slaves_in_cotton_field_1I learned many things about the history of African American slavery as I did research for my middle grade novel about the Underground Railroad, Dark Enough to “See the Stars. When I started studying the institution of American slavery I didn’t understand the differences between house slaves and field slaves. Let me share some of what I learned.

House slaves served the plantation family.  Among some of their duties, women cooked, cleaned, and sewed. Men worked as stable hands, footmen, and butlers. Their tasks seemed less physically demanding than those of field slaves who labored to plow, plant, and harvest the plantation crops.  House slaves often lived in a room at the big house. This meant they had more privacy, more space, more heat, and better protection from the elements. They had opportunity to sneak rations from the larder and therefore ate a more nutritious diet. House slaves wore uniforms appropriate for their higher station and visibility to guests. One could say that in a caste system of slavery, house slaves were recognized by owners and slaves alike as better off.

On the other hand, field slaves lived in shacks usually referred to as the quarters. These simple wood huts had no insulation from heat or cold. Meager portions of corn meal and fatback were doled out monthly. Ten people might be crowded in one small shack. Bedding was scarce, and clothing rationed once a year. An overseer roused the slaves before dawn to work the fields. They didn’t return to their quarters until well after dark. Slaves who didn’t work hard enough were whipped. Compared to house slaves, field slave worked harder and received less. Many, but not all, aspired to raise their standard of living by becoming a house slave.

What were some drawbacks of being a house slave? They had more prestige and easier living conditions but had fewer days off. Plantation owners gave field slaves a full week off at Christmas, often referred to as Big Times. They were allowed to rest on Sunday.Often pray meetings or parties took place on Saturday night. However, house slaves had to be available to the family day and night. The plantation owners entertained guests during Christmas. This meant more cooking and cleaning on holidays. Sundays required preparing a large afternoon meal. Proximity to the family could also be a drawback. Slaves often developed bonds with the owners and knew the family tensions. Also, they were encouraged to report on field slaves who stole and otherwise disobeyed. This gave house slaves the reputation of being snitches, and many of them were. Owners rewarded informants with special gifts.

So working as a house slave wasn’t easy living. Whether you were a field slave or a house slave, you still lived in bondage.


    2 replies to "How House Slaves and Field Slaves Differed"

    • Shirley J Singleton

      Very interesting. I always wondered if house slaves had it better. I would think they were more easily taken advantage of sexually.. reason why there were/are so many mixed blacks and blacks passing for white.

      • Cindy Noonan

        Yes, unfortunate, but true.

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