Summary Objective 11

Students will be able to describe the principal ways the labor of enslaved people was organized and controlled in the antebellum United States. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 4, 5, 6 & 10


What else should my students know?

11.A The task system was used widely on rice plantations. It ranked enslaved people by their ability to perform labor and required them to do an amount of work that corresponded to their ranking. Once the task was finished, an enslaved laborer was done for the day. Enslavers who used the task system often provided fewer rations, expecting those they enslaved to grow their own food or earn money in their “free time.”

11.B Gang labor was used on cotton plantations. Enslaved people would be in the field by sunrise and would work with only short breaks until sunset.

11.C Most enslaved people worked under the supervision of an overseer or a driver. Overseers were often impoverished white Southerners. Drivers were usually enslaved men who were entrusted (at least temporarily) with supervisory powers.

11.D A number of enslaved women and, sometimes, men were assigned domestic duties. Labor within a household necessitated close and continued proximity to enslavers.

11.E On large slaveholdings, a number of enslaved men and women often had special skills and worked, for example, as blacksmiths, cooks or carpenters.


How can I teach this?

  • Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave includes descriptions of his life on cotton and sugar plantations. In Chapter 16, Northup is made a driver. He describes the delicate balance he had to strike to keep both the white and enslaved populations as happy as possible. 
  • In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass provides an account of his childhood in enslavement. In chapter 1, he offers a description of Mr. Plummer, the drunk, malicious overseer at the plantation where he was first enslaved. 
  • In her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs describes her work in a white household, where she is subjected to the sexual advances of her enslaver and the ire of his wife. 
  • In his January 19, 1854, letter to slaver Z.B. Oakes, A.J. McElveen describes an enslaved man named Isaac who works as a carriage driver, painter, violinist and cook, among other things. 

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