Before the Civil War One Out of Every Three Southerners Lived in Bondage

Slaves were treated like cattle
like beasts of burden – not like people. They were bought and sold at auction and housed in over-crowded dirt floor shacks. They slept on beds of straw or rags and had only one change of clothing.

Most slaves entered the fields as children and labored in the intense southern heat from sun up to sun down (from "can to can't"). Others worked as house slaves in the plantation owners' homes or as skilled craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers or mid-wives.

Whipped Slave
Any transgression could result in a slave being "whupped" like the man shown here, who spent two months in bed after being beaten by his overseer. Slaves were also tarred and feathered, branded as runaways and hung.

In 1850, the life expectancy of a slave was only 30 years (compared to 36 years for the overall population) The higher than average mortality rate among slaves was due to hard labor, poor diet, frequent beatings and crowded living conditions. In the slave quarters, they were exposed to diseases like: yellow fever, malaria, cholera, dengue fever, dysentery, diarrhea, and a host of other ailments.

By law, slaves could not: travel without a written pass; own weapons; go out after curfew; learn to read and write; or gather in groups of three or more.

In 1808, the federal government finally banned the African slave trade. Without a ready supply of new slaves, the plantation owners worked their existing field hands harder. A small percentage of slaves were lucky enough to escape to the north on the underground railroad.