Racial Hierarchy in Slavery

Slaves are humans without many basic rights, and who are bought and sold as commodities, to serve on master or the other. Slave trade was once a lucrative business for traders. In the southern part of America, the slave system continued for a long time. One may argue that the southern social order was bound by the thread called slavery. Based on slavery, a strictly hierarchical society had grown up in the southern parts of the USA. Interestingly, just like the society, slavery itself had some hierarchical divisions within it. The division is mainly based on race, and sometimes on gender too.

Racial Hierarchy in Slavery

In the southern society the hierarchy was such that a slave owning male stood at the top of the pyramid, and a black female slave stood at the bottom of it. There are mainly three classes of slave in the society, domestic slaves or servants of the planters, town slaves, and slaves who worked in the plantations, known as the field hands.

  • Domestic slaves- The domestic slaves or servants, who worked in the household of their masters are often believed to be the most intelligent slaves of the lot. Some of them could read and write. They are also quite adoptive of the manners and customs of the household, and easily learnt the language spoken. From their masters, they learnt some important things, which they could not have learnt if they were employed as field hands. However, within the class too, gender and age mattered, and lead to exalted position of one or two slaves.
  • Town slaves-  The category town slaves included a number of workers of the town such as, laborers, draymen, hostlers, and among women slave, the washerwomen etc. They were to be found in the busy streets of the town doing various types of manual labor, based on their age and expertise. Here also, age and gender were important in the hierarchical set up. They were bought since they could provide hard labor, and thus any builder, carpenter, blacksmith etc would have one or more slaves, who were their right hand men in their day to day job routine. Even free black men had one or two black slaves working for them.
  • Field hands- The slave who worked in the plantation were known as the field hands. They were right at the bottom of the hierarchical structure of the slave system, and their condition was pitiful. They were taken as without much intelligence, and were more often than not beaten up severely when they failed to produce as much as it were expected of them. Here too gender and age played an important role, as women and children working as the field hands are generally worst placed.

In the north, the situation was somewhat different. Though initially it had slave trade, but the institution of slavery was abolished much before in the north than in the south. In the slave system, the white servant was treated far less brutally than their black counterparts. Herein lie the hierarchy of the system.