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.
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?
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.
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.