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Did the Slaves Steal? (Part I)

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Courtroom scene during slavery: Judge -- “order in the court! We are here to try the case of just how badly the slaves steal. We already know that stealing is the most frequent violation of the law charged against slaves. All we need is the accusation by Whites for slaves to be declared guilty. The plaintiffs may now state their case.”

Plaintiff: “Your Honor, we slaveholders are haunted by the fear of theft at all times and in all places. In harvest time we are obliged to set a strict watch over our cornfields, orchards, and melon patches. When night comes every movable article of property must be put under lock and key. Even the fowls have to all be collected together every evening as soon as it is time for them to go to roost, and then locked up in coops.

The reason we came up with the derogatory name ‘coon’ for slaves is because, like raccoons, they forage at night, raiding chicken coops, kitchen gardens, and stored food supplies. In other words, the slave “coons” are sly night varmints too shiftless to get their own food.

Your Honor, it is really amusing to see kitchens, stables, cotton houses, and granaries all fastened with great padlocks -- and that too in the day time if not occupied. A slave cannot be trusted for a moment with the key to the granary. If a peck of corn is to be measured, it must be done under the eye of a vigilant steward. It is just so too in the department that particularly belongs to the mistress of the family. She is obliged to weigh and measure every thing that passes into the hands of the cook.

In a large family, this duty is so arduous that the mistress seems to be the greatest slave. Every cupboard, closet, and drawer in those apartments to which the slaves have access are kept constantly locked. It is not even safe for the mistress to leave her work box in the drawing room unfastened. Then to sum up the whole, a family living on one of those isolated plantations must, when night comes, be all fastened up within windows and doors bolted and barred like a prison house.

This causes us White people to feel we live in the greatest bondage. Still, colored boys gain admittance to a master’s house by descending through the chimney in order to depredate and ravage the master’s wines, cigars, and similar things. One boy was caught lying upon the floor in a state of intoxication from excessive champagne intake. He confessed to having done this before, calling this ‘taking’ from White folks which was right and proper to do.

But can you believe that the slaves consider it wrong to ‘steal’ the property of other slaves?
The slaveowners live in constant fear for the safety of their lives and property. The propensity for stealing among the slaves is so great that even the dead are often exhumed for the purpose of securing their grave clothes.

Typically, our dead are interred in every article of dress worn in life -- even to a coat and boots for a man and full dress for church for a woman. Of course, to rob the grave of its wardrobe and violate the sacredness of the tomb meets with a penalty more cruel than death itself. Obviously, our fear of being robbed of our lives is the greatest of all. When the master goes away for long periods, the mistress can trust no slave.

Being unable to defend herself with fire arms in case of an attack upon her life, she must never retire at night without an axe so near her pillow that she could lay her hand upon it instantly. There have been several plots to massacre every member of the master’s family. However, thanks to our truly faithful old servants, they inform us in time because they could not stand to see their master and mistress and all the children murdered.

You see, your Honor, we slave holders are by no means -- with all our possessions -- the happiest people in the world. (The courtroom setting is fictitious but the main contents came from Emily Burke, “Reminiscences of Georgia” N.P.: James M. Fitch, 1850, pp151-59).

Incidentally, cleverlness in the ‘transfer’ of the master’s property was much admired by the slaves and was often elevated to an artform.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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