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African Americans on Southern Plantations

Leland Ferguson, adapted from Uncommon Ground

Servant Quarters, Middleburg
Malnutrition, poor health, heavy work, and exploitation: These conditions describe life in North America for many captive Africans as well as Native Americans. But there is more to the story than exploitation. From the slave pens of the African coast to the homes of emancipated black farmers, historical archaeologists have exposed both tragedies and triumphs of African Americans forced into slavery on Southern plantations.

Black workers were pioneers who built the wealth of the American South. They hoed tobacco in the uplands of Virginia and piled up hundreds of miles of earthen banks for the watery rice fields of Carolina. Black leaders were courageous, dignified, and articulate. But where did their strength come from? How was it created? How could Americans of African descent--supposedly primitive at worst and poorly educated at best--gather the strength to fight the establishment and win? The answer, of course, lay beyond the eye and mind of the white majority, where African American culture was vibrantly alive, and had been alive for more than three hundred years. Through that span, African Americans combined African legacy with American culture, and along the way they left stories in the ground.

African Americans in colonial South Carolina not only built miles of earthen banks to support rice agriculture, and cultivated, harvested, and processed the crop, they also built their own houses and made many of the objects necessary for daily life. These included small plain bowls and jars common in West Africa. Attempting to understand their uses and meanings led me back to Africa, and to the African culture of food. I discovered that the most common rural African meal consists of a starchy main course, boiled or simmered in an earthenware or iron pot and served in a large ceramic bowl. Pots, houses, and other objects of daily life represent a past material world that provided tools and served as symbols reinforcing people's views of themselves as culturally distinct from others. The archaeological record brings us as close to the slave's personal story as we have ever been.

Leland Ferguson is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina.

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