The Story: Antebellum Slavery

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"After I was sixteen, I was put into the field to work in the spring and summer, and in the autumn and winter, I worked in the hatter's shop with my uncle. We raised on the plantation, principally, tobacco, some cotton, and some grain. We commenced work as soon as we could see in the morning, and worked from that time until 12 o'clock before breakfast, and then until dark, when we had our dinner, and hastened to our night-work for ourselves."

James Curry, Person County, N.C.

Because they lived on farms with smaller groups of slaves, the social dynamic of slaves in North Carolina was somewhat different from their counterparts in other states, who often worked on plantations with hundreds of other slaves. In North Carolina, the hierarchy of domestic workers and field workers was not as developed as in the plantation system. There were fewer numbers of slaves to specialize in each job, so on small farms, slaves may have been required to work both in the fields and at a variety of other jobs at different times of the year. Another result of working in smaller groups was that North Carolina slaves generally had more interaction with slaves on other farms. Slaves often looked to other farms to find a spouse, and traveled to different farms to court or visit during their limited free time.

The slave codes passed in the colonial period continued to be enforced during the antebellum years. Whites hoped these laws would prevent threats of slave uprisings, which terrified slaveholders across the state. In 1829, David Walker, a free black author born in Wilmington, gave whites in North Carolina another reason to fear their slaves turning against them. Walker was an avid abolitionist who moved from his home state of North Carolina to Boston, where he helped escaped slaves establish new lives. He wrote and published a pamphlet, Walker’s Appeal, calling for immediate freedom for all slaves and urging slaves to rebel as a group. Copies of the pamphlet were smuggled into Wilmington via ships from the Northern U.S., and then spread throughout the state.