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Childhood was the least healthy stage of a slave’s life (Steckel 449). Prone to accident and disease, many children never lived to adulthood. Planter Martin W. Philips became so inured to high rates of childhood morbidity on his Mississippi plantation that he did not even bother to tally the number who died in the farm journal he used to keep track of daily events. When the adult slave Jane died in 1859, he noted that her death had brought to five the number “grown negroes” who had passed away since the plantation’s establishment in 1840. There was “no telling the number of younger ones,” he added (Philips 463). Of the five children born in bondage to Edna and Bob Jones in North Carolina, only one son—Hyacinth—lived long enough to be given a name, and even he died in infancy (Rawick ser. 2, vol. 15, pt.2: 25).
High rates of mortality, morbidity, and injury among enslaved children worried antebellum slaveholders because it threatened the Southern way of life. The United States had ended its participation in the international slave trade as of 1808, and slaveholders knew that slavery could remain profitable for future generations only if enough enslaved children survived to replace older slaves who died each year. Moreover, high rates of sickness and death suggested failure on the part of owners to care adequately for the youngsters, which encouraged a growing number of people, particularly in the North, to call for its end. Sentimental notions about childhood were gaining ground throughout the nation, which placed pressure on slaveholders to show concern for the enslaved youngsters living in their midst. The human quality that causes a person to empathize with someone who is suffering further motivated planters to worry about the children’s health. Slaveholders cultivated an image of themselves as paternalistic stewards of slaves. High rates of death, [End Page 56] disease, and injury called into question the ability of an owner to live up to this ideal. In more practical and immediate terms, neglect of children roiled relations with adult slaves rendering them less willing to cooperate in the workplace. Yet slaveholders proved reluctant to take steps that might have given enslaved children a better chance of survival.
Simply put, slaveholder desire to care for children was tempered by a desire for profit. To deflect criticism for the children’s poor health, they employed negative stereotyping of parents and other child caregivers and pointed to their own supposed benevolence. Rather than be horrified by what was happening to individual girls and boys, owners congratulated themselves on demographic trends that showed the enslaved population to be increasing. They considered home care—not professional care—the best approach to children’s health: indeed they had few medical allies in caring for enslaved children. They lauded whatever attention white mistresses gave to the children as superior to the care and nurture provided by enslaved parents, particularly mothers. They delegated nursing and childcare duties to black nurses, whom they said performed poorly. And they refused to acknowledge their own role in creating conditions that put children at risk for illness and injury and even death.
Slave owners took more interest in the overall birth and survival rate of slaves than in the fate of individual boys and girls. As long as the birthrate remained high enough and the death rate low enough to replenish a plantation’s slave population, planters considered the health status of enslaved children and adults acceptable. George Noble Jones refused to heed a warning that harsh punishments by one of his overseers were damaging his slaves’ health because he was satisfied with “their natural increase which in the last year has been over ten percent, in a gang of 120” (Phillips and Glunt 124). As long as planters could tally more births than deaths in their farm journals, they were satisfied.
Physicians in the era took little professional interest in childhood ailments, which meant they were not strong allies in the fight against childhood mortality and morbidity. Doctors were eager to treat slaves at the behest of owners: the...
From: The Southern Quarterly, Volume 53, Numbers 3/4, Spring/Summer 2016, pp. 56-69