Imagine working from sun up to sun down six days a week, then trudging home to a one-bedroom cabin shared with eight family members and co-workers. Weekly rations consist of one pound of salted pork and a peck of cornmeal; children and the elderly receive a half ration. Vegetables, cabbage and sweet potatoes farmed from a square patch of the garden supplement meals, if permitted by your boss.
There’s no need to shop for winter and summer clothes since you must wear what is given to you. A new pair of shoes and a blanket might be distributed every three years, provided your boss is rich. This was the life of a slave.
Eighty to 90 slaves worked for the Weir family on Liberia Plantation in Manassas. Both house and field slaves maintained the thriving farm during the mid-19th century. House slaves, including cooks, laundresses and blacksmiths, typically received more comforts than field slaves who toiled on the plantation.
The cooks used chamber pots and spider skillets to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for the Weirs. Depending on the owner, some cooks were permitted to eat leftovers after cleaning up while others were scrutinized to ensure left overs were not touched. Child slaves were responsible for transporting firewood and water to the kitchen and laundry houses.
Laundresses washed the family’s clothes, linens and towels with flat irons, caldrons and handmade soap. Warm water was created from the heat of flat irons lined up against the fire. Blacksmiths also worked with flat irons to build and repair plantation tools.
Those who worked in the fields planted and grew a variety of vegetables, including cabbage, potatoes, corn and beans. Field slaves were responsible for gathering poultry eggs, milking cows and shearing sheep as well. During harvest season they labored 18 hours a day.
Living conditions varied from one plantation to another. Slave Josiah Henson wrote of her experience:
"Wooden floors were a luxury. In a single room were huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women and children. We had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description. Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and bxoed in with boards; a single blanket the only covering."
It was illegal for slaves to read and write. Owners feared that literate slaves might read the Bible and "interpret the teachings of Jesus Christ as being in favour of equality." This interpretation could lead to a slave uprising and the loss of cheap labor. For this reason, southern slaves were also forbidden to attend church.
“Slave owners assimilated to neighbor planters,” explained historical interpreter and seventh generation Virginian Marion Dobbins. If neighbors provided slaves with half a pound of ration each week, this became the precedent among neighborhood slave owners. Few slaves were freed as a result of this unspoken rule, since one freed slave might lead to many freed slaves.
Wearing a 19th century day dress, head wrap and a cloth around her neck, Marion Dobbins presented slave narratives during the “Slave’s Life at Liberia Plantation” event hosted by the Manassas Museum. She displayed a variety of slave artifacts, including a ration of cornmeal and salted croton, chamber pots for cooking, a flat iron, handmade broom and a hoe blade similar to those used by field slaves. The stories and artifacts shared by Dobbins offered a glimpse into the life of a Liberia Plantation slave.
The next educational slave lecture scheduled for Thursday, February 24th at 7:00pm is hosted by Prince William County's Historic Preservation Division. For more information on this free event please call Historic Programs Coordinator David Born at 571-641-0042.