighborhood varied from a single plantation in frontier regions to adjoining farms and plantations in more populous areas, with enslaved men and women extending ties of work, family, resistance, and religion across slaveholders’ property lines. The slave population increased sixfold (from 32,814 to 195,211) as planters poured into the state between 1820 and 1840. By then, slaves accounted for more than half the population (52 percent).

The social ingenuity of slaves made work an exercise in community building. Under an exacting system of labor that kept them under the scrutiny of slaveholders from sunup to sundown, slaves managed to forge communities of house servants and field laborers. Coordinating work in the field—opening the ground, planting seeds, and covering them, for example—required plow and hoe gangs to work together on tasks, the pace of their labor, and their bodily movements. Where the sexual division of labor assigned men and women to separate tasks or field gangs, bondpeople formed communities of gender. Women formed bonds of affinity while making or washing clothes. Men honed their sense of manhood in work—for example, hoisting a four-hundred-pound bale onto a wagon—even if there were women on virtually every plantation who picked as much cotton as any man. When gangs left the fields, they often went to work for themselves. In the evenings, on Saturday afternoons, and on Sundays, they performed paid overwork for owners, made handicrafts, tended gardens, and raised surpluses. Some of their earnings went to purchase goods that enlivened sociability—tobacco, whiskey, or clothes for parties or Sunday wear. While labor kept most slaves at home, some worked to create communities beyond the plantation. Unsupervised teamsters carted plantation produce between town and country and camped together at night. Men and women made neighborhood ties doing paid labor on adjoining plantations and mending fences and roads. Slaves worked hard to turn the centripetal effects of labor into a centrifugal force making neighborhoods.

Kinship simultaneously marked enslaved people’s most intimate circle of community and engendered larger communities. Owners sold slaves as punishment or to repay debts, bequeathed them at death or on the marriage of planters’ children. Yet most slaves probably lived in nuclear families—in a cabin with husband and wife, parents and children. Many lived in extended families—in the same cabin or on the same plantation with family members of three generations (grandparents, parents, children) or bilateral kin (adult siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins). These family ties were sustained by reproductive labor, obligations of solidarity, and subtle practices of recognition and honor. Family members took meals together, worked garden plots, pooled earnings and property, and bequeathed and inherited property. Nurses, midwives, healers, and the women who received their ministrations formed close circles. As slaves took spouses, reared children, and otherwise cultivated bonds of kinship on adjoining places, they multiplied and deepened ties to other families in the neighborhood.

Family ties were undergirded by a range of intimate relations, mediated by neighborhood communities. In the absence of legal recognition of marriage between slaves, men and women were compelled to lend permanence to their bonds by informal modes of recognition. Couples in the early stages of their relationship were said to be “taking up,” while slaves distinguished between spouses in terms of “living together” and “marriage,” which was reserved for couples united in weddings. Slaves exalted weddings because the ceremonies gave bonds between spouses the imprimatur of owners, fellow slaves, and neighborhoods. Names routinely provided a method of marking family ties. Many families used the surnames of their parents, not of their current owners. Neighbors, in turn, acknowledged family ties by using these surnames for cohabiting and married couples alike. Slaves used terms of kinship such as “Aunt” and “Uncle” as terms of address for people unrelated by direct descent. Thus, slaves relied on neighborhood communities to shore up their most intimate relations and kinship to incorporate newcomers into neighborhoods.

Slaves also formed communities in everyday socializing of all sorts. In off hours, they went visiting in the quarters and on adjoining plantations; from time to time, especially before and after the cotton-picking season, slaves held clandestine dances, balls, weddings, and other “big times.” Slaves also assembled for religious purposes, attending church in town or more commonly in the neighborhood. Slaves often convened to hear white missionaries as well as slave preachers and held their own meetings at night. Men and women courted, conspired, displayed finery and other property, and made reputations as cooks, dancers, and fiddlers as well as in verbal arts, singing, preaching, and storytelling. As neighbors told stories of their pasts, their exploits, and their struggles and gossiped about couples, friends, and kinfolk, they gave voice to expectations and the common sense of their neighborhood. Convening in the quarters and the yard, in hollows, ravines, and woods, slaves carved out neighborhood places and sites of neighborhood memory. As they did the work of putting on these affairs, clearing underbrush for a hush arbor or a dance floor, cooking food, playing instruments, keeping lookout, they laid the groundwork for others to reciprocate and to do it all again. Social occasions offered moments when slaves, by word and deed, could consolidate and extend the bonds holding neighborhood communities together.

Slave communities were necessarily communities of struggle. Slaves’ status as human property challenged every enduring tie. Increases in burdens of labor obliged work groups to pull together against new demands and exacting discipline. Women banded together in struggles particular to them, and so did men. Women battled slaveholders who exploited them sexually, whereas men were especially prone to run away and often did so together. Men and women contended to keep up kinship ties and for access to adjoining plantations. The pass system, which slaveholders employed to regulate mobility they could not wholly prevent, reflected slaves’ success in their campaign to claim a neighborhood terrain. In many neighborhoods, husbands and wives belonging to different owners extracted standing passes to spend three nights together each week. By the same token, slaves forged neighborhoods into a terrain of struggle. Men and women enlisted allies in the neighborhood when running away, stealing, conspiring to lay out, or hiding property. Making neighborhoods a terrain of solidarity also separated insiders from outsiders. Slaves often captured runaways from outside the neighborhood. In the spring of 1861 rebels in southern Adams County along Second Creek recruited men to strike slaveholders in the neighborhood, but some slaves rejected entreaties from recruiters outside their neighborhood. Defining neighborhood as a terrain of solidarity also drew a boundary between communities.

Slaves formed multiple, overlapping, mutually reinforcing communities. They identified with different communities in different ways at different times. Migrants had deep attachments to families in the Upper South yet formed new families in Mississippi. Patterns of work, family obligation, and struggle sorted out communities of women and men. Religious communities transcended boundaries of time and space whenever slaves felt close to God. Neighborhoods were hardly slaves’ only community but had pride of place as the everyday nexus of communities. These communities coexisted but by no means did so seamlessly. Conflicting individual interests, conflicting loyalties to multiple communities, and the constraints of neighborhood grounds pulled enslaved men and women in different directions. Yet the communities slaves created, in their multiplicity, flexibility, and durability, gave order to slave society, undercut owners’ supposed mastery, and even subverted slavery itself. With emancipation, freedpeople began defining freedom by building on the foundation of communities built in slavery.

Further Reading

  • John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (rev. ed., 1979)
  • Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (1998)
  • Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (2007)
  • Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-Americana Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977)
  • Walter F. Pitts Jr., Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora (1993)
  • Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Slave Communities
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 29, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018