Thoughts Thoughts

Plantation Slaves

Our Slave Historian for Workin' the Soil, Healin' the Soul

Yesterday we had tickets for “Workin’ the Soil, Healing the Soul”, which was a tour to discover the life of slaves on plantations, the laws they lived with, and how they survived.

As it happened, I was about 3 pages away from finishing Wench by Dolen-Perkins-Valdez, a historical fiction book chronicling the lives of four slave women—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu—who are their masters’ mistresses. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio. There, they see free blacks for the first time and hear rumors of abolition, sparking their own desires to be free. I learned a lot about slavery that I didn’t already know from this book and I found it difficult to put down every night.

I found this Workin’ the Soil, Healing the Soul tour here at Colonial Williamsburg covered a lot of information that I had just learned in this book, but was certainly information that I would not have known if I hadn’t read this book. There were a lot of facts about slavery you didn’t learn in history class. The dark, dirty truth about slavery and how they were treated. The tour was not “recommended” for children under 10. However, there were lots of kids there, and many were younger than Evan and Maia. The twins had studied slavery this year and were very interested in taking this tour, so I took the twins with me of course. They will be 11 next month.

Now there was one scene in this book where one of the women slaves gets beaten in front of everyone by her master that is quite brutal. The fear of things like this permeated the lives of these slaves. As the tour was winding up one of the two tour leaders took out a whip that was something similar to what a slave master would have used to demonstrate what a normal beating would have been like for a slave being punished.

The slave master's whip was a horrid looking thing with many strands of leather

The law said that a slave could be whipped 39 times.

He beat that whip up against a bare tree only 4 times.

The noise was horrendous.

And, being the emotional basket case that I am, I started to cry.

The tour guides had warned us at the beginning that often people had to walk away from things that were being said. I did not expect this to bother me as it did. Not that it shouldn’t! As that whip was falling on that tree I just couldn’t believe that we actually used to do that to other human beings.

You can see where the bark is stripped away as he whips

I discreetly lowered my sunglasses while a few tears rolled down my cheeks. The tour guide went on to quote pages from a slave master’s journal where he was writing of some new methods he’d found more useful in getting slave cooperation than the law-prescribed 39 lashings with a whip. He passed around a metal curry comb, which, being a horse owner I am quite familiar with. This man wrote how he’d gotten “very good results” by currying a slave’s back until raw, having another slave rub hay into the wounds and then pouring salt over his or her back and sending them back into the fields to work, while the salty sweat mixed with the salt in the open wounds and baked into his back.


Now I probably could have gotten away with this little emotional breakdown of mine had Maia, who was standing next to me, not noticed. She proceeded to kiss my arm like a love-struck peppy le pew, calling attention to me from the entire crowd at her bizarre and sudden infatuation with her mother’s arm.


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