Interpreting Slave Owners’ Moments of Kindness and Brutality

Dear Readers,

I am sorry that there have been no substantial posts. Some of you know but many of you do not that 2012 has been a year of personal tragedies. I lost two cousins, my grandmother, and my mom in four months. I have had no interest in posting to the blog because of the sadness of the last month in particular. Nevertheless, I appreciate your patience over the last several weeks and hope those who have been following will not lose interest quite yet.

So to the point of this post. First, let me say that this is not a blog about my work as I made clear in the “About Me” section and it should be reiterated now. However, for this week’s post, I believe it will be necessary to discuss a part of my work. The topic of this post is how to balance the approach of discussing slaveowners’ moments of kindness and the brutality of slavery. I was privileged to serve as a panelist at the Virginia Association of Museums’ workshop in June 2012 where an audience member asked how we could handle these issues.

Often in my interpretations of history I have heard people say:

“Oh, [insert name of slaveholder] treated their slaves like family.”

“[Insert name of slaveholder] was nice to their slaves.”

“Slaves got food, shelter, and clothes. What more could they want?”

I’m not going to get into all of what is wrong with statements like those; but I am going to say, that historic sites owe it to the historical record and to a curious public, to be honest about the moments where slaveholders could be kind and those moments where they were not. I will say that it can be done where surviving records allow for information to be shared.

My friends, Matt (on the left) and Bill (on the right) and myself standing inside what was the location of a slave quarter along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

In 2008, I went to Monticello with some friends where I had an excellent Mulberry Row tour given by Marcia Mitchell. At the stable, Mitchell discussed Jefferson’s relationship with Jupiter, a personal servant and later hostler (horse handler), coachman, and stone cutter who traveled with Jefferson throughout Virginia and elsewhere. In fact, Jupiter died attempting to get to Jefferson despite his illness. Jefferson was disappointed regarding Jupiter’s death. The story could be told in isolation to make Jefferson appear to be a kindly man and that Jupiter loved him to the point of risking his life and losing it to get to him especially when repeated with Jefferson’s often quoted comment that it would be very difficult to get rid of slavery. However, Mitchell balanced Jupiter’s life and work with talking about the labors of other slaves.

What stuck out in my mind was Jefferson’s management of the nailery on Mulberry Row. For two years in the mid-1790s, Jefferson went to the nailery and weighed the iron rod in the morning and then weighed the nails produced from the iron at the end of the day. A few years later, in 1803, one of the young men who worked in the nailery, Cary, used a hammer to crack another slave in the head when he got irritated about a prank. Jefferson’s response was clear and Mitchell did not shy away from it. Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law “It will be necessary for me to make an example of him in terrorem to others….” He went on to say that Cary was to be sold either to the Deep South or “in any other quarter so distant as never more to be heard of among us. It would to the others be as if he were put out of the way by death.” (quoting from “Those Who Labor for My Happiness:” Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Lucia C. Stanton). However, the main point here is that Marcia knew the story and told the story to her audience.

In my own work, I am regularly involved with interpreting Richard Eppes (1824-1896) who owned a large plantation and 119 enslaved people by 1860. Eppes’ relationship with his gardener, James Madison Ruffin (1812-1876) was one that developed over the years into one of trust. Eppes trusted Madison to run errands for him in Richmond and Petersburg. The Eppes family traveled with Madison to the western Virginia springs. Madison before the Civil War traveled to Baltimore, Maryland with Dr. Eppes and then went unescorted to Philadelphia to deliver a horse to Eppes’ mother-in-law. In Philadelphia, Madison met up with Eppes again and traveled back to the plantation.

Additionally, Madison had the latitude to do things other slaves could not have and when Madison did not please Eppes, Eppes “lectured” Madison. However, Madison was not free of problems. He married Richard’s maid, Harriet, very shortly after he was bought. Together they had six children. Harriet also had children from before Madison’s purchase. Eppes recorded whipping some of Harriet’s children from her earlier husband as well as those with Madison.

Richard recorded other methods of the brutality and degrading aspects of slavery. So how do I interpret this alongside the story of Madison?

I simply discuss Madison’s relationship with Eppes but actively state “However, you should not believe that Eppes was always kind to everyone. Eppes’ relationship with other slaves was such that he noted that he personally whipped slaves with what he said was ‘violent exertion’ noting that he at times exhausted himself to the point of requiring rest. Eppes put Madison up to participating in whipping other enslaved laborers. Richard purchased several other slaves while he was the owner of the property and sold one man, whom he called a ‘boy’ (despite his being 21 years old) for $1490 in 1859. Additionally, he locked slaves in outbuildings, shaved half their head, denied people the right to marry who they wanted at times, and cut off access to food in an effort to force what he thought was appropriate behavior. He used the rivers as barricades to separate people for the length of time he chose. Eppes told his slaves that he believed they were ‘human beings’ but he also believed that they were in their proper status. His opinion of free blacks were that they were ‘lazy’ and ‘worthless.’”

This scene illustrates the common practice in the antebellum and wartime south of whipping enslaved people. This engraving is from Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: Author, 1849), page 115.

I highlight through comparisons how the Eppes family weathered the war and how the enslaved laborers he owned at the start of the war got through their escapes, enlistments with the Union navy, one enlistment with a US Colored Troop regiment, and the few who were forced to remain with the Eppes through Mrs. Eppes’ removal of some of the domestic servants when she left the plantation. Toward my wrap up I discuss Madison and Harriet’s wartime and post-war lives (since I hope y’all will visit the site I am not going to reveal everything about the story).

Slavery was degrading and violent. Just because one enslaved person had a relationship with the slave owner’s family that was not physically abusive does not mean slaveowners believed people of African descent were equal to them. In fact, they were often pretty clear they were not. It also does not mean that all enslaved people believed that their owners loved them for just as much as one personal servant or hard working field hand or skilled laborer had a unique relationship with the slaveholder’s family there were many others who did not. Slaves were denied access to basic-higher education (in this I mean, writing, reading, math), and were not considered citizens by owners, or the Federal government before the Civil War, or the Confederate government during the war. Slaves could not marry who they wanted, live where they wanted without surveillance from police, slave patrollers, slave masters and mistresses, and others. These people were bought, sold, raped, whipped, slapped, emotionally abused, and treated as second-class persons.

However, as I said at the Virginia Association of Museums’ workshop, I know (as demonstrated with the stories of Jupiter and Madison) that slaveholders and slaves could develop very personal feelings of respect for one another. I believe that we have the ability to demonstrate through the information presented at our sites where slavery existed (urban or rural) the balance of the acts of kindness and the acts of racism and violence in order to get information-seeking visitors even more intrigued about historical slavery, to have honest discussions about race in America, and to protest against modern day slavery.

Has anyone here been a place that successfully weaves in these messages? If so, where? Love to hear more on this subject.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Interpreting Slave Owners’ Moments of Kindness and Brutality

  1. Rob

    One facet of enslavement interpret that is lacking is the small farmer/shop owner who had just one or two slaves (like my direct ancestor). This close relationship would be an interesting study to see how white/slave interacted. Also the relationship between rented slaves and the “renter”….is interesting as well. When it came to punishment, was it owner or renter that applied it?

    • Rob,

      You bring up an important aspect of slavery: hiring slaves. I expect to have a upcoming post regarding some information about renting slaves.

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Slave Life » Cross Post from Interpretive Challenges

  3. Christen

    Well said and thought provoking. This is a subject that has long puzzled me, for many reasons. The image of the “slave holder as loving master” forgets the word “master” in the statement. Will you be at the NAI conference in Hampton this fall?

  4. yolonda

    wow I really enjoyed. ; )

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