Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us About Their Relationships With Their Former Mistresses?
Lydia Thomas | 25 March 2020
◇ North American History | Modern History | Black History | Gender History
The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.
The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.
Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.
The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.
The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: "See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way." She went on to describe her former mistress as "a common dog."
In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: "De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me."
The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.
Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King: "In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller." Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.
In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as "the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now."
Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.
Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as "a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth."
The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.
Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.
 Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190
 Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11
 Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190
 Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166
 Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves