A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina
1997, by Leslie A. Schwalm. Chicago, University of Illlinois Press. © 1997 by the Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Used with Permission of the University of Illinois Press
Planters, in using slave women (both biologically and socially) to reproduce the slave workforce, inadvertently reinforced a role through which slave women exercised considerable power in imparting slave culture and survival skills to young slaves. Seizing upon the opportunity created by their dual exploitation as workers and mothers, slave women maintained and strengthened community ties across the generations. They were the primary figures in raising the children of the slave community; in supervising and training children in the work that they would be forced to perform as adults; and in imparting to children the skills with which they, their kin, and their community might survive (and resist) lifelong enslavement. From birth to young adulthood, most young slaves were nurtured and trained by slave women, kin and non-kin, field hands as well as skilled slaves, such as those removed from field labor to care for infants and children. In addition to acts of nurturing, slave women also ensured that the ties that bound them all together in opposition to slavery reached into each new generation. Slave men were not absent from training young people, but their roles as laborers and as fathers did not overlap to the extent that women's did. Slave men dominated in different arenas of work, training young apprentices in the exclusively male-occupied crafts (as coopers, carpenters, and blacksmiths, for example).
A particularly important and powerful role accrued to older slave women in their communities through their supervision of young adults as they entered into the community. Neither slave men nor slave women could claim exclusive dominion over the most important requirements for leadership and authority in their communities; age, rather than gender, was the primary characteristic of authority and leadership among lowcountry slaves. Elders - both men and women - enjoyed an elite status in the community and claimed for themselves privileges and responsibilities of protecting and leading their communities along both traditional and improvised paths of survival, interdependency, and mutual responsibility. But slave women were especially important in "seeking," the coming-of-age experience through which young women and men joined the autonomous spiritual life of the adult plantation community.
Women's highly regarded status in slave families extended to their role in the community as "spiritual mothers," one of the most obvious and yet unexamined examples of fictive kin transmuting family ties into the relationships that maintained the slave community. With family at the center of their social universe, slaves vested in their spiritual mothers the responsibility and authority to guide and control the entry of young women and young men into the realm of adulthood, with its spiritual duties and mutual obligations to the community as a whole. Just as the slave midwives relied on years of experience and special skills to deliver newborns safely into the world, so spiritual mothers led young men and women through the travail of "seeking" and safely delivered them to the adult community. The older slave women who were revered as spiritual mothers taught young people how to pray and how to behave. They interpreted their dreams and visions and decided when the seekers were ready for presentation to the praise house - the community's autonomous place of worship.
This was an extremely important role in a culture where, according to the research of Margaret Washington Creel, spiritually safeguarded "communal harmony, solidarity, and accountability." In essence, the religious experience of seeking was also a coming-of-age ritual, which marked a young person's transition into adulthood, when allegiances extended beyond immediate and extended family to the community as an adult granted a new, more powerful status on young people. Nearly exclusively, older slave women retained control over the process.
The status of spiritual mothers in their lowcountry communities must be considered as part of a larger oppositional nature of the religion that originated in the slave community. Southern planters attempted to Chsitianize their slaves and manipulate their membership in the church as a form of social control. In the lowcountry, this 'mission' to the slaves gained momentum in the 1830s, as Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians built plantation chapels and brought preachers onto their plantations. Planters also exercised a heavy hand in appointing "class leaders," elders, or deacons from the slave population to preside over the plantation congregation. Consistent with the planters' experience of organized religion, these chosen leaders were predominantly male. Although lowcountry slaves generally participated in these plantation congregations, they maintained their own religious services and practices away from the eye, and intervention, of whites. The ownership of slaves clearly seemed to conflict with the message of Christianity promoted by the whites. The persistent role of spiritual mothers, despite the "informal" nature of their authority, was yet another aspect of slaves' resistance to planters' efforts to "meddle" in the religious affairs of the slave community.
As elder slave women, spiritual mothers often wielded additional powers in their community, accumulated through the primary benefit that age brought any community member. They were described as prophets, fortunetellers, women who wielded "tremendous influence" over their spiritual children, individuals whose wisdom, dignity, and special skills also made them powerful and respected community leaders. Planters as well as white Northerners observed that these female elders held considerable power and authority in their communities, which included, but was not limited to, their affiliation with lowcountry religion. Frances Kemble described the tremendous power and authority of one slave woman, Scinda, who "passed
at one time for a prophetess among her fellow slaves on the plantation." During the Civil War, Harriet Ware, Laura Towne, Edward Pierce, and William Allen - all Northern observers - described older slave women who held positions of community leadership and authority, organizing praise-house meetings called "shouts," leading gangs of women workers in various protests and demonstrations, and speaking to whites on behalf of their communities. Older women also helped maintain the important distinction between the shuffle that accompanied the shout and the foot movements seen in secular dancing. An observer noted that when a young woman "showed the slightest tendency to move her feet too far apart, or to cross them, one of the older sisters would reprimand he sharply, often quoting the words of the spiritual - "Watch out, sister, how you walk on de cross! Yer foot might slip an' yer soul got los'."
The spiritual mothers and leaders of lowcountry slave communities may have had antecedents in the female secret societies described by scholars researching the formulation of community in several West African societies. In these cultures, where elders accrued considerable power, the sex-segregated secret societies protected that power by controlling the admittance of young adults into the societies and the communities as full adults. Once admitted, individuals exchanged allegiance to parents and kin for loyalty to community and the secret society. Among black South Carolinians we can expect to find a similar approach to community, rather than any direct reformulation of African societies and organizations. The sexual division of labor as well as the social organization of field and domestic work on rice plantations promoted group identity among women. In this fertile setting Africans and African Americans could recall and reformulate the sex-segregated secret societies that regulated most of community life. Margaret Washington Creel has looked to West African antecedents to place the "seeking" experience and the importance of the spiritual parents in a larger historical and cultural context. Many of the diverse ethnic groups of the upper Guinea region of Africa shared significant cultural features, including the role of the secret societies in regulating most of community life. Certainly the importance of community to slave life in the lowcountry suggests that such factors as the ethnic origins of lowcountry slaves, their cultural autonomy and independence from white intervention, as well as the geographic - and hence cultural isolation of the region provided an arena in which African Americans could forge social relations based on shared cultural memories and
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About the Author:
Leslie A. Schwalm is a social historian of nineteenth-century America. She received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1991. She teaches courses on American slavery, the Civil War, emancipation and Reconstruction, all with a particular emphasis on women's history and African American history. She holds joint appointments in both Women's Studies and African American Studies. Leslie received the May Brodbeck Humanities Fellowship and Faculty Scholar Award from the University of Iowa and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Iowa State Historical Society.
Dr. Schwalm''s book, A Hard Fight For We: Women''s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (1997), is a study of African American women on the rice plantations in the South Carolina low country. Leslie explores how African American women, at the point when slavery was disintegrating, struggled to control their own labor, resist slaveowners'' demands, and also fought for respect within their own households. The book was awarded the Willie Lee Rose Prize by the Southern Association of Women''s Historians in 1998. Leslie also won, in 1998, the Letitia Woods Brown Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians for her article "Sweet Dreams of Freedom: Freedwomen''s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina."
Dr. Schwalm''s current research explores the meaning, impact, and public memory of emancipation. She is currently working on a book, titled Emancipation''''s Diaspora, which explores the ways in which the destruction of slavery became a national phenomenon, as opposed to a southern one. She has published two articles related to her research on this project. "Emancipation Day Celebrations: The Commemoration of Slavery and Freedom in Iowa," was awarded the Iowa State Historical Society's Throne-Aldrich Certificate of Recognition. "Overrun With Free Negroes?: Emancipation and Wartime Migration in the Upper Midwest," was selected by the Organization of American Historians for inclusion in Best Articles in American History (Palgrave Press, 2006).
Out of this line of research, Leslie is also completing a collection of primary sources documenting how African Americans in Iowa experienced and understood the end of slavery. This work will be the most comprehensive collection of material ever published on African Americans in nineteenth-century Iowa.
Additionally, Leslie serves as an advisory editor to the "Blacks in the Diaspora" series of the Indiana University Press.
Visit Leslie A. Schwalm's home page at the University of Iowa