Health History: Up from slavery

(1619–1865)

image of slaves on plantationFive generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina. Source: Civil War Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Public Domain.

From the inception of slavery through modern times, those Blacks who grew old in the United States had to withstand a variety of psychologically, physically, and socially degrading experiences resulting from the political economy of race relations in the United States. Among the determinants of the treatment of elderly Blacks in the social history of the United States, economic factors have had a significant bearing.

For example, the economic interests of slave owners during the antebellum period of slavery in America made the situation of elderly disabled slaves especially tenuous. Genovese (1974) made the following observation about the economic and work-related determinants of the life chances of pre-Civil War elderly slaves:

The Whites of Maryland expressed outrage at the extent to which slave holders were emancipating their old slaves in order to escape responsibility for them.

In Baltimore, as in other southern cities, incensed residents protested against the influx of Manumitted country Blacks who could only become a public charge, and fought for tough laws to curb the practice. No less staunch a pro-slavery writer than Dr. Josiah Mott of Mobile revealed the fragility of paternalistic concerns in his attack on the practice of insuring slaves.

As long as the Negro is sound, and worth more than the amount insured, self-interest will prompt the owner to preserve the life of the slave; but, if the slave became unsound and there is little prospect of perfect recovery, the underwriters cannot expect fair play—the insurance money is worth more than a slave, and the latter is regarded rather in the light of a super-annuated horse (Genovese, 1974, p. 520).

Genovese also reported that some urban slave holders solved the problem of old, disabled slaves by sending them out to peddle or beg to bring in some income as well as support themselves. Insofar as White caretakers or owners were concerned, the antebellum (pre-Civil War) treatment of old, disabled Blacks ranged from full and kind concern to minimum attention to paternalism. In the negative extreme, there was indifference and sheer physical and mental abuse (Fisher, 1969).

Manumission may or may not have been an exceptional way of treating older slaves. Whatever its frequency, it was certainly not the only response to the old and disabled. It was disturbing to find in archival research, although not surprising after reflection on the economics of chattel slavery that slavers quite often sought to sell or trade their old disabled slaves and acquire younger stock for fear of losing the investment they had made.

One account reported that the appearance of “old slaves” were sometimes “doctored up,” made to look younger than they actually were before they were sold. Youthful appearances would bring a better price (J. Brown, 1855, pp. 26-27; B. B. Brown, 1847, pp. 42-45, 92-93).

Among slaves, according to Frederick Douglass, youth were expected to respect the older slaves, less they risk severe reprimand. “A Young slave must approach the company of the older with hat in hand, and woe betide him, if he fails to acknowledge a favor of any sort, with the accustomed ‘tank’ee’” (Douglass, 1855, pp. 35-40).

The bonds and customs of deference among slaves, no doubt, functioned as sources of social and psychological support for old disabled slaves facilitating their coping with the harsh and inhumane demands of the slavers culture. Included among the means by which older slaves supported and cared for the health of each other was folk medicine (Smith, 1881, pp. 4-5).
Support for older adults was also provided by younger able bodied slaves who shared their returns from labor with the older disabled who were less able to fend for themselves (Steward, 1857, pp. 16-17).