Summary Objective 9

Students will describe the principal ways the labor of enslaved people was organized and controlled in what is now the United States. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 4, 5, 6 & 10 


What else should my students know?

9.A While the work of enslaved people varied widely across North America, most enslaved people lived in small households in close proximity to their enslavers. They labored to maintain their enslavers’ families, houses and farms. This included tasks such as cooking, child care and cleaning. 

9.B Enslaved people were often highly skilled, using training and knowledge from their home cultures while acquiring new abilities.

9.C The labor that enslaved people were forced to do was often very dangerous and physically taxing, regardless of the type of work or geographic location. Most enslaved people performed heavy labor growing crops such as cotton, rice and tobacco. About five percent of enslaved people labored in coal mines and industrial mills in the United States. Many enslaved people worked under the supervision of an overseer or a driver. In the southern United States, overseers were often white Southerners. Drivers were usually enslaved men who were entrusted (at least temporarily) with supervisory powers.


How can I teach this?

  • Enslavers devised systems to maximize production and profit from forced labor, including the task system and gang labor. They measured effectiveness and tried to maximize production using business and accounting methods that have since become mainstream. The Boston Review has published an excerpt from the book Accounting for Slavery. It shows how many of today’s ideas about business management have roots in the organization of enslaved labor in the Americas.
  • In a short video from Learning for Justice, Dr. Daina Ramey Berry shows how enslavers used enslaved people to generate profit. 
  • Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave includes descriptions of his life on cotton and sugar plantations. In Chapter 16, Northup is made a driver. He describes the delicate balance he had to maintain to keep both the white and enslaved populations as happy as possible. 
  • In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass provides an account of his childhood in enslavement. In Chapter 1, he offers a description of Mr. Plummer, the drunk, malicious overseer at the plantation where he was first enslaved. 
  • In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs describes her work in a white household, where she is subjected to sexual harassment by her enslaver and anger from his wife. 
  • In his January 19, 1854, letter to slaver Z.B. Oakes, A.J. McElveen describes an enslaved man named Isaac who works as a carriage driver, painter, violinist and cook, among other things. 
  • To understand industrial slavery, students might look at Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, which details his time as a caulker in a shipyard. Historian Charles Dew’s Bond of Iron explores slavery at the Buffalo Forge, an ironmaking venture in Virginia. 
  • Episode seven of Learning for Justice’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery podcast discusses the diverse lives of enslaved people, offering suggestions to teachers for ways to present this material to their students. 



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