As was true in all southern states, enslaved women played an integral part in Georgia’s colonial and antebellum history. Scholars are beginning to pay more attention to issues of gender in their study of slavery in the Old South and are finding that enslaved women faced additional burdens and even more challenges than did many enslaved men.
It is not known just when the first enslaved women came to Georgia. A few enslaved laborers had been brought from South Carolina during the early years of the new colony, when the institution was banned, but only after 1750, when the ban was lifted, did Black men and women arrive in Georgia in significant numbers. They came as transports from other American colonies, as direct imports from Africa, or as indirect imports by way of the West Indies.
From 1750 until the first census, in 1790, Georgia’s enslaved population grew from approximately 1,000 to nearly 30,000. Most of those were concentrated on plantations situated between the Altamaha and Savannah rivers along the coast in the present-day counties of Chatham and Liberty and on the Sea Islands. The proportion of men to women in Georgia’s early enslaved population is difficult to determine. The Trustees early decreed that for every four Black men there must be one Black woman; but the Trustees could not control the proportions among the increasing number of children born into slave status on Georgia soil.
The Trustees did issue special instructions regarding the labor of enslaved women. In August 1750, seeking to establish silk production as a profit-making industry in the new colony, they stipulated that “Female Negroes or Blacks … be well instructed in the Art of winding or reeling of Silk from the Silk Balls or Cocoons.” They also ordered enslaving planters to send enslaved women to Savannah to be trained in silk-making skills.
Mention of enslaved women also appeared in colonial plantation records and newspaper advertisements. Enslavers kept meticulous records identifying several traditionally female occupations, including washerwomen, wet nurses, cooks, hairdressers, midwives, servants to the children, and “house wenches.” Those in agricultural positions cultivated silk, rice, and indigo, but after the cotton gin was patented in 1793 most worked in cotton fields. Enslavers occasionally placed advertisements in such newspapers as the Georgia Gazette either seeking the return of self-emancipating women or offering them for sale. The ads often included revealing descriptions of the women involved, as did this 1767 ad for an enslaved woman recently imported from Africa, posted by a Mr. John Lightenstone:
“Taken or lost, for the Subscriber, about the 14th February last, off or near the plantation of Philip Delegal, Esq. A NEW NEGROE WENCH
“Stout and tall, about 30 years old, speaks no English, has her country marks upon her body, had on when she went away white negroe cloth cloaths. —Whoever takes her up, or can give any intelligence of her to the subscriber, so that he may have her, shall have 20s. reward. —There is a great reason to think the Indians have carried her off.”
During the nineteenth century Georgia developed a mature plantation system, and records illuminating the experience of enslaved women are more complete. In early childhood enslaved girls spent their time playing with other children and performing some light tasks. Enslavers clothed both enslaved boys and girls in smocks and assigned such duties as carrying water to the fields, babysitting, collecting wood, and sometimes light food preparation. As the children neared the age of ten, enslaving planters began making distinctions between the genders. At this time enslaved girls either were trained to do nonagricultural labor in domestic settings or joined their elders in the fields. Boys went to the fields or were trained for artisan positions, depending on the size of the plantation.
Early adolescence for enslaved young women was often difficult because of the threat of exploitation. For some, puberty marked the beginning of a lifetime of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from enslaving planters and their wives, overseers, enslaved men, and members of the planter family. For others, work in the planter’s home included close interaction with their owners, which often led to rape by white men or friendships with white women. House servants spent time tending to the needs of their plantation mistresses—dressing them, combing their hair, sewing their clothing or blankets, nursing their infants, and preparing their meals. They were on call twenty-four hours a day and spent a great deal of time on their feet.
Agricultural laborers served as the core of the workforce on both rice and cotton plantations. Since enslaving planters reserved artisan positions for enslaved men, the majority of the field hands were female. Enslaved women constituted nearly 60 percent of the field workforce on coastal plantations. Commenting on the work of enslaved females on his coastal estate, one planter noted that “women usually picked more [cotton] than men.” Enslaved women often were in the fields before five in the morning, and in the evening they worked as late as nine in the summer and seven in the winter. They prepared fields, planted seeds, cleaned ditches, hoed, plowed, picked cotton, and cut and tied rice stalks. Enslaved women also cleaned, packaged, and prepared the crops for shipment.
Maintaining family stability was one of the greatest challenges for enslaved people in all regions. Some enslavers allowed laborers to court, marry, and live with one another. Others did not recognize marriage among enslaved people. The lack of legal sanction for such unions assured the right of enslavers to sell one spouse away from another or to separate children from their parents. Nothing lowered morale among enslaved laborers more than the uncertainty of family bonds. William and Ellen Craft, self-emancipated fugitives from slavery in Georgia, claimed that “the fact that another man had the power to tear from our cradle the new-born babe and sell it in the shambles like a brute, and then scourge us if we dared to lift a finger to save it from such a fate, haunted us for years” and ultimately motivated them to escape.
Prominent Enslaved Women in Fact and Fiction
Several Georgia enslaved women achieved prominence as individuals, either historically or in fictional form. Ellen Craft was among the most famous of self-liberated individuals. The daughter of an enslaved woman and her white enslaver, she disguised herself as a white man, and her husband, William, posed as her body servant, as they made a dramatic and dangerous escape from Macon to Savannah by train in 1848, and then by steamship north. Their account of the escape, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, published in England in 1860, is one of the most compelling of the many fugitive slave narratives.
Amanda America Dickson was born in 1849, the product of Hancock County enslaver David Dickson’s rape of an enslaved twelve-year-old, Julia Frances Lewis Dickson. Dickson’s father brought her up in his household, though she remained legally enslaved until 1864, despite her privileged upbringing. Her inheritance at her father’s death in 1885 caused a court challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Georgia. The court ruled in her favor, confirming her status as one of the wealthiest Black women in late-nineteenth-century America.
Among the richest published accounts of the plights of enslaved women are those found in Fanny Kemble’s journal of her stay on her husband’s plantations on St. Simons and Butler islands in 1838-39. Kemble was appalled at the poor conditions, both physical and emotional, under which her husband’s enslaved women laborers suffered: in the fields, in pregnancy and childbirth, and in the uncertainties they faced in being separated by sale from their spouses or children.
Certainly the best-known fictional enslaved women were the two characters created by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind (1936). Mammy was brought vividly to life by Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1939 film, while Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, sparked considerable controversy in later years because of her helpless and ignorant demeanor. A more recent controversy was generated by Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), in which the heroine and narrator is Cynara, the enslaved daughter of Mammy and the half sister of Other (the character who parodies Scarlett O’Hara).
In her novel Jubilee (1966) Mississippian Margaret Walker fictionalized her own great-grandmother’s experience in Terrell County in southwest Georgia. Walker heard stories of her ancestor’s experience in slavery from her grandmother and traveled to Terrell County to research her family’s history there in preparation for the book. Jubilee traces the trials and ultimate triumph of its heroine, Vyry, through its three sections—her early life on a plantation, her emancipation during the Civil War (1861-65), and her adult life as wife and mother during and after Reconstruction.