I think we should all be aware of the cost to our society, and particularly to our children, if we don’t honestly teach the history of the institution of slavery in the United States.
On the one hand, slavery was a very simple matter. Our country’s enslavement of men, women and children was, by any measure, an abomination. It was an unmitigated evil to reduce human beings to chattel property, to give legal status to their being bought and sold like livestock.
At the same time, slavery, as it worked itself out every day on the ground, could be almost infinitely complex. Never justifiable, under any circumstances, but complicated. And in those complexities, a story of triumph over adversity emerges, a powerful story that all students, of all races, deserve to know about.
Let me illustrate what I am trying to say here.
Almost by accident, I came across a remarkable story of a group of skilled slave artisans who worked in the Southern iron industry before and during the Civil War. They labored at a place called Buffalo Forge, near Lexington in the Valley of Virginia. We tend to think of slavery as an agricultural enterprise, but thousands of enslaved men and women worked in urban and industrial occupations far removed from the cotton, sugar and corn fields of the Old South. One such slave was a Buffalo Forge artisan named Sam Williams, someone who never learned to read or write but whose story can be told by the extraordinary survival of the manuscript records of this Virginia enterprise.
Industrial slaves worked on a task basis — so many pounds of iron produced daily or tons produced weekly, depending on their job. If they exceeded their task, and almost all did, they were paid in either cash or goods for their “overwork.”
The survival of these “overwork” ledgers is the key to our knowing as much as we do about Sam Williams (and the other skilled slave ironworkers at Buffalo Forge) for one simple reason. They tell us how these men spent their overwork earnings, money that took them so much sweat and sore muscles to come by. And the allocation of these precious dollars reveals something deeply moving about these enslaved men — their priorities.
In Sam Williams’ case (and he is typical of all of his co-workers), his number one priority was clearly his family. He used his earnings to give his wife, Nancy, Christmas presents like a pair of buckskin gloves, a shawl, a silk handkerchief and yards of fine fabric to sew into dresses for herself and possibly for their four daughters. He paid for cloth to make a bedspread for his 10-year-old daughter, Annie. He bought coffee, sugar and a barrel of flour for his mother, Sally, and his father, Sam Williams Sr. At a nearby estate sale, he purchased a looking glass for his family’s cabin. And in 1844, he spent $20 for a “Blue Coat Fine.” This was bought on the occasion of his becoming a fully baptized member of the Lexington Baptist Church, a congregation that included both Black and white parishioners.
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Sam Williams accommodated to the system out of necessity — he and members of his family could be sold at any time. But he was doing everything in his power to enhance his safety and that of his family by making his skills indispensable to his owner and to make his family’s standard of living far higher than it otherwise would have been. He was using his talents to be a better husband to his wife and a better father for his children. This determination can be understood by anyone who has been responsible for caring for a family and trying to shield loved ones from a cruel and uncertain world.
Sam Williams and his fellow ironworkers were also willing to resist their bondage. Such an occasion occurred in the summer of 1860, when the temperature in the Valley of Virginia reached 100 degrees in the shade. The forge men, including Sam Williams, staged a “sick out,” claiming to be too ill to work, but staggering their absence in such a way that iron production did not halt completely. When the scorching days continued, two of the workers sabotaged the forge, “broke down to loaf,” in the words of the forge manager. As a consequence, rather than apply the whip, he decided to give all of his skilled, and highly valuable, forge workers “a ½ (day) holiday.”
Sam Williams and his co-workers knew the power they possessed and the quite distinct limits of that power. Accommodation and resistance. Human being and chattel property. Enslaved artisan. Husband and father. Simplicity and complexity. All in a system that never possessed anything approaching moral justification.
Our children deserve to know this story and countless others like them. They are not too fragile to learn about these things. They, and our country, will be far better off if they do.
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, emeritus, at Williams College. The material in this column is drawn from his book “Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge.”