Gray’s experience, of course, was hardly typical. The large majority of slaves—75 percent of women and nearly 90 percent of men, according to one study—worked in the fields. The precise organization of their labor varied according to the crop and the size of the holding. On small farms, the owner often toiled side-by-side with his slaves. The largest concentration of slaves, however, lived and worked on plantations in the Cotton Belt, where men, women, and children labored in gangs, often under the direction of an overseer and perhaps a slave “driver” who assisted him. Among slaves, overseers had a reputation for meting out harsh treatment. “The requisite qualifications for an overseer,” wrote Solomon Northup, a free black who spent twelve years in slavery after being kidnapped from the North, “are utter heartlessness, brutality, and cruelty. It is his business to produce large crops, no matter [what the] cost.”

Cotton was the major agricultural crop of the South, and, indeed, the nation, but slaves also grew rice, sugarcane, tobacco, and hemp.

The 150,000 slaves who worked in the sugar fields of southern Louisiana also labored in large gangs. Conditions here were among the harshest in the South, for the late fall harvest season required round-the-clock labor to cut and process the sugarcane before it spoiled. On the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia, the system of task labor, which had originated in the colonial era, prevailed. With few whites willing to venture into the malaria-infested swamps, slaves were assigned daily tasks and allowed to set their own pace of work. Once a slave’s task had been completed, he or she could spend the rest of the day hunting, fishing, or cultivating garden crops.

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