Hidden Voices: Enslaved Women in the Lowcountry and U.S. South

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House Labor

Slaveholders referred to enslaved people who labored in their home, commonly referred to as the "big house," as "servants." With much of this work "domestic" in nature and regarded as intrinsically suitable for women and girls to perform, more females than males worked in plantation homes. House labor involved a diverse range of tasks from cleaning, cooking, and washing to caring for all members of the white family—from adults to infants. Many enslaved women of all different ages hence labored within white enslavers’ houses, with women sometimes assigned this task for most of their adult life.

In contrast to fieldwork where enslaved people could return to their families in the quarters at the end of the working day, house laborers often lived within the walls of the plantation house itself, and so they had extremely little respite from the constant demands of white slaveholders and their families, even during the night. Unlike those working in the field, enslaved domestics could not apply the timekeeping properties of the Lowcountry’s task system or the sun up to sun down schedule of the gang labor system to their work. The distinction between work and personal time for enslaved women in domestic positions was the white family’s decision at all hours of the day and night, many demanding around-the-clock care. Jessie Sparrow, enslaved in South Carolina, recalled how her mother became isolated from her wider enslaved community through her work in the big house:

"'She been raised in de white folks house to be de house girl,' explained Jessie. 'Never did work non tall outside. She sleeps on uh pallet right down by de missus bed. She sleep deer so she can keep de missus cover up aw trough de night.'"

Jessie Sparrow, interview with Federal Writers' Project, South Carolina, 1937.

Portrait of an African American woman holding a white child, 1855, courtesy of the Library of Congress. "Mammy Peggy came marching in like a grendier," from The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories, by Paul Dunbar, E. W. Kemble, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

(Top) Portrait of an African American woman holding a white child, 1855, courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Bottom) Mammy Peggy came marching in like a grendier, from The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories, by Paul Dunbar, E. W. Kemble, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

The labor of enslaved women in domestic positions often put them in close contact with both enslavers and other enslaved people, placing them in a fairly unique position of being subjected to both intimacy and surveillance. Some spent most of their time caring for children, including clothing, feeding, and bathing children. They were also charged with caring for infants and children who awoke in the night. Lactating women also served as wetnurses to the white infants of the house, sometimes at the expense of being able to feed their own infant children. Other women were tasked with ensuring the smooth running of plantation kitchens, including cooking and supervising younger, more junior enslaved people. As women who cared for white and Black children, cooked for white and Black families, breastfed white and Black infants, and sometimes took on a number of these roles, these women played extremely intimate roles in the lives of white and enslaved people.

Over time, slaveholders developed a revered stereotype of a senior domestic woman as a "mammy" figure who represented a loyal, devoted servant of the family. Skilled, senior enslaved women who ran plantation kitchens often also generated respect and esteem from other enslaved women. However, by ignoring the help these senior women often granted to other enslaved people, including their own family—for example by providing food and goods, passing on news from enslavers, and giving physical affection if or when they did see their family—slaveholding families mistakenly regarded the mammy figure as someone who happily and exclusively dedicated herself to serving them. In creating this caricature, whites also completely desexualized older enslaved women as sexually unattractive, and they created an image of unquestioned obedience to white people and domestic work. Unsurprisingly, this stereotype subsequently evolved into an important post-slavery trope used by white pro-slavery apologists to represent the institutions alleged benevolence. However, the safety and wellbeing of a domestic enslaved woman depended on her ability to manage this position of intimacy, which meant many chose to perform the role in a way that kept them safe, regardless of their real feelings.

Group portrait of a white family and an African American girl, New Market, Virginia, circa 1860, courtesy of Slavery Images.

“Den I waz de nu’se dere fa dem chillun. Ne’er lak it but I ha’e it to do. Hadder stay right dere to de big house aw de time. Miss Susan ne’er wouldn’t ‘low me take dem chillun ‘way offen no whey en eve’ybody hadder be mindful uv wha’ day say ‘fore dem chillun too. I ‘member dat big ole joggling board dere on de front piazza dat I use ‘er ge’ de chillun to sleep on eve’y evenin’. I be dere singin’ one uv dem baby song to de child en it make me hu’t lak in me bosom to be wid my ole mammy back up dere in de quarter.”

Genia Woodberry, interview with Federal Writers' Project, South Carolina, 1937.

Enslaved women’s experience of work in slaveholders’ homes exposes as myths the idea that this type of labor was preferable and superior to working in the fields and living in the slave quarters. Being forced to care for enslavers’ children made Woodbury long for her own family. She and others like her also faced the fear of sexual and physical violence in white homes. There were undoubtedly some material benefits from laboring in the big house. It often resulted in better quality clothing and food than for those who resided in the quarters, and house women were spared working in the hot sun in dangerous conditions. However, these benefits were offset by the isolation, longer hours, and sexual and physical violence, making domestic enslavement different but still dangerous.