The Slave Parent and Child

This article is an excerpt from a tract titled THE FAMILY RELATION, AS AFFECTED BY SLAVERY  by Charles King Whipple and appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

The Slave Parent and Child

We will take it for granted that the principles properly regulating this relation are found in the following precepts of Scripture:

“Train up a child in the way he should go.”

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord.”

Let us first look at this relation as it exists in the slave family.

The proper training up of a child requires, on the part of the parent, intelligence, a moral and religious character, a recognised authority, and a power to seclude the child from external vicious or otherwise injurious influences.

The very mention of these constituent parts of the parental relation shows how impossible it is for the slave father or mother to exercise them.

National Anti-Slavery Standard was the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist society founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan to spread their movement across the nation with printed materials. Frederick Douglass was a key leader of this society and often addressed meetings at its New York City headquarters.

The means of knowledge are forbidden by law to both parent and child. In respect to morality and religion, we have seen the testimony of the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia (and pages more such might be quoted, had we space), that the slaves “may justly be considered heathen,” and the testimony of Rev. Dr. Nelson, that the sermons generally preached to the slaves are, “as to religious purposes, worse than none at all.”

The authority of a slave father or mother over their child is not recognised by the slaveholder in the slightest degree. They all, father, mother and child, are the property of the slaveholder. The assumption, for a moment, of a right on the part of the slave parent to give, or of the child to obey, a direction contrary to the will of him who claims to own them both, would be treated as rebellion and insufferable insolence combined. Shall property say unto the owner who holds, directs and controls it, Why dost thou direct me thus? And as to the power of withdrawing a child from unhealthy employment or vicious influences, or profligate companions, the son of the slaveholder may be the very worst associate for the daughter of the slave; but how is the slave to help either himself or his daughter? Both of them are utterly helpless, clay in the hands of the potter, even when they know that he is determined to mould them both into “vessels unto dishonour.” To slaves, the parental relation, like the matrimonial one, is annihilated .

How does slavery affect the parental relation in the case of the slaveholder?

The slaveholder has, undoubtedly, a recognised authority to control his children. Let us suppose that he has also intelligence, such average development of the moral and religious character as is customary in a slaveholding community, and a disposition to withdraw his children from vicious influences. The question is, Can he do this? Can he keep them pure and virtuous without sending them permanently away from home? Testimony must answer this question. We want the evidence of intelligent and reliable persons. But this exists in such abundance that our only difficulty is to find space in this tract for a tenth part of it.

Said Jefferson, as long ago as 1782, speaking of the natural and inevitable tendency of slavery,

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to the worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated and exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”

The following scene was witnessed and described by Mr. Olmstead in Sea-board Slave States, p. 402:

“A party of fashionably-dressed people took the train to Charleston; two families, apparently returning from a visit to their plantations. They came to the station in handsome coaches. Some minutes before the rest, there entered the car, in which I was alone, and reclining on a bench in the corner, an old nurse, with a baby, and two young negro women, having care of half a dozen children, mostly girls, from three to fifteen years of age. As they closed the door, the negro girls seemed to resume a conversation, or quarrel. Their language was loud and obscene, such as I never heard before from any but the most depraved and beastly women of the streets. Upon observing me they dropped their voices, but not with any appearance of shame, and continued their altercation until their mistresses entered. The white children, in the meantime, had listened without any appearance of wonder or annoyance. The moment the ladies opened the door they became silent.”

Source: National Anti-Slavery Standard, February 6, 1858
Top Photo: Slave families owned by Mrs. Barnwell – Photograph shows a group portrait of African American adults and children posed under a large tree.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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