An Analysis on Historical Accounts on Slavery
in the United States
Historical accounts have concurred and authenticated that slavery of Africans was widely practiced in the colonial United States. People bought from slave trades were brought to the Americas to work in sugar, rice and cotton plantations. Various anti-slavery movements and the civil war of the 1860s led to the abrogation of slavery. Despite the laws that protected “colored” people, racial discrimination continued to occur. “A separate but equal” doctrine was practiced where the colored people were segregated and given subordinate rights to those people of European descent. Today, decades since Martin Luther King dreamed of a nation where people will not be judged by the color of their skin, the United States of America has completely abolished slavery. Americans, regardless of their color are entitled to the Bill of Rights provided in the U.S. Constitution. Months from now we might have the first African-American president in Barack Obama.
In this paper, I will examine four historical accounts on slavery in the colonial United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. To be able to have truthful account of slavery in the past, we have to examine the documents carefully. According to the Library of Congress, these questions will help me judge the quality of primary sources:
1. Who created the source and why? Was it created through
a spur-of-the-moment act, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?
2.Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the event? Or, did the recorder report what others saw and heard?
3. Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the creator have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded?
4. Did the recorder produce the source for personal use, for one or more individuals, or for a large audience?
5. Was the source meant to be public or private?
6. Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others? (Check the words in the source. The words may tell you whether the recorder was trying to be objective or persuasive.) Did the recorder have reasons to be honest or dishonest?
7. Was the information recorded during the event, immediately after the event, or after some lapse of time? How large a lapse of time?
Critical Analysis of Historical Accounts
4.B Freedmen Report
Major General S. Hurlbut, submitted a report for the Bureau of Education for Freedman, Department of the Gulf, of the status of, or the absence of, education for African Americans in New Orleans. He reported that while formal education has been available, to white people, only informal education has been available to people of African-descent and other members of the “colored population.” He added that while taxes have been assessed in order to support a public school system for colored people, only little funding has been provided to support this cause.
He added that while many of the colored people were already well off (they were known as Creoles), they were still unable to access education as they were not admitted to white schools. His report also said that ban of education towards colored people was not disallowed by law, public opinion still discouraged giving education to blacks. Some of these people, he said, were able to learn to read and write by being home-schooled or by being able to join few private schools.
For poor colored people, he noted, most or all of them were not able to go to school. He cited a statute which said that teaching a slave to read and write was a heinous offense and that it would incite insubordination from the servile class. The offense was punishable by long years in prison or by death.
He shared, however, instances when colored people were able to obtain education through (i) masters teaching their slaves how to read and write, and (ii) good people who put up schools despite the public’s outcry against it.
Major General S. Hurlbut’s account was a report submitted to the the Bureau of Education for Freedman, Department of the Gulf. Congress created the Bureau of Education after African-American’s demanded for education. According to other historical accounts, the Bureau had already set up schools for hundreds of colored people in other states like Georgia. Hence, General Hurlbut’s through his personal experience, and experience by other members of his group, to come up with an assessment of the state of education of the African Americans.
His report has clearly been prepared using a deliberate process, inspection of the place and after discussion with other members of the Bureau.
As to the status of education in New Orleans, his account was completely believable because (i) the primary purpose of the report was to give an assessment of education in New Orleans, (ii) the plans of the Bureau in New Orleans depend on the merits of his report, and (iii) it was his job to give an honest assessment.
His accounts on one of the people who pushed for education of the blacks, namely Mrs. Mary D. Brice, of Ohio, also appears to be believable. His narrative on Ms. Brice was likely not a product of hearsay, as Ms. Brice was able to join the Bureau as principal in the area.
His other narratives on other issues, like the trouble of colored people in obtaining education also appears to be accurate since many primary sources tell us that blacks were discriminated by whites in the past because the former’s descendants came to the Americas as slaves. Prior laws had also banned education of blacks. These factors would not contradict Mr. Hurlbut’s accounts that there was outcry by white people towards entitling blacks to education, which only the whites were previously entitled to.
As to the issue of whether he was objective or persuasive, the a report or assessment to the Freedmen Bureau required Mr. Hurlbut to give an objective account of education in Louisiana.
Mr. Hurlbut’s decision to expose the discrimination in New Orleans was an unpopular act and would be subject to scrutiny by the whites if his account was false.
As to the timing, the report was submitted February 28, 1865, and provided details on the the operations of the Board from March 22, 1864 to December 31, 1865. Events that started in April 1862 were also discussed. The timing does not discredit the accuracy of the report since the contents of the report did not mention a single event, but an overall picture of what had happened to New Orleans in the past year.
The factors mentioned above point that Mr. Hurlbut’s report was completely accurate.
4.C. Price M. Butler’s Account.
Price M. Butler recounted a liquidation of the majority of slaves of the Butler estate. She gives a narrative on the people’s reaction to the mass auction of slaves from the Butler’s. The public’s reaction to the sale showed that the slaves were treated like commodities, like jewelries or other valuable items sold in auction houses or on eBay. People were interested on the prices the slaves would fetch, and the skills of these people put up for sale.
Ms. Butler, the author, however, delved deeper and gave an emotional discourse on the status of the blacks sold at the auction. She mentioned about how the slaves were separated from their friends and other slaves not included in the auction. She detailed on how husband and wife were packaged together but away from their children. She also said about how unmarried slaves were couples were made to be apart because they weren’t legally required to be together. She also implied about the fears of the slaves to have new masters, as they have been treated well by the Butler’s, and as some of them have spent their entire lives at the Butler’s.
It was not clearly stated how the author Price M. Butler was related to John Butler and other descendants to the Butler estate. The story was written as a “sequel to Mrs. Kembles Journal.”
If Price Butler was related to the people from the Butler estate, she must have had first hand knowledge about the
March 2, 1859 auction. With that assumption, she may also have firsthand knowledge about how the slaves were treated in the Butler estate, and the reaction of the slaves towards the auction, as she may likely have had interacted with some of them. The details of the auction may have also been her first-hand account.
As to neutrality, Ms. Butler may have not been a neutral party since she was a Butler, and that her account may have been selective. It was not clearly implied whether the account was meant for a large audience or a small audience. What Ms. Butler, however, did was to look at the slaves as people also and interpret what they feel.
With respect to the slaves’ departure from the Butler estate, Ms. Butler’s said “…here they left not only the well-known scenes dear to them from very baby-hood by a thousand fond memories, and homes as much loved by them, perhaps, as brighter homes by men of brighter faces; but all the clinging ties that bound them to living hearts were torn asunder, for but one-half of each of these two happy little communities was sent to the shambles, to be scattered to the four winds, and the other half was left behind…” Statements like this connote that the account was more persuasive than objective. Instead of giving evidence on whether the slaves disagree or agree with their sale, Ms. Butler opined, using poetic words, the feelings of the blacks towards their transfer.
The information was written three years after the sale was done. This lapse has been substantial.
Very few sources look at past records on slavery as beautifully as what Ms. Butler did. She delved into the lives, the emotions and the feelings of the slaves in respect to their exit from the Butler estate. She reminds us that blacks are people also. And like us, they will miss their love ones, and feel alone if they have to leave. However, the lapse of time the essay has been written, the unavailability of information to verify how the slaves have really felt would recommend that not everything in this essay may have been accurate or believable.
4.D Hawke’s Account
Ina b. Hawkes, a research field worker for the Georgia writers Project, wrote “My Ups and Downs”, a short memoir about his experience in a Negro settlement. He shares his experience talking to a black woman, who was living in a small shanty. Her account of slavery came from what the black woman had told her. The black woman’s parents were slaves. She recounted how her parents’ masters treated them well. They would give them milk and bread, and they would teach them how to reach ad write. Children, she said, were not required to join the fields.
Ms. Hawkes wrote her account on October 9, 1939, barely a month when she interviewed a black woman. Hence her record of her conversations with the black woman is still crisp and has high possibility of its accuracy.
Ms. Hawkes’ source of information may have been authentic also. She interviewed a black woman whose parents were previously slaves. Although a lot of account showed that people oppressed slaves, there were some masters who were also good to them. This does not clash with Mr. Hurlbut’s report that some slaves were able to know ABCs despite being unable to go to school because their masters were generous enough to teach them.
The only issue worth scrutinizing in the black woman’s account of her experience in slavery is that not everything she had said may entirely have been true. She said of the good things about their prior masters and mistresses (like teaching them, exempting slaves’ children from farm work), without saying something bad about their former employers. The black woman had mentioned that their mistress would slap them in order to push them in to learning the ABCs. This might connote that their mistress might have been violent in other aspects also.
Overall, this account appears to be entirely accurate since Ms. Hawkes’ source was a child of a slave.
4.E. Mrs. Lula Bowers II’s folklore’s collection
Ms. Bowers recounted a grandmother of New Morrison, whom she says was the first woman free dealer. She gave details on how the woman was able to successfully tend the farm, a job that only men were supposed to do. She also shared that his father oversaw the work of the slaves. She also discussed how the slaves were fed, their accommodations, and their arrangements with their masters.
Ms. Bowers appeared to have first hand information of slavery. Her father, aunt and her, had their own experiences and interaction with the slaves. While she mentions about the slaves given housing, and adequate food, she says they were still discriminated. Among other things, the slaves were not given education.
The source does not clearly show though when the account was written. However, it is shown that, based on the details of her account, including how the slaves made tea out of soot from the chimney, how the slaves were required to have tickets to join Sunday schools, appear to reflect that she was giving an objective view of her experiences.
4.F. E.W. Evans’ Account
E. W. Evans talked about her parents who were slaves in Atlanta before the war. He narrated that her parents’ master was a senator of the state. He wasn’t able to work as a slave because he was still young when slavery was still practiced.
E.W. Evans was a son of slaves and he likely gave an accurate account of his father’s experiences. However, note that he wrote, “I said I wuz born a slave but I wuz too young to know much about slavery. I wuz the property of the Hill family from 1855 to 1865, when freedom wuz declared and they said we wuz free. …” This shows that his own account may have not been entirely true because he was still not mature enough when slavery was practiced. Hence, his account on how his father’s masters have treated them may not be primary.
Primary sources on slavery would give us authentic knowledge on the practice of slavery 200 years ago. As we have observed in the five readings we have studied, different people have different position and views about slavery in the past. However, what would be authentic is the common situations presented by each of the readings. These include (i) black people were not entitled to education, (ii) black people acted as slaves to people, and (iii) slaves were not given the same rights as whites.
To gain more about slavery, it would be helpful if we continue reading sources posted in Slavery in the United States, 1790-1865 Web site at:
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