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Strategies for Survival

Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia

William Dusinberre

Publication Year: 2009

Strategies for Survival conveys the experience of bondage through the words of former slaves themselves. The interviews—conducted in Virginia in 1937 by WPA interviewers—are considered among the most valuable of the WPA interviews because in Virginia the interviewers were almost all African Americans; thus the interviewees almost certainly spoke more frankly than they would otherwise have done. Dusinberre uses the interviews to assess the strategies by which slaves sought to survive, despite the severe constrictions bondage imposed upon their lives. Religion and escape were common means of coping with the indignity of family disruption, contempt, and the harsh realities of slavery. However, while Dusinberre recognizes the creativity and variety of slaves' responses to oppression, he acknowledges the dispiriting realities of the limits of slave resistance and agency.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Series: Carter G. Woodson Institute Series

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

My greatest obligation is to Roscoe Lewis, the Hampton Institute professor who in 1936 and 1937 organized the interviewing of elderly former slaves in Virginia that lies at the heart of the present book. Lewis recruited as interviewers mainly African Americans, had it not been for the editorial work, some forty years later, of ...

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pp. 1-12

This book presents a view of antebellum North American slavery as experienced by the slaves themselves. Although it focuses on the state of Virginia, I believe most of its conclusions are suggestive for nearly all of the “Middle South” and for most...

Part I: Alleviations

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Chapter 1: Good Mistresses and Masters

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pp. 15-27

Before the Civil War, and for more than a century thereafter, apologists for the slave regime of the Old South claimed that the typical slavemaster was a benevolent figure who treated his “servants” indulgently and was loved by them. Although...

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Chapter 2: Mixed-Race Ancestry and Long-Term Relationships

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pp. 28-49

Just as there was great diversity among slavemasters, so was there vast diversity among African Americans. In New Orleans and in seaports in the Deep South like Charleston and Mobile, there existed a three-caste system resembling that of Brazil or the West Indies, where free people of...

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Chapter 3: Cities and Industry

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pp. 50-69

The harshness of a slave’s existence might be mitigated by a good mistress/master, or if the enslaved person chanced to have mixed-race ancestry. A further factor might also lessen slavery’s rigors: urban life. Just over 5 percent of Virginia’s bondpeople...

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Part II: Offenses

The publication in 1956 of Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution indicated that the offenses committed by slavemasters against bondpeople were finally being fully acknowledged by white historians. But although Stampp presented a powerful, accurate, and balanced picture of the conditions imposed...

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Chapter 4: Family Disruption

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pp. 73-84

Seventy years after Emancipation one Virginia interviewee after another boiled with indignation at how black people had been treated. I have already touched on the problem of family disruption for slaves working in urban factories. All slaves lived with the omnipresent threat that families would be...

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Chapter 5: Physical Abuse

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pp. 85-94

In Virginia physical brutality toward slaves was supposed to be less prevalent than in the Deep South, but the firsthand slave accounts make one question the meaning of such hopeful relativism. The old black people interviewed...

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Chapter 6: Regimentation

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pp. 95-103

Eugene Genovese labeled the constant intrusion by resident antebellum slavemasters upon the lives of their thralls as “paternalism.” The same word may also denote the paternalist ideology that was devised in order to justify holding...

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Chapter 7: Contempt

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pp. 104-109

In addition to family disruption, physical abuse, and regimentation, there were other means by which white people demonstrated contempt for slaves. Some of these, occurring alone, might have seemed relatively insignificant; cumulatively...

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Chapter 8: Deprivation

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pp. 110-117

Famine did not stalk the antebellum South, as it did the Russian countryside in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed (according to recent economic historians), the average antebellum Southern slave not only received food with a high calorific...

Part III: Responses

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Chapter 9: Religion

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pp. 121-140

The slaves’ religion, as historians have convincingly demonstrated, moulded together African and Christian elements. African components were significant in this synthesis, both in early North America and—as late as the 1860s...

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Chapter 10: Dissidence

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pp. 141-167

The slaves’ strongest bulwark against dehumanization—stronger even than their Afro-Christianity—was their nearly universal spirit of dissidence. Although fostered by Afro-Christianity, this spirit of dissent would almost certainly have thrived...

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Chapter 11: Families

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pp. 168-179

In the 1950s scholars—black and white alike—believed that slavery had weakened African American family institutions. A powerful reaction against this view surfaced during the 1970s, marked particularly by the publication of Herbert...

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Chapter 12: The Black Community

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pp. 180-186

Among slaves—as among any other people—tension existed between group solidarity and the pursuit of individual interest. Although the two did not always conflict, they sometimes did. Since 1970 historians of slavery—notably...

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Chapter 13: Self-Development

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pp. 187-204

This chapter first considers literacy. It then examines the privileges accorded to certain bondpeople. Finally, it discusses how far these privileges pulled favored individuals away from other slaves. ...

Part IV: Retrospect

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Chapter 14: Oppression and Self-Determination

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pp. 207-210

Perhaps the strongest impression left by Virginia’s WPA interviewees is the heartening sense that the morale of these old people had not been broken by their experiences of slavery. They felt pride in how they and their ancestors...


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pp. 211


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pp. 213-241


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pp. 243-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780813928364
E-ISBN-10: 0813928362
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813928227
Print-ISBN-10: 0813928222

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 2 maps, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Carter G. Woodson Institute Series

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slaves -- Virginia -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Slaves -- Virginia -- Biography.
  • Slavery -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Agent (Philosophy) -- Case studies.
  • African Americans -- Virginia -- Interviews.
  • Virginia -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
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