The Man In The Middle

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Wise planters of the ante-bellum South never relaxed their search for talent among their slaves. The ambitious, intelligent, and proficient were winnowed out and recruited for positions of trust and responsibility. These privileged bondsmen—artisans, house servants, foremen—served as intermediaries between the master and the slave community; they exercised considerable power; they learned vital skills of survival in a complex, often hostile world. Knowing, as they did, the master’s needs and vulnerabilities, they were the most dangerous of slaves; but they were also the most necessary.

None of these men in the middle has been more misunderstood than the slave driver, policeman of the fields and the quarters. To enforce discipline and guarantee performance in the fields, planters enlisted slave foremen or drivers. On large plantations they worked as assistants to the white overseers; on smaller units they served immediately under the master. Generally, they were of an imposing physical presence capable of commanding respect from the other slaves. Ex-slaves described the drivers as, for example, “a great, big cullud man,” “a large tall, black man,” “a burly fellow … severe in the extreme.” Armed with a whip and outfitted in high leather boots and greatcoat, all emblematic of plantation authority, the driver exuded an aura of power.

The English traveler, Basil Hall, thought the driver had power more symbolic than real. The slaves knew better. With hardly repressed anger, ex-slave Adelaine Marshall condemned the black foremen at the Brevard plantation in Texas for “all de time whippin’ and stroppin’ de niggers to make dem work harder.” Many other former slaves echoed this theme of driver brutality; accounts of mutilations, lacerations, burnings, and whippings fill the pages of the slave narratives. But physical coercion alone never moved slaves to industry. The drivers, therefore, were selected as men able to bargain, bribe, cajole, flatter, and only as a last resort, to flog the slaves to perform their tasks and refrain from acts destructive of order in the quarters.

Masters often conferred with their black slave drivers on matters of farming, or on social arrangements in the quarters, and often deferred to their advice. As the driver matured and became more knowledgeable, his relationship with his master became one of mutual regard, in sharp contrast to the master’s less settled and more transient relationship with white overseers.

White overseers as well were frequently governed by the driver’s counsel, although the relationship between these two species of foreman was sometimes strained. The overseer’s insistence on steady work from the slaves, and the driver’s interest in protecting his people from white abuses, placed the driver in the agonizing dilemma of torn loyalties and interest. In this conflict the driver often appealed to the master and won his support. A chorus of complaint from white Southern overseers alleged that planters trusted the black driver more than the overseer. The charge seems to have been justified. John Hartwell Cocke of Virginia regarded his driver as his “humble friend,” but held overseers at arm’s length. The astute agricultural reformer and planter, James H. Hammond, unabashedly acknowledged that he disregarded his overseer’s testimony in many instances and instead heeded his driver, whom Hammond considered a “confidential servant” especially enjoined to guard against “any excesses or omissions of the overseer.” Planters dismissed overseers as an expendable breed, and, indeed, overseers rarely lasted more than two or three seasons with any single master. The driver, however, stayed on indefinitely as the master’s man, and some masters came to depend on him to an extraordinary degree.

 
 

Through the driver, the planter sought to inculcate the “proper” standards of work and behavior in his slaves. A few carefully enumerated the driver’s duties, leaving him little discretion; but for most, formal rules were unknown, and broad policy areas were left to the driver’s judgment. Although an overseer reviewed his work on large farms, the driver made many of the day-to-day decisions on farming as well as meting out rewards and punishments. By blowing on a bugle or horn, he woke up the slaves each morning. He determined the work pace; he directed the marling, plowing, terracing, planting, hoeing, picking, and innumerable other farming operations; he encouraged the slaves in their religious instruction and sometimes led devotions; he mediated family disputes. His duties varied from disciplinarian to family counselor or hygienist. The quick-witted driver who amputated the finger of a woman slave who had been bitten by a rattlesnake saved her life. More than this, he took over the function of the master as protector by making slaves instinctively look to him for aid in times of crisis. So, too, did the driver who held the keys to the plantation stores and parceled out the weekly rations to the slaves. Whatever changes might occur in white management, the basic daily functions of the plantation routine continued unbroken under the driver.