With so much talk in the news about Charlottesville, Virginia and the recent race riot they endured, it’s worth considering what all the fuss is about. The Virginia controversy has centered specifically on a statue of the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee, who appears larger than life as he sternly surveys the landscape before him—a landscape plowed, planted, and reaped by the hands of African slaves. In many facets of southern history, Lee is considered a “paragon of manliness” and one of the greatest military commanders of his time. He was a somewhat selfless and uncomplicated figure who left the U.S. Army to fight alongside his native Virginians in defense of the Confederacy. He was a product of his era and a warrior in defense of his southern ideals. And yes, this included owning land and slaves. For some, his belief in secession may cast a shadow over his honor, but for others, it is the darker, more imposing shadow of slavery that longs to be addressed.
When his statue, along with a few others, were singled out for removal, many folks in places like Virginia and New Orleans were horrified. To them, wiping away these symbols was seen as an insult to their white ancestors and a harsh condemnation of the stories and fictions they’d been taught as children—their history—one that flowed steadily through the veins of white southerners for centuries. For others, those monuments are relics of a hateful history, a despicable time when black slaves were packed across the Atlantic on heaving, nightmarish ships and forced to live under the yoke of extreme depravity—perhaps their darkest day. So, if such a fierce historical narrative exists on both sides—which it apparently does—why not take a moment to examine the real, undeniable facts of the time period? Surely, by looking back at what actually happened to give these symbols such infamy, we can learn more about why they’re worthy of appreciation. What do they really stand for? Perhaps through remembering, we can learn to give these symbols the respect they deserve—or see them for what they really are.
Anyone who knows a thing or two about antebellum slavery, particularly in places like colonial Virginia, will tell you it was a place beyond hell, where not even the devil would tread—a time when humanity and depravity were tangled up in a never-ending web of despair and madness. This period alludes to the years immediately leading up to the Civil War, when the state of the Union was on the brink of destruction, and the South was determined to maintain their unique brand of prosperity. Slavery was everywhere in the region—on farms and plantations, in the fields, inside private homes, in towns and cities, in local businesses, and around the periphery. Of course, all slave/master relationships developed their own varying brand of kindness or brutality, but one thing remained clear—there was no level of equality. And truth be told, a lot of southern whites didn’t even own slaves, mostly because they could not afford them. So, in many ways, the institution of slavery didn’t even help them financially. Nonetheless, the majority of these people, these simple farmers, defended the idea of racism and aspired to reach a similar position of wealth. These southerners were poor, dirty, and ignorant, but with the acquisition of a black slave or two, they were able to feel superior and powerful, simply because of their skin color. In this way, they could always give themselves a boost up using the back of a slave.
Strangely enough, black people living in Virginia before 1660 were generally given their freedom and even allowed to marry and raise families. Even though a basic racial divide existed, many black men willingly lived on plantations to work the tobacco fields, then one of the most lucrative industries in the country. But this was backbreaking work, and by the later 17th century, the demand for able bodies had greatly exceeded the supply of indentured English servants. It was this reality that gave rise to the importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, turning the status of the black Virginian into one of permanent and total servitude.
Virginia was quick to adopt this new program and immediately began passing laws to ensure complete control of all black women, men, and children upon birth. In fact, they were the first slave-holding territory to change the existing law of legitimacy through the father, as was the case in Great Britain, and insist all children born from a black mother be regarded as property, regardless of their father’s status. By the early 19th century, Virginia had become the center of the slave trade and often shipped blacks born in the territory to other fast-growing states along the eastern coast, as well as the Deep South. During the few centuries that slavery was legal, Virginia quickly distinguished themselves as being just as brutal as they were pragmatic.
Once the antebellum period in American history hit, colonial Virginia became notorious for their relentless fear of slave uprisings. Many white men in the area made it their mission in life to hunt down runaways or those traveling without proper authorization and offer up their own form of violent justice. As the conditions grew harsher, the slave conspiracies became more and more ambitious, and the penalties for such infractions continued to grow. The punishments for disobedient slaves became wildly inventive, sadistic even, and the relationship between black slave and white master became one steeped in supreme terror. While this statement may feel dramatic to some, the physical artifacts from this period are living evidence of the truth. Dare we remember them?
The horrific methods employed in the antebellum South to punish and control slaves were not only accepted, they were encouraged. As subjects to their white masters, blacks were often brutalized for infractions like resisting their confinement, not working hard enough, reading, speaking their native language, marrying in secret, accidentally breaking something, talking back, or trying to run away. As the Civil War neared in the mid-19th century, places like Virginia became terrified of losing the institution of slavery and the great prosperity it afforded them, both of which should not be underestimated. It was one of the greatest motivating factors in their desire to succeed from the rest of the country. Without the scarred backs of slaves to hold them up, the larger plantations would never succeed, and the lowly farmer would have nothing to aspire to.
In an attempt to hang onto this deep-seated tradition of oppression and control, not to mention profit, punishments for disobedience became even more terrifying and unfathomable, eventually lapsing into the barbarous. Unlike many other historical details, these punishments did not come in the form of laws or mandates—they came in the form of real, tangible objects made of metal, leather, and cloth. They had the ability to rip and tear human flesh, which they did on many occasions. For anyone who finds it hard to believe slavery could possibly be as bad as it sounds, the ghastly physical items left behind from this moment in history should be enough to prove otherwise.
One artifact we can remember is the slave collar, or “punishment collar” crafted from iron and used to discipline and identify slaves who were considered at risk of running away or rebelling. Any sign of a troublesome slave would easily warrant the use of this cumbersome device, mostly used to restrict movement and offer up a steep dose of humiliation. If a master deemed it appropriate, the collar could stay on a slave’s neck for days or even weeks at a time, making sleep or simply lying down impossible. Of course, this brought on a lot more than just pain—it led to severe bouts of exhaustion, anxiety, and overall agony. Even though the size and shape of these collars could be tailor-made to the specifications of the plantation owner or overseer, the goal of these horrific devices was always the same—pure torture.
As we know, the most popular method of punishment in the antebellum South involved the whip. These methods were not just about pain, they were also about humiliation and fear, as just the mere threat of a whipping was often punishment enough. Slaves were paraded in front of whites and blacks, stripped naked, tied to posts, and beaten according to the seriousness of their offenses.
They were whipped until their dark skin became striped in red and white. And no, this grisly punishment was not just reserved for big, strong men who did something terrible. Because slaves were unable to provide testimony against white people, overseers had free rein to brutalize pregnant woman and children if they saw fit, whipping them until they lost consciousness or in extreme cases, died. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment—to whip a pregnant woman or a child takes a special kind of monster. Those wounds never fully heal, and the sound of cracking leather above bloody shrieks never, ever disappears. Now that, it seems, is worth remembering.
Often referred to as the iron bit, these deplorable iron masks came in all shapes and sizes with the universal purpose of creating a living hell for the wearer. Slaves were forced to bear such a gag as they completed their daily tasks, regardless of the severe discomfort, and would sometimes even spend days with their faces locked up tight. They could not eat, drink, spit, yawn, talk, cry, or do anything with their mouths. Sometimes the metal bit would depress the tongue as well.
If the slave didn’t suffocate or suffer a severe anxiety attack, the mask would be removed to display dire chafing, burning, and scarring. Although it lacks the social and historical symbolism of the whip, this method of torture was a reality in the antebellum South and a verified way to mentally and emotionally traumatize black slaves.
Although branding was not typically used for punishment, it was considered a valuable way to keep track of slaves and ensure they stayed on the correct property. It was viewed as both pragmatic and necessary to slave owners who needed to identify a particularly troublesome slave or to simply mark a piece of “property” in the event that it should be misplaced or lost. Branding was done routinely during the slave trade for these purposes and would usually sear its mark on a slave’s shoulder, buttocks, abdomen, palm, or in some cases, a woman’s breast. Yes. If you were black and living in Virginia anywhere from 1660 to the late 19th century, you could be subjected to branding on your bare breast. All it took was for one white person to decide you were a risk, a rebel, a runaway, or a thief.
Being ruthlessly beaten with a whip—or any object for that matter—is mostly beyond a person’s ability to grasp. The act alone is so mind-blowingly painful and brutal, it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly get worse. Yet in places like colonial Virginia, effective methods for increasing the physical and psychological agony of a whipping were always in the development phase. And if a slave’s “crime” was bad enough, an uptick in brutality could surely be justified. If an overseer did not find satisfaction after a mere whipping, pain-inducing materials like pebbles, salt, hot brine, lime juice, or turpentine would be ground into the open wound to create unendurable agony and ensure the skin would never heal properly, forever riddled with deep ridges and bumpy, painful scar tissue.
Aside from simple leg and arm restraints, the use of neck shackles was a common way to keep slaves together during transport to other regions. This torturous method employed thick, wrought iron bands screwed together at the joint, and they deprived slaves of the ability to move independently or stretch their necks, often leading to severe muscle pain. Stifling heat and sweat usually led to gruesome chafing on the delicate skin as well as serious neck injuries. Sometimes a slave’s ankles and wrists were also bound, making any natural movement or escape impossible.
Like all other punishments, the mutilation of slaves was used to punish and terrify those who displeased their master. This blanket term could include amputation of feet or hands, facial or genital mutilation, burning, or even castration. Because a slave’s guilt was rarely really proven, many slaves were unfairly punished with hellishly everlasting consequences. Many poor slaves believed their dead bodies would return to Africa when they died, so some resorted to suicide as a way to relieve their suffering and return to their motherland. As a result of this thinking, slave owners would purposefully mutilate the corpses of former slaves in an attempt to show those still living the error of their thinking. They would never make it home in one piece. The mutilated corpses would then be displayed on the plantation to prove the futility of ever trying to return to beloved Africa. The slave may have killed his own body, but the white master would kill his dream.
For a slave working unrelenting hours without proper food, water, or rest, running away was always a temptation, no matter what the punishment might be. And for some, it was the only way they could ever hope of seeing their loved ones again. As if in collusion with the nefarious slave owners, the southern landscape surrounding most plantations was filled with swamps, thick brush, and unbearable heat, not to mention snakes and biting insects. In a place like Virginia, a runaway slave was a big problem for any plantation owner because their disappearance invariably affected their bottom line, resulting in a considerable financial loss. Even worse, many masters and overseers would do anything to avoid the humiliation of losing a slave and being labeled as weak by their white neighbors. Losing a slave was a matter of pride. When a slave finally found the courage to run, they were not only chased by human hunters, but also by packs of vicious bloodhounds. Savage and menacing, these dogs were trained to attack on sight and would often run themselves to death before giving up the chase. Once they caught the slave, as they usually did, the air would be filled with the sound of dreadful yelping, terrified screams, and the smell of blood and filth.
If you ask anyone what they value most in this world, they will likely tell you, family. Human beings are hardwired to love their children unconditionally and thrive on the support and intimacy of those they hold dear. For most parents, the mere thought of losing a child is beyond a nightmare, a notion so devastating, it is without shape or definition. And yet, in the days of antebellum slavery, it was commonplace.
While many slaves in places like Virginia did not expect to keep their children, they could surely dream of nothing else. White masters and overseers had little to no regard for the bonds of black families and would just as soon rip a child from his mother’s arms as take a nap. If it meant increased profit, convenience, or sadistic satisfaction, it was done without a second thought. Because in this dark period of history, we are not talking about people mistreating other people. We are talking about people looking at another race and seeing them as property, equal to livestock, devoid of intelligence, feelings, or basic needs—inhuman. Black slaves had been brought over from across the sea specifically because they were seen as durable in nature and capable of handling harsh conditions without breaking. They were brought over to work hard, taking on labor no one else could possibly manage. It was their lot in life. This grievous perception allowed southern whites to disregard the emotions of slaves and find justification in separating their families. In this vein, taking a child from its slave mother may be troublesome at first, but such a loss would soon be forgotten, much like a bitch forgets her puppy.
Also known as lynching, the punishment of hanging while burning was really just an execution, as it always led to death. It was saved specifically for slaves who committed really outlandish crimes like organizing a rebellion, drinking from the wrong fountain, or insulting a white woman.
Because this heinous act took a fair amount of manpower, it usually called for some kind of mob to chase down the slave, hang him from a tree until he was nearly dead, and then set him on fire so he could suffer even more in his final moments. In most historical pictures of black lynchings, the men suffering the abuse were not even slaves—they were free black men living in the 20th century, surrounded by a smiling crowd of white men, women, and children, many of whom are clearly enjoying the spectacle. And since statistics are often worth remembering, here’s one: between 1880 and 1926, less than 100 years ago, more than 90 African Americans were lynched in the state of Virginia. That’s more than two per year.
Truly, the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South knew no bounds. They arguably comprised one of the darkest, most ghastly periods in human history, let alone American. So, in this modern moment of wonderment about how we can all learn to honor and understand our shared story, especially in the south, it’s worth remembering what we are really talking about. Yes, it’s true a great nation should not be ashamed of its history. And yes, forgetting anything from the past is a mistake. Remembering is a powerful part of the work we must do to keep ourselves moving forward, learning, and growing into more socially and emotionally evolved people. But given the extent of suffering behind our shared history, perhaps it’s a wise to focus on symbols that represent us all.
So, to those individuals in Virginia (and the larger South) who are feeling sentimental about their historical emblems—General Lee’s statue, the Confederate flag, and the like—perhaps the time has come to do some other kinds of remembering—not about the bravery of the soldiers, the simplicity of the time, or the poetic words of some ancient grandfather, but about the American wound that is now desperately trying to heal. If we cannot relinquish these symbols in the name of progress, will they haunt and separate us forever? Is seeing a daily reminder of General Lee’s bravery more important than offering respect to the burned and beaten black children of the past? Given what we know of slavery, wouldn’t it be worth it to put those public symbols aside in the name of human decency? Perhaps by focusing (somewhat desperately) on Lee’s heroism instead of the people trampled beneath his beliefs, it’s easier to accept the ugliness of what been done. When we release the tight grip on those romantic symbols from the antebellum South—like the ones involving military bravery and stamina—there is no way to keep from slipping into the unbearable memory of what happened. Those statues once erected to celebrate southern figures then become more than just history—they become a barrier between people and their acceptance of the truth. Without them, there is only the bleak reality of what came before.
When white supremacists in the south recently chanted the phrase “blood and soil,” it became clear they had forgotten exactly whose blood it was that soaked that earth for centuries. It most certainly wasn’t theirs. And until southerners remember, really remember, the epic proportions of what happened to black slaves in antebellum America, nothing will change. The pain and resentment won’t go away, it won’t stop, it won’t fade—not until they muster the strength to remember it all and move on with integrity. Are these monuments, flags, and racist rallies really about the first amendment? About free speech? Are they really about appreciating and remembering southern history? Because if so, they sure are forgetting a whole lot.
And the rest is history.