[Previous] [Next]

The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation

"By the Sweat of Our Brows"


Two women hulling rice, Sapelo Island, Georgia
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1900)

I never know what it was to rest. I just work all the time from morning till late at night. I had to do everything there was to do on the outside. Work in the field, chop wood, hoe corn, till sometime I feels like my back surely break. I done everything except split rails.

-- Sara Gudger, former slave from Burke County, North Carolina

The daily routine for plantation slaves was marked by labor from sun-up to sun-down, from "can see to can't see" in the slave's lingo. They worked everywhere on the plantation; in the fields and in the Big House, in the barns and in the quarters. Because they had to make the crop and raise food for the entire plantation community, there was little slack time. Flogged or threatened with beatings if they slowed up even the slightest bit, their toil was relentlessly oppressive. And when they returned to their quarters, there remained still more domestic chores that had to be done at night.

Exhausted and worn down though they were, many slaves nevertheless kept mental accounts of what their labor was worth. They were keenly aware of the fact that a planter's wealth was based on their efforts and they wanted some recompense. At the end of the Civil War, some demanded nothing less than a portion of the plantations where they had been held captive. This they saw as a just wage for their years of forced labor.

Sara Gudger, former slave from Burke County, North Carolina (10.1)
(Photograph possibly by Marjorie Jones, ca. 1938)

Kitchen at the Kilpatrick plantation, Wilcox County, Alabama (10.2)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1937)

Interior of the kitchen at Refuge plantation, Camden County, Georgia (10.3)
(Photograph by L.D. Andrew, 1936, from a vintage photograph taken ca. 1880)

Captured in this late-nineteenth-century image is something of the work routine of the kitchen slave who toiled over a hot open fire while maneuvering heavy cast iron kettles and pots.

I used battling blocks and battling sticks to help clean the clothes when we was washing; we all did. We took the clothes out of the suds, soaped them good and put them on the block and beat them with a battling stick, which was like a paddle. On wash days you could hear them battling sticks pounding every which way.

-- Julia Brown, former slave from Jackson County, Georgia

The cooking was done in the kitchen in the yard. The fireplace was as wide as one end of this room . . . Heavy iron skillets with thick lids were much used for baking, and they had ovens of various sizes. I have seen my mother bake beautiful biscuits and cakes in those old skillets, and they were ideal for roasting meats. Mother's batter cakes would just melt in your mouth . . .

-- Minnie Davis, former slave from Greene County, Georgia

The "wash place" at Thornhill plantation, Greene County, Alabama (11.1)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1934)

The laundry was boiled in these huge iron pots, beaten to remove some of the soap, and then boiled again before being hung out to dry.

Smokehouse at Five Oaks plantation, Madison County, Alabama (11.2)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1935)

Since field hands were allotted as much as one hundred and fifty pounds of pork per year, slaves on even a modestly sized estate would be required to process several tons of meat. The smokehouse was seen then as a place that simultaneously held the promise of a filling meal and one that signified the arduous tasks of hog butchering.

Dairy at Woodlands plantation, Northampton County, Virginia (11.3)
(Photograph by Jack E. Boucher, 1960)

Dairies were used to keep milk at a cool even temperature. After about ten hours the cream would rise to the top of the milk pans. It was then collected and churned into butter, a task that was usually assigned to young girls.

The work yard at The Oaks plantation, Colbert County, Alabama (11.4)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1935)

These smaller buildings behind the main house together with all the spaces around them constituted a work zone. Tasks that could not be done in the kitchen or the other work sheds such as the making of soap, candles, syrup, or sausage were carried out in the yard around a large bonfire.

Kitchen at Pond Spring plantation, Lawrence County, Alabama (11.5)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1935)

Plan of the kitchen at the Cunningham plantation, Colbert County, Alabama (11.6)
(Reproduction of a drawing by Harry J. Frahn, 1937)

These two kitchens both include a bedroom, presumably for the cook and her family. Thus confined, the cook was never relieved from work as she faced constant demands from the main house. John White, a former slave from Texas who lived in a kitchen- quarter, remembered that his proximity to the Big House made him a frequent target of his owner's temper.

Black people picking cotton while their white overseer rides a horse
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)

The property which they [the planters] hold was nearly all earned by the sweat of our brows.

-- an opinion offered by an African-American delegate to the Alabama state constitutional convention in 1867

Cotton press and gin (13.1)
(Reproduced from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 7, 1877)

Elevations and plans of the mule-powered cotton gin at the L.A. Cliatt plantation, Russell County, Alabama (13.2)
(Reproduction of a drawing by J. Wendell McGee, 1936)

Jim Martin, a former slave from Pike County, Mississippi recalled that his father had worked in such a structure:

"That gin was a big thing. . . . I saw my pappy come out of there every day with his head covered white with cotton [lint]."

Laura Clark, former slave from Sumter County, Alabama (13.3)
(Photograph possibly by Ruby Pickens Tartt, ca. 1938)

Planting a rice field, probably in North Carolina (13.4)
(Photographer unknown, late nineteenth century)

Hagar Brown, former slave at The Oaks plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina (13.5)
(Photograph by Bayard Wootten, ca. 1938)

Growing up on a rice plantation, Hagar Brown witnessed all phases of its production. Some of her most explicit memories were of the beatings that slaves endured:

"Don't done your task, driver wave that whip, put you over a barrel, beat you so blood run down."

We has a right to the land were we are located. . . Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; that the reason we have a divine right to the land. . . . And then didn't we clear the land, and raise the crops of corn, of cotton, of tobacco, of rice, of sugar, of everything ?

-- from a speech by former slave Bayley Wyat at Yorktown, Virginia on behalf of freedmen's land claims

Rice Mill at Chicora Wood plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina (14.1)
(Photograph by Charles N. Bayless, 1977)

Carrying bundles of rice on a South Carolina plantation (14.2)
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)

Winnowing house at Mansfield plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina (14.3)
(Photograph by Charles N. Bayless, 1977)

After the rice was pounded with pestles to remove the tough outer hull, it was carried up into the winnowing house to finish the cleaning process. The grain was dropped through a small hole in the floor, and, as it fell, the lighter chaff was blown away and the kernels of clean rice were then gathered into barrels.

Interior view of the machinery in the rice mill at Chicora Wood plantation (14.4) (Photograph by Charles N. Bayless, 1977)

Sam Jones Washington, former slave from Wharton County, Texas (14.7)
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1938)

Employed as a cowboy during slavery, Sam Washington recalled in vivid detail the challenges he faced:

"If the horse throw you off, them cattle stamp you to death. Gabriel sure blow he horn for you then !"

Cow barn at Hampton plantation, Baltimore County, Maryland (14.6)
(Photograph by E. H. Pickering, 1936)

Sugar mill at Burnside planation, Ascension Parish, Louisiana (14.6)
(Photographer unknown, ca. 1890)

John Burnside was the largest sugar planter in Louisiana. His three adjacent estates contained 22,000 acres, 7,600 of which were under cultivation. In 1860 his 927 slaves raised enough cane to produce 3,266,000 pounds of sugar.

Next section of The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation Exhibition

Table of contents for The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation Exhibition

Return to Home Page