HomeThe Language of Slavery

The Language of Slavery

At Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past, we have adopted the language of slavery from the National Park Service’s What is the Underground Railroad?: “While African Americans were in physical bondage, the minds and spirits of these individuals remained free. Many labels for escaping African Americans were constructs of the Southern slave-holding societal structure, or by some patronizing abolitionists. As such, these terms tend to reflect how slave-holding society viewed African American efforts toward freedom. Instead, the National Park Service and its partners use language reflective of the goal of liberty that Underground Railroad participants dreamed of, strove to, and eventually grasped.”

An abolitionist takes a political position and is likely politically active. The abolitionist may not act on his/her antislavery principles by helping individuals to escape from slavery.

Antislavery Activist
A person morally or politically opposed to slavery. This person might, on occasion, help a freedom seeker. The activist might be a southerner and could be the spouse or child of a slaveholder. The activist might come from any ethnic, political, or religious group.

This is an alternate term for enslaved African Americans. It is preferable to “slave” because “bondsman” suggests a condition imposed by law.

The term chattel equates humans with livestock or furniture or other tangible, portable personal property. “Chattel” could be left in a will or sold or transferred without permission of the enslaved person.

A “conductor” was an individual who escorted or guided freedom seekers between stations or safe houses. A conductor need not have been a member of an organized section of the Underground Railroad, only someone who provided an element of guidance to the freedom seeker.

O Freedom.” This term is often used to refer to an individual or group freedom. For example, those enslaved in the District of Columbia were freed by an act of Congress in 1862, the Compensated Emancipation Act. The word is familiar because of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 that freed African Americans enslaved in the Confederacy.

Freedom seeker
This term reflects the freedom of spirit by referring to escaping African Americans as “freedom seekers,” rather than runaways, fugitives or escapees. The labels “fugitive,” “runaway,” and “escapee” were constructs of the Southern slave-holding societal structure and patronizing abolitionists. These terms reflect how slave-holding society viewed African American efforts toward freedom and ultimately, takes away their agency. “Freedom seekers” demonstrates what was in the hearts of freedom-seeking African Americans who acted to make liberty a reality.

A common term in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that is still used today to describe the freedom seeker. The term was attached to the various Fugitive Slave Laws (1793, 1850) passed by the U.S. Congress, and suggests that the “fugitive” was a criminal to escape from bondage. The language employed was key in attempts to preserve the view that the law was on the side of the slaveholding society—which it was—while reinforcing the view that the “fugitive” was incapable of acting responsibly in a society governed by the rule of law.

The freeing of an individual or group of enslaved African Americans by will, purchase, legal petition, or legislation. Enslaved African Americans would save up from jobs for hire or sale of goods for their manumission. Slaveowners would free individuals as a favor or would pick favored people to free at the slaveholder's death. Enslaved people were willing to take the risk of going to court to seek their freedom. Some people distinguish “manumission” from “emancipation,” using “manumission” to refer to only one individual at a time.

A community or a member of the community of a small group of enslaved African Americans who escaped slavery and lived in a remote place (like a swamp or the mountains). These settlements often actively assisted freedom seekers. The Everglades and the Great Dismal Swamp were sites of maroon communities.

An accomplice to escape by a freedom seeker. He or she may help arrange an escape, serve as a “conductor,” or help those escaping. When the freedom seeker is caught, he or she might provide a lawyer or money for fines and bail, and/or arrange purchase from the slaveholder.

Personal Liberty Laws
These laws for rights like habeas corpus, trial by jury, and protections from seizure defended those escaping, in direct opposition to the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Northern states like Indiana enacted laws providing these rights to freedom seekers starting as early as 1824. Such laws show the growing resistance to slavery in the North. Due to the cases of Ableman v. Booth and the United States v. Booth, the state of Wisconsin acted to nullify the decision of the Supreme Court whose southern Justices found personal liberty laws unconstitutional.

Enslaved African Americans who were purchased by others in order to free them. The idea is that the people were “redeemed” from slavery. Some freedom seekers did not want their freedom, a God-given right, if it had to be bought. They preferred to risk recapture.

Runaway, escapees
Terms such as “runaway” and “escapees” refer to freedom seekers. Like “fugitive,” the terms tend to disparage the freedom seeker. “Runaway” conjures up the image of a discontent adolescent, while “escapee” is linked to “fugitive,” evoking the image of a guilty law breaker deserving of capture and punishment.

The historical term for human beings held in bondage and forced to perform labor or services against their will under threat of physical mistreatment or death. For the general purposes of the NPS Underground Railroad website, which by no means encompass all historical references to “slave and enslaved,” the terms refer to the tens of millions of kidnapped Africans transported to the Americas, and held in bondage from the sixteenth century through the American Civil War.

Special focus is placed on the escaped slave, or freedom seeker in North America, as well as the historic Underground Railroad, a powerful tool of resistance created by freedom seekers and abolitionist allies. This term, however, refers to status African American from the viewpoint of slaveholding society, especially when a freedom seeker is referred to as an “escaped slave.”

Freedom seeker illustrates the African American decision to wrest control of his or her status from the slaveholder to one of their own choosing. Further, the use of the term “slave” to describe African Americans indicates that the individual accepted the term as a definition of their own humanity. “Enslaved,” meanwhile, demonstrates the condition of the individual within the class and economic system of the dominant society, and less of an internalized, or intellectual condition.

The term “slaveholder” best describes the non-regional character of North American Slavery. Too often, the term “slaveholder” is used synonymously with the term “Southerner.” Certainly, slavery was widespread throughout the American South, more so than any other part of the United States.

Yet so widespread was the institution of slavery that slaveholders could transport their property into free lands, especially after the Dred Scott decision, and use that property as they would in slave states. Further, U.S. citizens of all regions owned human property, not only Southerners, and creates the false impression that Southerners were the only slaveholders while Northerners created and supported the Underground Railroad.

To regionalize slavery, to draw definite borders around so fluid an institution, only serves to limit a broader, perhaps borderless conceptualization of slavery, freedom seekers, and the Underground Railroad.

Slave Patrol
Formed by state militias and county courts or by plantation owners themselves, these groups of men were responsible for avoiding crime by blacks and keeping enslaved African Americans in their place. Members might be poor whites or wealthier property owners. Mounted on horses, they were often armed with guns, whips, and clubs, and not afraid to be brutal. They would stop blacks and demand “passes” or other forms of identification to demonstrate that the blacks were not freedom seekers. Slave patrols had the right to search slave quarters. Some called them “patrollers” or “patty rollers.” They were feared, especially if provoked.

Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property. An enslaved person is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and works without renumeration. Many scholars now use the term chattel slavery to refer to this specific sense of legalized, de jure slavery. In a broader sense, however, the word slavery may also refer to any situation in which an individual is de facto forced to work against their own will.

The “station” provided a haven for traveling freedom seekers, was secured by the stationmaster, and took many forms. Stations might be basements, cabins, homes, barns or caves, or any other site that provided an element of security while giving the freedom seeker an opportunity for rest and provisions.

An individual who provided shelter or a hiding place to freedom seekers. Shelter need not be in the dwelling of the stationmaster but could be a refuge of any sort, which was the responsibility of the stationmaster. The stationmaster served as a clearinghouse for information regarding safe routes and nearby pursuit of freedom seekers and coordinated with conductors and other stationmasters to provide safe passage for freedom seekers upon departure from that station.

Term Slavery
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “term slavery” meant that an African American was not enslaved for life, but for a set number of years. At the end of the set term, the individual was to be freed. If sold, the restricted number of years of slavery was to be honored. Unfortunately, the distinction between “term” and “slave for life” was not always respected. 

Additional Concepts

Transatlantic Slave Trade
“The transatlantic slave trade was an oceanic trade in African men, women, and children which lasted from the mid-sixteenth century until the 1860s. European traders loaded African captives at dozens of points on the African coast, from Senegambia to Angola and round the Cape to Mozambique. The great majority of captives were collected from West and Central Africa and from Angola. The trade was initiated by the Portuguese and Spanish especially after the settlement of sugar plantations in the Americas. European planters spread sugar, cultivated by enslaved Africans on plantations in Brazil, and later Barbados, throughout the Caribbean. In time, planters sought to grow other profitable crops, such as tobacco, rice, coffee, cocoa, and cotton, with European indentured laborers as well as African and Indian slave laborers. Nearly 70 percent of all African laborers in the Americas worked on plantations that grew sugar cane and produced sugar, rum, molasses, and other byproducts for export to Europe, North America, and elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Before the first Africans arrived in British North America in 1619, more than half a million African captives had already been transported and enslaved in Brazil. By the end of the nineteenth century, that number had risen to more than 4 million. Northern European powers soon followed Portugal and Spain into the transatlantic slave trade. The majority of African captives were carried by the Portuguese, Brazilians, the British, French, and Dutch. British slave traders alone transported 3.5 million Africans to the Americas.” (“Transatlantic Slave Trade,” Slavery and Remembrance: A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory, accessed November 18, 2019, http://slaveryandremembrance.org/articles/article/?id=A0002. See also Slave Voyages for the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases.)

Domestic Slave Trade
“The second forced migration was known as the domestic, or internal, slave trade: “In the seven decades between the ratification of the Constitution [in 1787] and the Civil War [1861],” the historian Walter Johnson tells us in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, “approximately one million enslaved people were relocated from the upper South to the lower South … two thirds of these through … the domestic slave trade.” In other words, two and a half times more African Americans were directly affected by the second Middle Passage than the first one.” (Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What Was the Second Middle Passage?” The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, PBS, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-was-the-2nd-middle-passage/. See also Domestic Slave Trades in America, an Oxford Bibliographies entry.)

Slavery and the Law
“The use of enslaved laborers was affirmed — and its continual growth was promoted — through the creation of a Virginia law in 1662 that decreed that the status of the child followed the status of the mother, which meant that enslaved women gave birth to generations of children of African descent who were now seen as commodities. This natural increase allowed the colonies — and then the United States — to become a slave nation. The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants, even as free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children. At the same time, racial and class hierarchies were being coded into law: In the 1640s, John Punch, a black servant, escaped bondage with two white indentured servants. Once caught, his companions received additional years of servitude, while Punch was determined enslaved for life. In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, in which free and enslaved black people aligned themselves with poor white people and yeoman white farmers against the government, more stringent laws were enacted that defined status based on race and class. Black people in America were being enslaved for life, while the protections of whiteness were formalized.” (Mary Elliot, “Four Hundred Years After Enslaved Africans Were First Brought to Virginia, Most Americans Still Don’t Know the Full Story of Slavery,” New York Times, August 19, 2019, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/19/magazine/history-slavery-smithsonian.html. See also Paul Finkleman, “Slavery in the United States: Persons or Property?” The Legal Understanding of Slavery: From the Historical to the Contemporary, edited by Jean Allain (Oxford University Press, 2012), pages 105-134, accessed November 18, 2019, https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5386&context=faculty_scholarship).

Teaching Slavery – Ten Key Concepts

  1. Slavery, which was practiced by Europeans prior to their arrival in the Americas, was important to all of the colonial powers and existed in all of the European North American colonies.
  2. Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and, later, the United States.
  3. Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court and Senate from 1787 through 1860.
  4. “Slavery was an institution of power,” designed to create profit for the enslavers and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.
  5. Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.
  6. The experience of slavery varied depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding and gender.
  7. Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.
  8. Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery.
  9. Enslaved and free people of African descent had a profound impact on American culture, producing leaders and literary, artistic and folk traditions that continue to influence the nation.
  10. By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, we gain insight into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans aspired to, created, thought and desired.

(“Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/tt_hard_history_american_slavery.pdf)