House Slaves

House slaves usually lived better than field slaves. They usually had better food and were sometimes given the family's cast-off clothing. William Wells Brown, a slave from Lexington, Kentucky, explained in his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847): "I was a house servant - a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after."

Not all slave-owners took this view, Harriet Jacobs, a house slave from Edenton, North Carolina, reports that on Sunday her mistress "would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans" to make sure that the slaves did not eat what was left over. Jacobs adds: "She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be."

Their living accommodation was also better than those of other slaves. In some cases the slaves were treated like the slave-owners children. However, Lewis Clarke believed that some house slaves were worse off than field slaves: "There were four house-slaves in this family, including myself, and though we had not, in all respects, so hard work as the field hands, yet in many things our condition was much worse. We were constantly exposed to the whims and passions of every member of the family; from the least to the greatest their anger was wreaked upon us. Nor was our life an easy one, in the hours of our toil or in the amount of labor performed. We were always required to sit up until all the family had retired; then we must be up at early dawn in summer, and before day in winter."

When this happened close bonds of affection and friendship usually developed. Even though it was illegal, some house slaves were educated by the women in the family. Trusted house slaves who had provided good service over a long period of time were sometimes promised their freedom when their master's died. However, there are many cases where this promise was not kept.

Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of Slave Work (2003): "The domestic life of whites was dominated by slave domestics. Visitors, again, were struck by the huge numbers of black servants working in and around the homes of white people in the slave colonies. Nannies and nurses, cooks, and washers, gardeners and cleaners, each and every conceivable domestic role was undertaken by slaves. Overwhelmingly women, slave domestics faced different problems from their contemporaries in the fields. Though perhaps better-off materially, domestic slaves often had uncomfortable relations with their white owners. They faced all the potential aggravations of close proximity, from sexual threats through to white women's dissatisfaction and anger."

Primary Sources

(1) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

There were four house-slaves in this family, including myself, and though we had not, in all respects, so hard work as the field hands, yet in many things our condition was much worse. We were constantly exposed to the whims and passions of every member of the family; from the least to the greatest their anger was wreaked upon us. Nor was our life an easy one, in the hours of our toil or in the amount of labor performed. We were always required to sit up until all the family had retired; then we must be up at early dawn in summer, and before day in winter. If we failed, through weariness or for any other reason, to appear at the first morning summons, we were sure to have our hearing quickened by a severe chastisement. Such horror has seized me, lest I might not hear the first shrill call, that I have often in dreams fancied I heard that unwelcome call, and have leaped from my couch and walked through the house and out of it before I awoke. I have gone and called the other slaves, in my sleep, and asked them if they did not hear master call. Never, while I live, will the remembrance of those long, bitter nights of fear pass from my mind.

(2) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Mrs. Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She had not strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of the church; but partaking of the Lord's supper did not seem to put her in a Christian frame of mind. If dinner was not served at the exact time on that particular Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be.

(3) Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857)

When eight years of age, I was taken to the "great house," or the family mansion of my master, to serve as an errand boy, where I had to stand in the presence of my master's family all the day, and a part of the night, ready to do any thing which they commanded me to perform. My master's family consisted of himself and wife, and seven children.

Mrs. Helm was a very industrious woman, and generally busy in her household affairs - sewing, knitting, and looking after the servants; but she was a great scold, - continually finding fault with some of the servants, and frequently punishing the young slaves herself, by striking them over the head with a heavy iron key, until the blood ran; or else whipping them with a cowhide, which she always kept by her side when sitting in her room. The older servants she would cause to be punished by having them severely whipped by a man, which she never failed to do for every trifling fault. I have felt the weight of some of her heaviest keys on my own head, and for the slightest offences. No slave could possibly escape being punished - I care not how attentive they might be, nor how industrious - punished they must be, and punished they certainly were.

Mrs. Helm appeared to be uneasy unless some of the servants were under the lash. She came into the kitchen one morning and my mother, who was cook, had just put on the dinner. Mrs. Helm took out her white cambric handkerchief, and rubbed it on the inside of the pot, and it crocked it! That was enough to invoke the wrath of my master, who came forth immediately with his horse-whip, with which he whipped my poor mother most unmercifully-far more severely than I ever knew him to whip a horse.

(4) William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847)

During the time that Mr. Cook was overseer, I was a house servant - a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after. I have often laid and heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave. My mother was a field hand, and one morning was ten or fifteen minutes behind the others in getting into the field. As soon as she reached the spot where they were at work, the overseer commenced whipping her. She cried, "Oh! pray - Oh! pray - Oh! pray" - these are generally the words of slaves, when imploring mercy at the hands of their oppressors. I heard her voice, and knew it, and jumped out of my bunk, and went to the door. Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother. I remained at the door, not daring to venture any further. The cold chills ran over me, and I wept aloud. After giving her ten lashes, the sound of the whip ceased, and I returned to my bed, and found no consolation but in my tears. Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries, and not be able to render them assistance. But such is the position which an American slave occupies.

(5) Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831)

Mrs. Williams was a kind-hearted good woman, and she treated all her slaves well. She had only one daughter, Miss Betsey, for whom I was purchased, and who was about my own age. I was made quite a pet of by Miss Betsey, and loved her very much. She used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger. This was the happiest period of my life; for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave, and too thoughtless and full of spirits to look forward to the days of toil and sorrow. My mother was a household slave in the same family. I was under her own care, and my little brothers and sisters were my play-fellows and companions.

My mother had several fine children after she came to Mrs. Williams, - three girls and two boys. The tasks given out to us children were light, and we used to play together with Miss Betsey, with as much freedom almost as if she had been our sister.

My master, however, was a very harsh, selfish man; and we always dreaded his return from sea. His wife was herself much afraid of him; and, during his stay at home, seldom dared to show her usual kindness to the slaves. He often left her, in the most distressed circumstances, to reside in other female society, at some place in the West Indies of which I have forgot the name. My poor mistress bore his ill-treatment with great patience, and all her slaves loved and pitied her. I was truly attached to her, and, next to my own mother, loved her better than any creature in the world. My obedience to her commands was cheerfully given: it sprung solely from the affection I felt for her, and not from fear of the power which the white people's law had given her over me.

(6) Malcolm X, speech (9th November, 1963)

If you're afraid of black nationalism, you're afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black nationalism. To understand this, you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes - they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food - what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master's house - quicker than the master would. If the master said, "We got a good house here," the house Negro would say, "Yeah, we got a good house here." Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.

If the master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we sick?" We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, "Let's run away, let's escape, let's separate," the house Negro would look at you and say, "Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?" That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.

This modern house Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He'll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master, and then brag about "I'm the only Negro out here." "I'm the only one on my job." "I'm the only one in this school." You're nothing but a house Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, "Let's separate," you say the same thing that the house Negro said on the plantation. "What you mean, separate? From America, this good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?" I mean, this is what you say. "I ain't left nothing in Africa," that's what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa.

On that same plantation, there was the field Negro. The field Negroes - those were the masses. There were always more Negroes in the field than there were Negroes in the house. The Negro in the field caught hell. He ate leftovers. In the house they ate high up on the hog. The Negro in the field didn't get anything but what was left of the insides of the hog.

The field Negro was beaten from morning to night; he lived in a shack, in a hut; he wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master, but that field Negro - remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn't try to put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he'd die. If someone came to the field Negro and said, "Let's separate, let's run," he didn't say, "Where we going?" He'd say, "Any place is better than here."

(7) Gad Heuman and James Walvin, Slaves at Work (2003)

Slave work involved much more than mere labouring in the fields. Indeed, slaves undertook the most varied of working tasks, from the simplest of labours through to the most skilled of crafts, everywhere in the Americas. Each of the major American export crops required its own particular skills, in cultivation, crop¬ping, processing and transportion. And each slave settlement required that range of artisans whose abilities made possible the functioning of local economic and social life. Carpenters and masons, factory foremen, distillers, nurses and transport slaves all added their skills and working experiences to the well-being of local slave society. The domestic life of whites was dominated by slave domestics. Visitors, again, were struck by the huge numbers of black servants working in and around the homes of white people in the slave colonies. Nannies and nurses, cooks, and washers, gardeners and cleaners, each and every conceivable domestic role was undertaken by slaves. Overwhelmingly women, slave domestics faced different problems from their contemporaries in the fields. Though perhaps better-off materially, domestic slaves often had uncomfortable relations with their white owners. They faced all the potential aggravations of close proximity, from sexual threats through to white women's dissatisfaction and anger. But it is surely a sign of the domestic slaves' superior station that a standard threat and punishment was to dispatch troublesome domestics to field work. Female domestic slaves generally wanted their daughters to follow them, rather than be trained up for manual labour outside.