The Work of Slavery

Thursday, October 25, 2012
7:00 pm - 8:30 pm (EST) Enter Classroom Enter Forum


Heather Williams
Professor of History,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
National Humanities Center Fellow

About the Seminar

No matter when it was done, from the colonial period through the Civil War, or where it was done, from New England to Georgia, slave labor was hard, often dangerous work. Yet in North America the tasks slaves performed and the amount of control they exercised over them varied greatly. Slaves built boats, crafted chairs, cooked meals, forged iron, steered ships, washed clothes, and plowed fields. Some worked in gangs under the watchful eye and ready whip of an overseer, while others worked largely on their own with little supervision. Still others, hired out, worked much as free labor did. How did work shape the lives of the enslaved? What do the varying degrees of supervision — and varying degrees of freedom tell us about the position of slaves in American society and their relations with their owners?

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Seminar Recording

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Assigned Readings

  1. Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, by Deborah Gray White. (excerpt)
  2. Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter, by Theodore Rosengarten: with the Journal of Thomas B. Chaplin. (excerpt)
  3. Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Charles Joyner. (excerpt)

Suggested Additional Resources

    From the National Humanities Center's primary source collection,
    The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, Enslavement:




    From the National Humanities Center's TeacherServe®, Freedom's Story: Teaching African American Literature and History.

    "The Varieties of Slave Labor," by Daniel C. Littlefield.

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