How Did Slaves Live on Plantations?

One of the most often questions regarding the darkest corners of human history is how did slaves live on plantations. In very harsh conditions would be a gentle description of everyday life for those born with black skin. Some of the most beastly conditions could be found in the American south during the antebellum time.


The matter of housing varied from one master to another. On some plantations, slaves were allowed to build their own houses similar to those that they had in Africa. Most of the time those were small huts with thatched roofs built from materials their masters provided. If however, the owner had already built the houses they had no choice but to live in them whether they liked it or not. The area of plantations in which slaves resided was often referred to as a negro yard. Up to twenty people were crammed in huts tight even for few. They slept on the floor in the old thorn sacks.


Clothes supplies per slave were brought down to one rag annually. Usually, it consisted of the coarse wrought fabric of cotton, wool, and linen. Men wore pantaloons and stout frock. Women who worked in the field had only one long frock with nothing below. Slaves were obliged to sustain the wearability of their clothes or walk naked. Hygiene was minimal. Their outfits were rarely washed.


Although the logic implies that a well-fed slave was a productive worker, in wide practice, plantation owners had different opinions. They rationed small portions of food, enough to fuel organisms for work but nothing more than that. Some of the owners gave an explanation that strength leads to rebellion, therefore it mustn’t be allowed. During the period before the Civil War, some of the social entities that were part of the movements aiming to abolish slavery, like the North Star newspaper, exposed that merchants were selling rotten meat to the plantation owners. Sometimes slaves were given forks, knives, spoons, plates and, pans but most of the time, they had to make all of it themselves.


This, like housing, varied from one master to another. Yet severity and brutality were present almost without the exception. Beating, whipping, choking, hanging, boiling, starving… The peak of brutality masters applied on slaves was that all those torments weren’t even had to be a punishment. For no reason, the master was allowed to kill a slave or do with him as he pleases. Black-skinned folk was treated like a chattel by both the plantation owners and the laws of many southern U.S. countries that relied on cotton. It is, after all, the cause that started the Civil War.

Free Time

Many slaves worked from dawn to dusk. One free day per month was all they were allowed to have. Rare were the masters and far known for their generosity reflected in making every Sunday a rest day. In free time, slaves did chores in their huts. They were not allowed to learn how to write or read but were given permission to go to church.

Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts regarding slavery:

  • 1.0 million lived on plantations with 50 or more enslaved people.
  • More than 46 000 plantations had more than 20 slaves.
  • Stephen Duncan was the owner of the largest and wealthiest cotton plantation.
  • Shirley Plantation was the oldest Plantation in the U.S. dating back to 1614 with operations starting in 1638.

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