Slavery and the African American Experience

Ransom Bennett - Somerset Slave
Ranson Bennett - Somerset Slave

While North Carolina did not have the same investment in slavery as the Deep South, African Americans still suffered greatly in the Tar Heel state. During the antebellum period (between 1800 and 1860) the institution of slavery became more deeply entrenched in Southern society. Restrictive laws gripped North Carolina's enslaved people, and the state's free blacks fared little better.

In 1826, a law was passed forbidding free blacks to enter the state of North Carolina; and in 1835, they lost their right to vote, regardless of property holdings. Free blacks were further barred from preaching in public, owning a gun without special permit, selling liquor, and were not allowed to attend any public school. In 1861, the General Assembly passed a law ensuring that blacks were unable to own or control enslaved people.

The Great Barn - built by slaves at Stagville Plantation in 1860
The Great Barn - built by slaves at Stagville Plantation in 1860

Slaves, of course, were in the worst position. In 1830, state law prohibited anyone from teaching a slave to read or write; and the general legal position of blacks eroded significantly during the pre-war years. Homicide of a black person might go unpunished if committed by a white person.

As the sectional crisis between North and South deepened, enslaved people became more resistant and rebellious. The voice of Abolition was growing louder in the north, and one of North Carolina's own sons a free black named David Walker was one of the loudest. From Boston, Massachusetts, Walker published his Appeal in 1829, decrying the evils slavery and all those who supported it. Copies of Walker's Appeal circulated in North Carolina towns, causing fear and alarm among whites. Such fear intensified with the murderous uprising led by Nat Turner in southern Virginia in 1831, which caused widespread fear and panic among whites in North Carolina.

Slaves from Somerset Plantation
Slaves from Somerset Plantation

Somerset Place (Washington County), Stagville, and the holdings of the Benehan-Cameron families (Durham and Wake counties) were among North Carolina's largest plantations, with the largest slave populations. An example of a smaller plantation was Willis Cole's near the village of Bentonville (Johnston County). In August 1860, the 26-year-old planter had 23 slaves (and housed them in only three cabins). The Cole house and outbuildings were later destroyed during the Battle of Bentonville in 1865. But yeoman farmers were the majority, and had smaller numbers of slaves both field hands and domestic.

Despite the bondage, North Carolina's enslaved people (like others) refused to be broken. They survived and endured with a strong sense of family and religion. By 1860, the number of African Americans in North Carolina had reached 361,522 (up from 140,000 in 1800). Moreover, North Carolina's population of free blacks had reached 30,463 by 1860. Among the latter, furniture maker Thomas Day and educator John Chavis managed to achieve widespread recognition for their talents. Many lived in towns and pursued skilled occupations. But hard labor was the order of the day for most free blacks, who often toiled in agricultural duty alongside enslaved people.

Cotton, tobacco, and rice were labor-intensive cash crops for Southern planters, making slave labor a vital asset for accruing white wealth. Domestic servants were also a part of the system.

Living Historians portraying slave life at Somerset Plantation
Living Historians portraying slave life at Somerset Plantation

Conditions varied, but daily life for most slaves included rudimentary housing, bland if abundant food (made more palatable by resourceful cooks), inadequate clothing, and shoes that wore out quickly. Indeed, many went shoeless.

Though slaves were considered valuable property, their physical treatment was often poor. As human beings, their race was despised, oppressed, and considered inferior. Physical abuse of slaves was considered by whites merely as discipline. Forced separation of families was also common. In the 1820s and 1830s, thousands of North Carolina slaves were sold to new owners in the Deep South.

Living Historians portraying slave life at Somerset Plantation
Living Historians portraying slave life at Somerset Plantation

Oppression drew the enslaved community together, and knowledge of their African heritage strengthened the bonds between them. In the face of hardship, they found ways to preserve native African traditions and customs in their daily lives. Finding strength in religion, North Carolina slaves believed that God would one day deliver them from bondage.

The Gullah/Geechee culture with its combination of English and various African dialects began in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and spread as far north as the Cape Fear region of North Carolina (New Hanover and Brunswick counties). Rice plantations such as Orton thrived in this area until the mid-nineteenth century, and slaves from the rice-growing regions of West Africa (including Sierra Leone) were skilled in growing this difficult crop.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, the issue of expansion of slavery into the western territories hastened the country toward armed rebellion. As the war grew more bloody, with military setbacks for the Union in the Eastern Theatre, Lincoln issued his famous "war measure" in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation.

A thriving "Freedmen's Colony" was established on Roanoke Island as early as February 1862, during the Burnside Expedition and the Union occupation of eastern North Carolina. With the arrival of Federal troops, New Bern became a Mecca for freedom, as thousands of North Carolina slaves sought safety within Union lines. James City was established in 1863 as a camp for destitute former slaves, and the community persisted as a stronghold of black self-determination throughout the nineteenth century.

Smaller freedmen's camps were established at Beaufort, Carolina City, Washington, and Plymouth; and thousands of fugitive blacks were employed in building military fortifications around New Bern and other Federal-held areas.

In 1865, former slaves established Freedom Hill in Edgecombe County (on an unwanted floodplain). This community was later incorporated as Princeville in 1885, making it the oldest town in the country incorporated by African Americans.

Black soldiers eventually fought for the Union, and several regiments of "Colored Troops" (often former slaves) were raised in North Carolina.

In the fall of 1864, Southerners began a serious debate on whether to emanciptae their slaves and enlist them in the Confederate army. Not even the entrance of Sherman's invading army into North Carolina, however, could convince state policy makers to adopt such a "monstrous proposition."

Patrol Regulations - Tarboro, N.C.

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