Most slaves worked on farms and plantations, and most of them toiled from sunup to sundown in the cotton or tobacco fields. These people crowded into rude cabins with dirt floors and few amenities. Slave owners encouraged their chattels to form family groups and sanctioned extralegal marriages for the same reasons that they emphasized religious practices among the slaves: as means of social control. Bondsmen with families and those who believed that God intended them to be slaves were less likely to rebel or run away.
A different class of slaves also resided on large farms and plantations. Called domestics or house servants, these African Americans performed duties associated with housekeeping, transportation, child rearing, and the care of animals, buildings, and grounds. Such men and women enjoyed a somewhat higher standard of living than agriculture workers. Their homes often had wooden floors and glazed windows, and food and clothing from the master’s home (the “big house”) found its way into the stomachs and onto the backs of house slaves. However, these bondsmen lived within close proximity of their owners and were under constant scrutiny, not to mention serving at their masters’ beck and call twenty-four hours per day. Still, in the plantation hierarchy, domestic servants occupied a higher rung on the social ladder.
After the end of the Civil War, Southern cities filled with freedmen, rejoicing at their newly-gained liberty but without employment or the means to sustain their lives. The unsettled relationship between whites and blacks dominated every consideration of Southern life. Slavery had been not only a labor system, but also a smothering means of social control. Few Southerners of any color failed to wonder what the future would bring in a world without this overarching presence.
Pamplin Historical Park’s “Field Quarter” provides a frank look at the lives of African Americans on Southern farms. Five reconstructed buildings form the core of the typical portion of a plantation occupied by its agricultural slaves. One of the structures contains an exhibit called “Slavery in America” and features a powerful film probing various perspectives on the South’s “peculiar institution” before the war. A furnished slave cabin offers a stark contrast to life in the big house, and even conditions experienced by domestic slaves. The Park maintains a slave garden and crop fields to demonstrate how farmers –both white and black –worked to produce their crops. Daily guided tours of Tudor Hall help visitors learn more about how Southerners of both races coped with the challenges of war, literally in their own back yard.