Education from LVA

Letter about Danville Slaves

  • A New Englander Described Danville Slaves, February 22, 1850
  • A New Englander Described Danville Slaves, February 22, 1850
  • A New Englander Described Danville Slaves, February 22, 1850
  • A New Englander Described Danville Slaves, February 22, 1850
In this letter Charles Doe described his impressions of several aspects of slave life in Danville in 1850.
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A New Englander Described Danville Slaves, February 22, 1850

Individual enslaved men and women did not have the means, or the time, to sit and write their own stories about their lives under bondage. Most of what we know comes from white Americans' recordings. When writing about slavery, whites often sought to prove or disprove abolitionists' accusations about the cruelty of slavery. Pressed by domestic and international public opinion to abolish or change the institution, southerners wanted slavery to appear benign and beneficial to those enslaved. Charles Doe, a native of New Hampshire, wrote this letter with a definite proslavery slant, while he visited his brother in Danville. Doe described the treatment of slaves in the town as well as some of the events enslaved people attended, including a funeral, a church service, and a slave auction.

Much of the content of Charles Doe's letter focuses on religious expression among African Americans. American society's shifting attitudes toward slavery during the turn of the nineteenth century altered southerners' ideas about religion. During the early nineteenth century, slaveholders paid little attention and sometimes opposed religious conversion to Christianity for fear that blacks would experience antislavery sentiment from clergy or biblical scripture. The increasing conflict over slavery in the United States, coupled with Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, only heightened this fear and legislation was created requiring white ministers to oversee religious services for African Americans. It had not been unusual for blacks and whites to worship together. Even though some southern slaveholders' motives were mixed with genuine concern for the moral welfare of those enslaved, many came to believe that religion was a form of social control and urged enslaved blacks to fill their church galleries and pews. It was not unusual to have churches with more black members than white. Most southern white preachers overcame any reservations about slavery (some were even slaveholders themselves) and eventually embraced proslavery arguments in their sermons. On some southern plantations, planters went as far as to build chapels or “praise houses” for black worship. Still, most African Americans found their spiritual needs were best met separately and sometimes secretly, holding their own services in brush arbors in secluded areas of forests.

Within churches, large numbers of African Americans experienced conversion, baptism, worship, and religious instruction. Enslaved blacks, however, drew their own conclusions and developed unique African American religious traditions. Deeply attracted to the spiritual emotionalism of Methodists and Baptists, African Americans were more uninhibited, heartfelt, and expressive during worship. Enslaved blacks used a song-style of preaching and responding derived from their African heritage. Sermons primarily focused on God's grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ and were often met with shouts of praise and joy. Like most other religions, African American Christianity formed a basis for moral behavior and an explanation for the existence of injustice in the world, but it did not focus on original sin and guilt like white Christianity. Enslaved people's talents for improvisation and music drew Doe's admiration, as noted in his letter.

As Doe's letter attests, one of the worst aspects of oppression African Americans endured was slave auctions and caused among slaves a "great fear." In the early nineteenth century, the demand for slave labor in the Deep South fueled the growth of the internal slave trade. Because of Virginia's large supply of slave labor, Richmond became a major center for slave trading activity. Between 1790 and 1860, the United States witnessed a great slave migration, with almost 1.1 million enslaved blacks taken out of the upper South destined for the Deep South. Virginia alone exported more than 360,000 enslaved people during this time. Slaveholders often sold enslaved blacks to slave traders, who then sold them at slave auctions. Most slaveholders preferred to buy enslaved blacks individually rather than in families, for financial reasons. Enslaved children, whose mothers or fathers had been sold away, often had adoptive parents who were friends of their biological mother or father. The black family preserved strong kin-based relationships within their communities as a means of survival and resistance.

For Educators


1. How did Charles Doe describe the church service he attended? What part of his description do you find most interesting? Why?
2. What instrument did Doe say southerners did not play?

Further Discussion

1. What can be learned about African American culture during slavery from what Charles Doe describes in his letters?
2. Trace the history of the banjo from Africa to America.


Charles Doe (1830–1896) was from New Hampshire, and he wrote this letter to family members living in Boston while he was visiting his brother Thomas Doe in Danville, Virginia.


This Day in Virginia: February 22

Suggested Reading

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made. New York: Random House, Inc., 1974.

Gudmestad, Robert Harold. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Danville Feb. 22d 1850
Dear Brother & Sister.
Mary Virginia will be 7 years old 12th of March, & Sally Allen 8 years old 27th June. They are both "powerful" large & fat, & possessed of an unusual musical talent. Sally will already turn any simple tune, after hearing it two or three times, & can give a half doz. negro melodies, & nursery rhymes. This talent is undoubtedly an inheritance of the Allen's– I had a notion to claim it as a peculiar trait of the Doe's but as only a very few of our family have developed their natural power in this art, & as every Allen is a musician, & as if this claim was established it would be the only Doe characteristic which Mary & Sally have yet shown. I droped that pretension immediately. Sally talks everything very well. On the morning of the 12th of this month, as I came in to breakfast, Thomas' countenance seemed to bear a very remarkable expression of comfort & gladness, & little Sally immediately explained these unusual symptoms, by rolling her eyes mysteriously, clapping her hands, & asking me if I had seen her little sister in the bedroom. I suspected however that she had received sundry directions from her Pa, about informing me of the coming of the third native Doe in Virginia. Thomas showed the most becoming satisfaction proper on an occasion of such increased responsibility. The name has not yet been given, & it is desirable that it should soon be fixed upon, so that she can more easily & conveniently be made the subject of conversation & correspondence. Martha is the only name yet mentioned. Sarah requests mother to forward one for consideration. Aunt Kathy daily reports all well.
A black, belonging to one of the doctors, staying two or three nights with Thomas' negroes, was taken sick, & died here a fortnight ago. I had opportunity to see how slaves are treated in sickness & death. This one was a valuable one, Worth $800 or $900, aged 30, engaged to be married soon, attached to his master & beloved by his master, & all the negroes. He was sick but 5 days, was attended by his master & two other doctors & watched by 2 negroes constantly. He was laid decently in a plain black coffin, carried to the grave in a wagon, & followed by 60 negroes on foot in the road, his master on sidewalk before the corpse. The blacks had a prayer meeting at the house before starting, & again at the grave, conducting it wholly themselves. The ministers attend at their funerals when requested, but they are not generally requested. The whole ceremony was as solemn silent & impressive as I have witnessed anywhere. The graveyard is divided by a fence, one part being for whites, & the other for blacks. This separation in death would probably suggest to an abolitionist, or any one searching for unpleasant things connected with slavery, that the fence might not be so hereafter. There are but a very few monumental stones in the part of the whites, & none in the other, but the grass grows as green in one as in the other. Have attended an Auction, at which 3 negroes, mother, child, & a man were sold. All sales of negroes are attended by many traders, whose business is to cary them to the south, mostly to S. Carolina & Georgia & Alabama. They generally have a great aversion to going South, & consequently are in great fear at the sales, of being bought by a Trader. Those, whose sale I attended, were bought to live in the neighborhood & were satisfied, but it is far from a pleasant sight at first to see negroes sold, as most of them are, in this way. Knowing not what their fate may be, liable to be bought by a hard master, or sent South, their fear of the worst, & anxious suspense while about to be sold, tormenting them naturally timid, they form a scene on the block, which is hard to be understood without being seen. — There are generally services in 2 or 3 of the 4 churches, in the morning, at which very few blacks attend. In the afternoon, there are services in 1 or 2 of the churches only, & no whites are present at them, unless from curiosity. I went to the Methodist last Sabbath afternoon. There were three or four hundred blacks there, observing the custom of the whites, The women being on one side & in front of the middle of the church, & the men occupying the back seats & one side. There were 6 whites in the gallery— The minister preached a good sermon, with a few ideas peculiarly adapted & addressed to the special condition & duties of the congregation. Their advantages were contra[sted] with those of heathen millions in a very good manner. If he had gone into particulars, & shown how much better morally, mentally, & physically, they are than the free blacks in Africa at this day, & also shown how much superior their prospects are, supposing they remain slaves forever, to any natural expectations that can be formed of their native brothers in Africa, he would have done no more than his duty. The greatest difference between this & a meeting of whites, is in the singing. The music of the whites is shocking, but of the blacks the best I ever heard without instruments. The contrast of music in forenoon & afternoon, is greater than the difference of color in the singers. The black have almost universally good voices, quick ears, & great love for music. Not one of them knows a note. Their national instrument is the Banjo; some of them play on the violin. The whites play the Banjo a great deal, at least as much as northerners do the flute. But the flute is hardly known here. Thomas will go North in a fortnight, & stay at Somersworth longer than common. I shall probably get home by the time he gets there. Want to stop in several places & shall start before him. CHARLES
Letter was Addressed:
Mr. E. Ricker Doe,
Chas Letter
Danville Febry 22d
1850 To Eben