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Did the Slaves Steal? (Part II)

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In the defense of the slaves regarding the issue of “Did the slaves steal?” I will join Fredrick Douglass (“My Bondage and my Freedom”) as co-counsel in the fictitious Antebellum (before the Civil War) courtroom scene.

Douglass begins: “Your Honor, although the law says that no Black person can defend himself against accusations of a White person and have no rights that a White person is bound to respect, we still appreciate the opportunity to present the slave’s point of view.

Allow me to give a personal example. There were eight persons in the family. There was, each week, one half bushel of cornmeal brought from the mill; and in the kitchen cornmeal was almost our exclusive food, for very little else was allowed us.

Out of this half bushel of cornmeal, the family in the great house had a small loaf every morning; thus leaving us, in the kitchen, with not quite a half a peck (four quarts) of meal per week, a piece. It was not enough to subsist upon; and we were, therefore, reduced to the wretched necessity of living at the expense of our neighbors.

We were compelled either to beg, or to steal, and we did both. I frankly confess, that while I hated everything like stealing, as such, I nevertheless did not hesitate to take food when I was hungry, where I could find it. Nor was this practice the mere result of an unreasoning instinct. It was, in my case, the result of a clear apprehension of the claims of morality.

I weighed and considered the matter closely before I ventured to satisfy my hunger by such means. Considering that my labor and person were the property of Master Thomas, and that I was by him deprived of the necessities of life -- necessaries obtained by my own labor -- it was easy to deduce the right to supply myself with what was my own.

It was simply appropriating what was my own to the use of my master, since the health and strength derived from such food were exerted in his service. To be sure, this was stealing, according to the law and gospel I heard from St. Michael’s pulpit. But I had already begun to attach less importance to what dropped from that quarter, on that point, while, as yet, I retained my reverence for religion.

It was not always convenient to steal from master, and the same reason why I might, innocently, steal from him, did not seem to justify me stealing from others. In the case of my master, it was only a question of removal -- the taking his meat out of one tub and putting it into another. The ownership of the meat was not affected by the transaction. At first, he owned it in the tub, and at last, he owned it in me.

His meat house was not always open. There was a strict watch kept on that point, and the key was on a large bunch in Rowena’s pocket. A great many times have we, poor creatures, been severely pinched with hunger, when meat and bread have been moulding under the lock, while the key was in the pocket of our mistress. This had been so when she knew we were nearly half starved.

And yet, that mistress, with saintly air, would kneel with her husband, and pray each morning that a merciful God would bless them in basket and in store; and save them, at last, in his kingdom. It was necessary that the right to steal from others should be established. Other slaves had the same attitude. For example, near the river shore owned by a wealthy slaveholder, there was an excellent oyster fishing ground.

To this, some of the slaves from another plantation occasionally resorted in their little canoes, at night, with a view to make up the deficiency of their scanty allowance of food by the oysters that they could easily get there. Regarding this as a trespass, the wealthy owner discharged the contents of his musket into the back and shoulders of the poor slave.” Then I spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury you must decide if anyone with good character and a belief in God would have acted in any other way.”

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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