March 29, 2022

Intertwined Stories: Living and Laboring

Intertwined Stories: Living and Laboring

In Intertwined Stories, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon by bringing you extended versions of some of the interviews with the series' contributors. 

Labor dictated life for enslaved communities at Mount Vernon and beyond. And yet despite their enslavement, people like Sambo Anderson, Kate, and Carolina Branham carved out time for themselves, created families, and forged relationships – sometimes across vast distances – that brought them comfort and some sense of control over their own lives. 

As we heard throughout Intertwined, reconstructing the lived experience of slavery is a difficult task.  We have few surviving accounts from the people who were enslaved, so we must use a variety of sources and evidence to interpret the past. 

To help us better understand what life was like in Virginia and throughout the Atlantic world, we chatted with Dr. Brenda Stevenson, who is an expert on the history of slavery, family, and gender in the early United States. 

Dr. Stevenson is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College at Oxford University. Jeanette Patrick was in the host’s chair for our interview with Dr. Stevenson, and we talked to her just before she made her move across the Atlantic in the summer of 2021. 

We pick up our chat with her about living conditions and daily life in Virginia before exploring how enslaved people formed families and communities. Intertwined is narrated by Brenda Parker and is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared. Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies for Intertwined are available at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.

Transcript

Intertwined: Stories
 "Living and Laboring"

FINAL TRANSCRIPT
Episode Published March 28, 2022

Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske

SPEAKERS

  • Brenda Parker, Narrator, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Jeanette Patrick, Studio Producer, R2 Studios, George Mason University
  • Brenda Stevenson, Hiliary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women’s History, St. John’s College, University of Oxford

BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

JEANETTE PATRICK: Hello, and welcome to Intertwined Stories. I’m your host, Jeanette Patrick

In this mini-series, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

To create that show, we interviewed over twenty scholars, some of whom are descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, for over an hour each. We couldn’t fit everything into the main series, so we’re happy to bring you extended versions of some of those conversations now.

Labor dictated life for enslaved communities at Mount Vernon and beyond.

And yet despite their enslavement, people like Sambo Anderson, Kate, and Carolina Branham carved out time for themselves, created families, and forged relationships – sometimes across vast distances – that brought them comfort and some sense of control over their own lives. 

As we heard throughout Intertwined, reconstructing the lived experience of slavery is a difficult task.  We have few surviving accounts from the people who were enslaved, so we must use a variety of sources and evidence to interpret the past. 

To help us better understand what life was like in Virginia and throughout the Atlantic world, we chatted with Dr. Brenda Stevenson, who is an expert on the history of slavery, family, and gender in the early United States. 

Dr. Stevenson is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College at Oxford University. 

I was in the host’s chair for our interview with Dr. Stevenson, and we talked to her just before she made her move across the Atlantic in the summer of 2021. 

We pick up our chat with her about living conditions and daily life in Virginia before exploring how enslaved people formed families and communities.

PATRICK: So if we could maybe shift a little bit to daily life then could you talk some about the living conditions for people in Virginia or, you know, broader is also fine, but maybe how... You know, living conditions or daily life might vary between like an urban and rural setting. 

 BRENDA STEVENSON: Well, living conditions for enslaved people varied a great deal. It really came down to almost the owner and the numbers and enslaved people that you have. For example, if you have someone like George Washington, you have someone who can afford to have large numbers of enslaved people, can afford to house large numbers enslaved people, can afford to feed large numbers of enslaved people, you know, and clothe them as well. But if you have someone who's just a poor farmer who has maybe one or two people, you know, and a small plot of not very fertile land. Alright, and trying to grow a tobacco crop, then they're not gonna probably have a separate cabin for these one or two people, these people are gonna sleep on the floor somewhere, maybe in a cellar, maybe in a barn, in the tobacco barn, they are not going to have a very decent clothing, they're gonna have the minimal when it comes to clothing, when it comes to shoes. 

STEVENSON: They're probably going to have to feed themselves, that is, they're gonna have to go out and hunt and fish, and, you know, they'll get a little food allowance but not a significant food allowance. They will have a lot of work to do and it's gonna be multiple tasks. It's not just gonna be, "Oh, you work in the field". No you work a field, you work in the house, you work in the garden, you work with the livestock, you're gonna do all of that too. When we have somebody who has a lot of enslaved people like George Washington, their labor is fairly specified. People are gonna work in the dairy, you've got people who's gonna do, you know, the laundry, he's got people who's going to be his personal servant or his family's personal servants, got people who are gonna grow to tobacco, grow the wheat grain, you know, gonna have people who are gonna be able to fencing, you're gonna paint the outside of that houses, all these other kinds of things are gonna go on. You're gonna have your domestic slaves or the people were gonna be at Mount Vernon living in something that looks like a brink dormitory... And everybody's gonna have a pad to sleep on and all that. You're not gonna have very much privacy, 'cause there are lots of people in one room. 

 STEVENSON: You're gonna have people who can have families on or nearby, because you've got 200-300 enslaved people, so their families that are going to develop. So those kind of things going on in your your day-to-day life. Those are all the positive things, if you can say anything's positive about slavery. You know you've got two people living somewhere out in, I don't know, some far Fluvanna County or some more rural county or something like that, living further up in other places of the northern neck or in the west of what we call the West Band going towards Shenandoah, then these people are going to have to spread out to find a wife. They’re have an broad marriage, if they can have that, they're gonna only see their families on a half a day on Sunday, because they've gotta get permission to be able to travel to see their wives and children. They're not gonna have control any day-to-day interaction with families and that kind of thing. They're not going to be able to pool their resources and share their food or their clothing, much either. 

 STEVENSON: So, they're not gonna be able to comfort the person if they are whipped or if they're sick or a fear of being sold away or traded or something. So, it can be very, very different the experiences that you have if you're a worker in a field many people think field work is the worst kind of work to do, but you do have more privacy and you do have more control of your life at the end of the day. If you work in the house, there are people who have to sleep in the laundry room, or they don't get to go to be with their families, etc. If someone gets sick, you're gonna stay up all night, you're gonna be the person who's going to change the dirty linen, who is and all this other kind of stuff. The kind of emotional strain that you're gonna have by being close to the person who controls most aspects of your life is very intense, if you're a domestic. 

STEVENSON: The people who I think probably have the "most mobility, most control" etc. are of course the skill artisans, because skilled artisans like carpenters or blacksmiths, or even midwife's... weavers, etc. They're given a task to do, they're pretty much left on their own to do the work, particularly the men, and sometimes they find that if they have to do a certain amount of work, their owner will allow them to use their day off, which is Sunday to work for somebody else who might not be able to afford a blacksmith, for example. He will take a share of that income and may allow that person to also take a share of it. It can vary tremendously. I think the people who work the hardest in terms of physical work, are the people who are in the frontier farms, because you have to cut down the forest in Virginia and all these places are heavily forested, you have to beat back the wild animals because there are lots of bears and cougars and snakes, and all of that. You have to plant, you've gotta get the roots out of the ground and turn the soil over and plan and nurture, and so that... And if you're in Virginia, of course, in the summer when most in the spring and the summer when you do the planting and the harvesting and all of that kind of stuff, it's very hot, it's very humid. I used to take my daughter to Busch Gardens and other places too, or even just to go to the plantations along the James River, you can feel that heat, you know what you're thinking about a person who's in charge of a thousand tobacco plants in that heat, in that humidity and that swampiness is very overwhelming just to think about what it was like. 

PATRICK: Absolutely, yes. It would have been truly miserable and for so many reasons. 

STEVENSON: And if you lived in a city, if you lived at Williamsburg, for example, then you were much more likely to live in an alleyway or something, you had a lot more freedom in terms of dismobility itself. You probably got more news about what was going on in the world just because all of these port towns and cities brought in, not just enslaved people, but also the news of the empire. It also was easier to escape as too if you lived in the city, because the small but important free black population of Virginia mostly lived in cities, and so if a person saw you, they didn't necessarily think automatically you were an enslaved person. You could have been one of those very lucky people who was worked on the ships or something, or worked on the docks who had already gained your freedom. It was also easier to get on the ship to bribe someone to hide you and to take you away from there. We see this happening a lot in my hometown, of Portsmouth Virginia, for example, we know that the churches that were close to the docks is where a lot of people went through, there were tunnels that went directly to the sea coast to the area where shipping was taking place to get on to them. 

STEVENSON: But if you lived in Charlottesville, where I went to college, it was harder to get out. If you lived in the Norfolk or Portsmouth, if you lived in Richmond, it was all these places are along the coast or along a river or something like that, and it's much easier if you were along the Potomac. It's much easier to escape. It was always a tremendous emotional burden, psychological burden. It doesn't matter whether or not you were a blacksmith or if you were the lowliest worker picking worms off of the tobacco plants, and some place where all you could see was tobacco plants, period. It was a psychological burden, you didn't have control over your life, you didn't have control over your family, didn't know what was happening to your loved ones, or what could happen to you. You can be sold at any time, you could be killed at any time, really. You could be kidnapped at any time, and lots of people in towns are kidnapped, they're kidnapped, so that's a downside of living in town because you could be put in a wagon covered up, taken to the next town sold, etc.  

It was a very excruciating life. 

PATRICK: Yes, yeah, absolutely terrible.  Could you describe the types of family networks and social networks that we see developing, especially with communities that, you know, have no say over where they're living and often don't get to live with, you know, their biological family members? 

STEVENSON: There are all kinds of families that develop, and so what we see happening is family and marital traditions that we find in West Africa, West and Central Africa, you know, are transported to the Americas with enslaved people, but we also see ideas about marriage and family that are being imposed or exist as examples that are coming from Europe, that are coming from Britain as well. And so we will see families develop, for example, George Washington is a wonder to us as historians who do social history, because he came to Slave list and he indicates family relations, and so... Thank you, and so we can see that even on his property, between him and Martha Washington, there are many families that developed husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, etc., and we also see people who are just husband and wife, we also see people who are just mothers and children, we see people who are single. 

STEVENSON: We see all these kinds of iterations of family. We think of what's very important, I think when we think about enslaved people because of cultural heritage, but also because of the kinds of working and living conditions that they had as enslaved people, we see extended families. Okay? So we see fictive kin, we see people who are taking in orphan children, for example. They take them in because they wanna help them at all, sometimes the owner will say, "You need to take care of this child." Okay, their mother's dead, the mother’s no longer with them, etc. So we see that happening. We see grandparents who are taking care of children. We also see fictive kin developing in male groups, because men were often sold when they're like 12 or 13 or moved to another outlying farm or something like that, and they live in houses where there's like five or six guys. They're like from the age of 12 to the age of 30 or something like that, so we have effective all gender kinship groups that are developing and saying for women, because women who, you know, may work in the house, for example, are finding work in the fields together or working the same gangs together, they look out for one another. They exchange information, they exchange resources, they act as midwives, they act as counselors, etc. 

STEVENSON: So we see what we think of as traditional family styles, we see the nuclear family, we see the marriages, but we also see fictive kin networks, we also see extended kin networks, etc., and we don't see it sort of just relegated to one geographical space that is one farm. What we do know is that these family networks, friend networks, community networks were really vast. I mean, county-wide and sometimes even crossing over counties. It's amazing what people... How people are able to walk so much, and there's a lot of "night walking" that's going on. There are a lot of religious ceremonies and rituals that are going on at night, and of course, the long break that comes at in the winter, around Christmas, for example, allows people to reconnect with one another, etc.

STEVENSON: In the colonial period, we see some polygamy. Okay? And we see that in Virginia. And we also see serial monogamy, we see because people are often sold away, and so they re-marry and then they re-marry again. And this is something that happens not only in the colonial period, but particularly in the early period of Early Republic and at the Antebellum period, because so many people, particularly from Virginia, are part of the domestic slave trade and are sold to the lower south and the southwest. If you look at Freedman Bureau Papers, for example, where they're actually are trying to reconnect people and they're actually trying to get people legally married. We begin to see people, they had a wife before, they had four children before... They had... So we kind of see the serial monogamy that's in place as a result of being a part of the domestic slave trade. 

STEVENSON: When we look at the earliest people who come over it, people come on over 1619, 1621, 1622, we see some people who may have been married or may we have connected with one another, in Middle Passage, and are lucky enough to be purchased by the same person or to go to reside at the same place. You know there's this one family in Hampton, Virginia, for example, that's been in Hampton, Virginia since 1621, basically. And we also see some people who don't remarry because they've got a family in West Africa or Western Central Africa, and they never have remarried, and these are both males and females. Because there's so many men in relationship to women, there was a lot of pressure on women to marry. But women can also pick and choose you know too... So the person who's the best hunter or the person who's, you know, the nicest or has the most status because they have status in the society in West Africa. One of these I think is very interesting is that, as a slave trade develops and more and more Africans arrive, that they do tend to choose people from their own ethnic group. They don't tend to... I mean if they have to, because there's not enough... We see some examples of people cross marrying, or marrying into other ethnicities, but if you have a group of people who are matrilineal, for example, they tend to marry among themselves. People who are patrilineal, don't tend to marry people who are matrilineal, because it really does subvert their what they think of as a family descent and all of that. So I think that's pretty cool. I mean, it's interesting at any rate.

PATRICK: Intertwined Stories is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.

I’m Jeanette Patrick, your host for this episode, which was produced by Jim Ambuske.

Jeanette Patrick and I co-created and co-wrote the main series, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Brenda Parker brought it to life as our wonderful narrator. Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.

Thank you to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon whose generous financial support made this show possible.

Please rate and review Intertwined on your favorite podcast app. We’d love to hear what you think, and it will help more people find the series.

And remember to check out our website for full transcripts, teacher resources, and suggested readings. You’ll find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com

Thanks for listening.

 

 

 

 

 

Brenda E. Stevenson Profile Photo

Brenda E. Stevenson

Inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women's History, St. John's College, University of Oxford

Brenda E. Stevenson (Yale Ph.D.) is an internationally recognized scholar of gender, race, slavery, family and racial conflict. She currently is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College at the University of Oxford. At UCLA, she served as the inaugural Nickoll Family Endowed Professor of History and Professor of African American Studies. A social historian, specific intellectual interests center on the comparative experiences of women, family, and community. Her published works include: Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South; The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the Los Angeles Riots; and What is Slavery? along with multiple edited volumes and articles on women, race, film and art.

Professor Stevenson’s research has garnered numerous awards, including the James Rawley Book Prize, the Ida B. Wells Barnett Award and the Gustavus Meyer Book Prize. Her research has been supported by, among others, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Ford and Mellon Foundations, the American Association of University Women, the Center for Advanced Study, the National Humanities Center and the American Academy in Berlin. She is the recipient of the John Blassingame Award for Mentorship and Scholarship, the Carter G. Woodson Medallion and Yale’s Wilbur Cross Alumni Medal.

Professor Stevenson is the past Chair of the Department of History and the Interdepartmental Program in African American Studies at UCLA. She is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and is currently a member of its Executive Board. Her interviews and commentaries can be heard on NPR affiliates and other national and international media outlets.