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UWBTS — Chapter 11:


Chapter 11 — Characteristics of the African American People During the 1850’s

By Leslie R. Tucker, Ph.D. of Oklahoma, S. I. S. H.



The 1860 census of American population shows 3,950,528 bonded persons of African ancestry and 476,748 people of African ancestry who were independent, meaning not slaves.  Slightly more than half of the free black people were in the South, having been emancipated by their own efforts or by masters for personal or conscience considerations. A considerable number of African Americans, North and South, had some European or Native American ancestry. Northern states had eliminated slavery by gradual processes which generally allowed time for owners to move their bonded people to the South if they wished, or to free those born in bondage when they came of age. (There was a sizable group of CT slaveholders who migrated to sugar plantations in LA.)  Unlike the situation in the slave States, few thriving communities of free black people developed after emancipation in the North. African Americans in the North generally lived in impoverished, segregated communities, and the newer Northern States did not even allow black people as residents. Every good student of history needs to mentally transport himself or herself back into the times under study to properly understand those times, when people did not live or think as we do today. 


There are three important points to keep in mind in the study of the African-American population of the 1850’s. First, we should avoid presentism. Attitudes toward working people of all races were different at that time than those we find acceptable today. The Dutch did keelhauling of sailors as late as 1853 and the British did not ban the flogging of soldiers until 1860. The working classes in industrialized areas such as Manchester, England, worked under conditions that left many crippled and maimed from injuries or breathing dust from textile mills and mines. This left most unfit for work at 40 years of age, and almost none at 50.  Children as young as 7 or 8 worked up to 12 hours, some “seized naked in bed by the overlookers, and driven with blows and kicks to the factory.”

Second, regardless of good treatment, being a slave has many costs which few of us would be willing to pay.  Third, trying to have a realistic understanding of slavery is not an apology. It is a mistake to oversimplify slavery to chains, whips, and division of families; it is likewise a mistake to say that they were better off as slaves. The objective should be to understand as best we can.  A difficulty is finding objective records at a time when Northern writers emphasized the horrors of slavery in a continuing regional attack, Southern writers emphasized slavery’s benefit to the African, and the bonded people themselves left few written records.   The slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s offer the best testimony we have by slaves themselves, although, of course, memories of 70 years ago have problems of certainty. 

History Relevant to the WBTS

By 1850 all of the Northern states had abolished slavery, making a sharp difference separating North from South.  Agricultural improvements in the older Southern areas and the worldwide demand for cotton had ensured the continued economic vitality of the plantations into the 1850s. Cotton production increased from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.8 million in 1850, to 3.2 million in 1860. Like the white population, the slave population moved westward in large numbers. Some accompanied owners on their migrations.  Others were sold.    New Orleans was the largest slave market in North America.

Slaves lived in such varied situations that it is impossible to describe what it was like for all of them. There were slaves who employed white workers, there were slave doctors who treated white patients, and there were some slaves who rented out their labors. Some were house servants who exercised considerable influence in the running of the household and plantation, and were thought of as members of the family. Many, perhaps a fourth, were skilled craftsmen; however, most worked as plantation field hands.

We sometimes see assertions that only one in ten of prewar white Southerners were slave-owners.  This is not strictly correct.  If we count by families, approximately one-fourth were slave owners, more in some States and areas and less in others. Half of the slave owners owned fewer than five slaves. Those who owned 20 or more were considered “planters.”  In 1850, 73 percent of the agricultural slaves were on cotton plantations, 14 percent on tobacco, 6 percent on sugar, 5 percent on rice, and 2 percent on hemp plantations.

Southern writers submitted that the slaves lived more comfortably and happily than workers and urban dwellers who were enduring the industrial revolution in the North and Europe. Economists Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman (a Nobel Prize winner) made an intense and controversial economic study of slavery, Time on the Cross.  They found statistics relating to food, housing, clothing, and medical conditions which support the Southern point of view. The total calories consumed by slaves were slightly higher than the general population in Europe and America, with more potatoes and grains and slightly less meat and milk. They evaluated the housing using plantation records and comments by travelers. They found that the “houses of slaves compared well with the housing of free workers.” At that time most Americans lived in log cabins on farms and the workers in the northern cities lived in crowded and filthy tenements, many without even a window.  Common sense dictates that the medical care of slaves would be better than that of free workers who, if sick or injured could simply be dismissed to fend for themselves.   Plantation medical care, food, and living conditions resulted in an African American survival rate in the American South superior to any other region in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, the rate of natural population growth among the slave population was greater than whites in any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice as much as in England, then the richest and most powerful nation on earth.  

Some slave families were forced to separate and many individuals were subjected to cruel punishments.  Many slave owners tried to keep families together knowing that it impacted the performance of their workers, and also because they were Christians. There were internal slave markets carried on by slave traders who generally had less concern about preserving families, although some, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, were known to make considerable efforts to keep them together. Fogel and Engerman reported, “Most slave sales were either of whole families or of individuals who were at an age when it would have been normal for them to have left the family.” Most slaves lived in nuclear households, at 64 percent, while 21 percent were single parents and 15 percent non-family. Corporal punishment was practiced among the free population but was becoming less common by the 1850s. Without a doubt it was more common among the slaves.

More than ten percent of the black population in America were free, with slightly more than half of those living in the slave states. Free “Coloreds” living in the U.S. in 1860 came from various backgrounds including mulatto children born to indentured or free women, any born to a free African woman, mixed-race born to Native-Americans, slaves who had been freed by their masters, those who bought their freedom with money they earned working on their own time, and those who had run away and managed to stay away.  North or South, free blacks did not have the same full citizenship rights.  The Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision of 1857 declared that Africans, free or slave, were not citizens.

Many Americans, including Abolitionists, advocated that Africans be sent to Africa or to some place in the New World where they would be removed from American society.  This impractical scheme was sometimes thought of as voluntary emigration by free blacks. Toward this goal, the American Colonization Society, to which many prominent Northern and Southern Americans belonged, established the western African nation of Liberia. The attitude of most Americans of the time was summed up by Abraham Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people;  and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races. . . I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

It would not be until January of 1863 that the North would allow black men to serve in the Union Army, and then in segregated units at lower pay and with white officers.  U.S. “Coloured Troops” were often used as labor or in “forlorn hopes,” such as fighting at the Crater and Battery Wagner. 

Some free blacks found opportunity in the North, and some of them became active in the Abolition movement, the most famous being Frederick Douglass.  President Lincoln long held to the policy of colonization.  Concerning that belief, Union General Benjamin Butler reported that President Lincoln said in April 1865 (a few days before his death), “I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we get rid of the Negroes.”        


Many writers have strongly objected to the findings of economists Fogel and Engerman on conditions in the Old South, thinking it was defending slavery and offensive to African Americans.  Fogel and Engerman, however, felt that their findings showed a positive picture of black people wisely making the best of their situation by contributing greatly to the success of their plantation home.  “The typical slave field hand,” they wrote, “was not lazy, inept, and unproductive. On average he was harder-working and more efficient than his white counterpart.”   Slavery is today the most difficult and contentious subject in American history.  This is at least in part because of feelings and political agendas that are more a part of our own times than of history.  Current literature reflects the position of those who insist that the WBTS was entirely “about” the evil of slavery.  A smaller and less fashionable group of writers defend the Confederacy and the honor of the Southern people and point to motives other than antislavery as cause of the great bloodletting.   History is about what people thought, did, and said before we were born. It is and always should be open to different perspectives and interpretations.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

What factors make the discussion of American slavery difficult today?  After all, it ended a century and a half ago.

Recommended Reading

  • Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, pub. 1974.
  • Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives, by Paul D. Escott, pub. 1979.
  • “What Shall We Do with the Negro?”: Lincoln, White Racism and the American Civil War, by Paul D. Escott, pub. 2000.