Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What role did religion, folklore, and family life play in slaves' lives?

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In the early 1800s, most slaves were not Christian, but a period followed in which Protestants especially focused efforts on converting slaves to follow Christ. The reasoning behind the conversions were diverse: some saw this as a means to better control slaves and others harbored genuinely Christian thoughts in...

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trying to save the souls of the slaves.

In the South, slaves were not allowed to meet privately, even in church. Whites imposed several laws, depending on locale, to better govern these services, afraid that slaves meeting together privately would allow too much free thinking, which could become problematic for slave owners. Typically, slaves had to meet under the overseeing powers of at least one white man. In the North, there was more freedom to worship freely, and these African American slaves began to be viewed as equal in the sight of God. However, they still faced discrimination, namely segregation, within the church.

Religion did prove to be instrumental in providing hope to the slaves in their daily lives, and much of this can be reflected in the slave songs originating from this time period, often also symbolizing meanings reflecting a hope of escape for the slaves. These are some of the lyrics to "Go Down, Moses":

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell all pharaoes to
Let my people go!

Family Life:

Family was both a blessing and a curse to slaves. As many enslaved women were raped and otherwise sexually abused, they had children who they were then not allowed to keep. Parents had no say in the living conditions of their children, the way they were treated, or the owner's ability to sell them at will. Indeed, many parents stood helpless as their children were sold to other plantation owners and never saw them again. The American government at this time did not recognize the marriages of slaves, nor did it recognize any other familial ties; slaves had no recourse, and to protest meant to risk one's own life. Even on plantations where children were not sold, they were often taken around age 7 to live separately from their parents. Despite all this, most slaves forged strong ties with their families. It is estimated that over a third of all runaway slaves were trying to visit a spouse or other family member who had been sold.


Since the overwhelming majority of slaves were not allowed to read or write, the oral tradition allowed them to keep alive the history of their ancestors. It also allowed them the ability to cope with their struggles as American slaves. Folklore bonded slaves together as a community, linking them to their past. It reflects the strength they possessed and gave them strength to fight for another day, just as their ancestors had always done.

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Religion, folklore, and family life played a central role in the life of slaves in the Americas. In many ways, these elements served as subtle forms of resistance and self-preservation. It allowed slaves to cope with the harmful effects of slavery and maintain an independent sense of cultural identity.

Slaves maintained many African customs by blending them with their religious and cultural practices once in the New World. While most practiced the Christianity forced on them by their slave masters, they regularly blended elements of their own cultures into these practices. This might be demonstrated in how they interred their dead and in forms of prayer.

Storytelling was also used to maintain a cultural identity. African motifs of rabbits and spiders as tricksters were a common element of folklore. These stories were passed verbally from one generation to the next and helped slaves maintain a separate yet vibrant cultural identity while also preserving important lessons.

Strong familial relationships were also used as a buffer from the cruelty experienced in the life of a slave. They needed to rely on one another for protection, as none could be expected from outside. Of course, families were regularly split up when slaves were sold to slave masters in different places. Parents, children, siblings, and spouses could be separated at any time and with little warning. Therefore, extended family networks were important to maintaining a safety net against these separations.

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Historians say that things like these were important things that the slaves did to make their lives less oppressive and to help themselves cope with their enslavement.

Historians today like to emphasize that slaves did not simply take their enslavement passively.  Instead, they resisted in various ways.  One way was by making as much as they could in the way of a community for themselves.  All of the things you mention helped with this.  All of these were ways of making connections with other slaves and of giving the slaves a way of making the best possible life for themselves in a horrible situation.

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