Why would anyone want to be a slave? When I first saw a court proceeding where a free person of color was petitioning to become a slave, I figured it must be:
- An anomaly and/or
- Because maybe their spouse was a slave at that plantation
But then, I saw more, and more, and more of these petitions….and I had to ask myself why.
Lisa Y. Henderson on her blog, Fourth Generation Inclusive, has posted several of these. I’ve also seen several others, in Virginia, North Carolina and even in Hawkins County, Tennessee, an area where slavery was not prevalent. Why? Why would anyone want to be a slave? Most people of color struggled to become and longed to be free, manumitted, emancipated, something….anything….to own your own body and the product of your work. It seemed to be the Holy Grail, so often unattainable, so why would someone who has that willingly seek to give it up?
The answer lies in a recent posting that Lisa retrieved from the North Carolina archives and is echoed in other similar records.
From Pasquotank County, in 1861, Kessiah Trueblood petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly to become a slave.
“The petition of Kissiah Trueblood most respectfully showeth unto your Honorable body, That she is a free woman of color now a resident of State and County aforesaid, and has been during her life, being at this time about 23 years of age; that during minority she was Apprentised to the late William Charles and served her time faithfully with him, since his death she has exercised the privilege of a free woman of color, being borned of free parents. For the space of two years just passed, she has lived with one Dr. W.P. Ritter in the capacity of a servant, receiving wages for services rendered. Your Petitioner further showeth unto your Honorable body, that after mature deliberation, upon her part, uninfluenced by any person, it being her own free will and accord, she desires to become the slave of the said Dr. Ritter, believing as she truly does after past experienced, that her condition in this life, will be for better, then, than at the present time. That in her present condition she is destitute and without protection, and in the condition of a slave, she would be cared for and have the protection of her Master, and to that end she prays your Honorable body, to enact such laws so as to enable said Dr. Ritter, to hold and possess your petitioner, in fee simple as his slave for all time to come, bothe your petitioner and children should she have any; governed only by such laws as have been enacted to regulate and govern the relations between Master and Slave. And your petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray. Kissiah X Youngbood”
Perhaps fortunately for Kissiah, her slavery would only last for 4 years, until the end of the Civil War, when she once again would have to provide for herself, along with thousands of other newly freed slaves. One has to wonder if she really thought things through. Why was she willing to trade her freedom for an uncertain future outside of her control? Did she realize what might well be in store for her, or was she simply hungry, tired and lonely – wanting to be part of a community with regular food and clothing, even if it was in slavery?
This next posting, also on Lisa’s blog tells the other side of the story, about why one would not want to be a slave. It doesn’t tell it directly, but the story and the “normalcy” it suggests is enough to make anyone cringe at the thought of the relinquishment of personal freedom, your children taken from you, bought and sold as commodities and then, when you are aged, being freed simply so you didn’t have to be fed, left to starve at the mercy of whom???
“To the Worshipfull Court of Pleas & Quarter sessions to be Held in Hertford on the Second Monday in Febry 1777. I Thomas Newby of the County of Perquimans and State of North Carolina Humbly prayeth that Your Worships Will take this my petition into Consideration & Grant the Said petition. — (to wit.) The Liberateing of A Certain Negro Woman belonging to me Your Humble petitioner by the name of Hannah, for this my Reasons. In the first place, She being grown ould, And Can be Very little Service to me as to any Hard Work or Drudgery. She being an Excellent Midwife Called on Every Land turn to Both White Women & Black and from account has performed her Duty With as much Scill as any of that profession Moreover She being A peaceable Negro Woman haveing Lived in this place for the Space of forty Years with one Certain Husband & Raised a Number of Children Which are at present Divided amongst the Heirs to whom they fell. And I your Humble petitioner from being Satisfyed and Contented With the Services Which I have rec’d from her the sd. Hannah, Humbly I prayeth that your Worships may take in Consideration & Set the Sd. Negro free by your order & further your Petitioner prayeth not. /s/ Thomas Newby”
Fortunately, the commissioners rejected Newby’s request, but it certainly begs the question about what kind of life Hannah had from that point forward. Her children were parted out, living among “the heirs,” her family gone except perhaps her husband. The only saving grace of this is the implication that the family had not been split by sale during that 40 years where they could never find each other or have contact again.
If you’re asking yourself what this has to do with Native Americans, remember that the Native people were enslaved before Africans were even introduced in Jamestown. Indians were captured by other Native people and sold into slavery, a commodity that the Europeans coveted. Many Native people entered the slave population throughout the 1600s and 1700s, where they were no longer Native, only people of color, mulattoes, and after a generation or so, simply slaves like the rest. Some retained the history of their Native ancestry, but many did not. A slave was a slave and it made no difference whether you were African, Native American or even part white. You inherited the status of your mother, and once a slave, always a slave, unless you were freed, manumitted or emancipated, or bought your own freedom – that is – unless someone captured you and resold you into slavery. And then there were the pathetic souls who asked to be rebound into slavery so that they simply could eat. Slaves were often better cared for by their owners, being an investment, than free people of color could care for themselves. Maybe the devil they knew was better than the devil they didn’t.