Sunday, January 20, 2013

Just Finished Reading - On Slavery's Border

I read On Slavery's Borders: Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865, by Diane Mutti Burke, about a year and half ago, but I reread it recently for a book discussion group at work. I'm glad I found the time to read it again, because I had the opportunity to refresh some of the information that I had overlooked or not remembered from the first reading.

As the subtitle indicates, much of On Slavery's Border examines the relations between black slaves and their white master families. Here, Burke paints a picture of uniqueness in Missouri. Unlike the large-slaveholding plantations in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where slaves and masters often experienced a more disjointed relationship, Missouri's slave system was different. Here slaveholders often lived and worked side by side with their bondsmen.

As Burke explains "On Slavery's Border uses a bottom-up approach to examine how the experience of slavery and slaveholding was influenced by both the size of slaveholding and geography. In a place such as Missouri  slavery developed into a region of small slaveholdings precisely because of it geographic location; both climate and proximity to free states discouraged the migration of planters and conversely encouraged the migration of slaveholders of smaller means. Small slaveholders were marginalized in much of the South, but in Missouri they dominated, creating a slavery culture that differed socially, politically, and economically from that of plantation regions.

Burke is clear to point out that this more close-style of slaveholding did not necessarily mean a more benevolent of benign form of slavery, quite the contrary. Being in such close contact often led to frayed nerves and offended feelings on both parts, which in turn led to violent outbursts.

One thing that caught my attention in my second reading was that in the 1850 and 1850 censuses the census takers were instructed to note the locations where slaves were living, not necessarily who owned them. The object of the census, the instructions said, was to determine the number of slaves, not the number of masters. In other words, if a slave or two was being rented by a man, those slaves would be listed under the name of that renter, not the actual owner's name. In upper-South states slave hiring out was a common practice for owners that had surplus laborers but who did not want to sell his/her personal property. Therefore, it seems to me that this fact makes it difficult for historians to tell if small slaveholders were actually owners or possibly renters; especially since the census was usually taken in the summer and fall, when, of course, labor was most needed and likely to be rented.

Slave renting comes in for a good deal of discussion in the work, and Burke explains its wide prevalence  "Those who owned no slaves fulfilled more than their labor need through the hiring of slaves; they also purchased the social and psychological rewards of mastery - in many cases on the cheap. As Jonathan Martin has argued, 'Entree into the slaveholding ranks brought both cultural and economic rewards; in the South, the luxury of ordering slaves about was a way to enhance both one's social standing and one's production for the market.'"

Slave hiring/renting often was done to help white farm women. As Burke states "Most rural American women labored at a tremendous amount of housework, and often barnyard word and fieldwork as well. What set slaveholding women apart from other white women was their ability to free themselves from fieldwork and the most physically demanding and undesirable of domestic tasks precisely because they owned slave women to whom the could assign this grueling labor. The work of slaveholding women, or rather those tasks never performed by them, was essential in defining what it meant to be a lady in southern society."

Burke takes much of her primary source evidence on white small slaveholders from the collections of a number of family collections. Her evidence for enslaved individuals often comes from the WPA Slave Narratives and individuals slave narratives such as William Wells Brown and Henry Clay Bruce. The information these records provide are sometimes both informative and flawed as Burke points out. For example, the WPA narratives were taken during the Great Depression when life under segregation, especially in the Southern states, was particularly difficult causing these elderly former slaves to possibly misremember how trying slave days were. Also, their memories - due to so much time passing since the events they described - must make one cautious of what was said to the interviewers.

As I reread On Slavery's Border I kept saying to myself, "that sounds like Kentucky's experience." And, that certainly makes sense since many of Missouri's settlers were from Kentucky and other upper-South states such as Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. These people naturally brought very similar customs and traditions with them to the "Show Me State" as were expressed as Missourians. I was a little disappointed that Burke did not point out that fact much in the work. Sure, Missouri was unique to Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia, but not so unique from Kentucky, and other upper-South states.

I highly recommend On Slavery's Border. It will prove to be especially beneficial to those interested in learning the details and interactions of masters and slaves on household farms were slaves were few and located in rural areas.  On a scale of 1 to 5, I give On Slavery's Border a 4.75.

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