Celebrate Juneteenth by Reflecting on Enslavement in the American South

Happy Juneteenth(observation day)! As we take today to commemorate the end of slavery in the US, we are sharing an excerpt from Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South by Stephanie M. H. Camp.


The Bondage of Space and Time


At the heart of the process of enslavement was a spatial impulse: to locate bondpeople in plantation space and to control, indeed to determine, their movements and activities. Enslaved people in the nineteenth century were trapped in more than an exploitative labor relation; they were the captive losers in a battle for power that had begun centuries earlier in the Atlantic maritime world. As outsiders, heathens, perhaps even beasts, Africans were, unlike Europeans (no matter how debased), viewed as fundamentally enslaveable by the European merchants, planters, travelers, and adventurers who traversed the Atlantic world. Once enslaved, Africans were considered more like the captives of war to whom they were compared in the early, formative years of American slavery than to the indentured servants to whom they are sometimes compared now. In the minds of the earliest participants in and witnesses to the African slave trade, as historian Winthrop Jordan has put it, “enslavement was captivity.”

Slavery’s roots as a form of captivity lived into the nineteenth century. Enslavement in the American South meant cultural alienation, reduction to the status of property, the ever-present threat of sale, denial of the fruits of one’s labor, and subjugation to the force, power, and will of another human being. It entailed the strictest control of the physical and social mobility of enslaved people, as some of the institution’s most resonant accouterments— shackles, chains, passes, slave patrols, and hounds—suggest. These effects were as much a part of abolitionism’s image-based protests against bondage as were depictions of the lash, the auction block, or stooped slaves in the field. These same images have persisted into our own visual culture of bondage, testaments to slavery’s denial of a medley of freedoms.

By the nineteenth century, lawmakers and slaveholders had laid out, in their statutes and in their plantation journals, a theory of mastery at the center of which was the restriction of slave movement. Passes, tickets, curfews, and roll calls all limited slave mobility. In his remarkable memoir of life in bondage, Charles Ball called the legal and day-to-day regulations that governed black movement “principles of restraint.” “No slave dare leave” the plantation to which she or he belonged, Ball wrote, not for a “single mile” or a “single hour, by night or by day,” except at the risk of “exposing himself to the danger of being taken up and flogged.” Bondpeople everywhere were forbidden by law and by common practice to leave their owners’ property without a pass, and slave patrols attempted to ensure obedience to the law and to plantation rules. Formerly enslaved people compared bondage to another form of confinement: “I was a slave,” Henry Bibb wrote in his autobiography, “a prisoner for life.” Fountain Hughes agreed, saying of enslavement that it was a “jail sentence, was jus’ the same as we was in jail.”

Antebellum principles of restraint rested on a legal bedrock laid in the colonial and early national periods. Between the seventeenth and the early nineteenth centuries, as colonists and settlers seized and organized land that would become states, elites passed laws to govern the people who populated these new societies. Slaveholders everywhere in the slave South shared a common interest in constricting black mobility; intraregional differences of crop, demographics, and culture modulated but did not fundamentally alter this investment. Virginia was the first colony to pass laws governing bond-people’s behavior. Among the colony’s earliest slave laws was the act of 1680 “for preventing Negroes Insurrections.” The concerns expressed in this ordinance indicate a sense of urgency in regard to controlling black mobility. To prevent “Negroes Insurrections,” the colonial legislature prohibited enslaved people from possessing weapons and, in the same breath, from leaving their place of work without a pass, or “certificate.” The law read: “It shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence, nor to goe or depart from of his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions.” Judging independent slave movement to be akin to the possession of arms, the Virginia legislature banned both. This law also established the punishment for errant movement away from the “masters ground:” “twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on.” From fairly early in colonial history, slaveholders’ control depended on the confinement of slaves.