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The Man In The Middle
THE BLACK SLAVE DRIVER
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Many slaves, however, recognized that the driver whipped out of duty rather than desire. Moses Grandy, for example, refused to condemn harsh drivers because he understood that they must whip with “sufficient severity” to retain their posts and keep the lash off their own backs. Slaves would grant the driver that much provided that he showed no taste for it and did not whip when he was not obligated to do so. Many drivers deluded their masters by putting on grand exhibitions of zeal in the white men’s presence. Some developed the art, as driver Solomon Northup described it, of “throwing the lash within a hair’s breadth of the back, the ear, the nose, without, however, touching either of them.” When his master was out of sight, ”Öle” Gabe of Virginia whipped a post instead of the slaves while the ostensible victims howled for the master’s benefit. He once cracked the post so loudly that his master yelled for him to desist lest he kill the slave, who then bolted screaming from the barn with berry juice streaming down his back. This so horrified the master that he threatened Gabe with a thrashing equal to the one he gave the slave.
The successful driver did not tattle on his people and he kept the white folks out of the slaves’ private lives as much as possible. In the letters written by literate drivers to their masters, the drivers remained remarkably reticent on life in the quarters: the masters knew little about what went on there from sundown to sunup because the drivers, their principal agents, did not tell them. To be sure, severe fighting among the slaves and egregious crimes were impossible to conceal. By and large, however, the drivers successfully contained the breakdowns of plantation authority, and received sufficient cooperation from the slaves so that they would not be called upon to explain and to punish.
The conscientious driver widened his circle of friends by doing favors, overlooking faults, never breaking a promise, avoiding confrontations whenever possible, and working through the informal group structure to resolve disputes and problems. If clashes occurred—and they were inevitable in the elemental world of the plantation—the driver gave his opponents an opportunity to save face rather than shaming them. Sometimes he fattened the slaves’ larder by pilfering for them from the plantation smokehouse, or arranged passes for them, ostensibly to attend religious meetings or to do chores, but in fact to visit relatives and friends on other plantations. In the quarters he left the correction of a wayward child to the child’s parents, respected the slaves’ religious leaders, mediated marital squabbles, and protected the weak from thieves and bullies. Slaves applauded the driver who broke up a boisterous, quarrelsome couple by placing them in separate cabins, thus restoring quiet to the quarters and saving the couple from sale at the hands of an irritated master. In brief, the driver acted the way any responsible community leader would act to keep his community intact and safe. He earned the slaves’ trust. Ex-slave Billy Stammper summed up the feelings of many slaves toward the driver: “Cullud folks don’ min’ bein’ bossed by er cullud man if he’s smart an’ good to em,” which is to say, if he was smart enough to be good to them.
More than any other event, the Civil War tested the driver’s loyalty and expanded his opportunities for self-aggrandizement and to help .his people. With the menfolk away during the war, the Southern white lady and the black slave drivers assumed control of the plantations. Frustrated in their efforts to engage white overseers, masters ignored the laws and left their plantations in the hands of house servants, older privileged bondsmen, or drivers of long service-men they could trust not to ravage their land or their women during their absence. In their diaries and later in their histories, planters congratulated themselves that they had not misplaced their trust. However romanticized, the stories of faithful retainers hiding the family silver and shielding the planter’s family and homestead from Yankee depredations are legion.
But planters who wanted universal, unfeigned loyalty from their drivers asked for too much. In the midst of unraveling planter hegemony, slave foremen looked to their own interest. Some, like Edmund Ruffin’s “faithful and intelligent” Jem Sykes, simply absconded. Some went alone; others inspired a general stampede. If they remained on the plantations, they sometimes took part in raids on the master’s cellar and storehouse. In the absence of a strong white power the slaves neglected the upkeep of the farm and equipment and idled away their days as much as possible. Apparently, drivers could not or would not push their people under such circumstances. The worst excesses occurred in the sugar parishes of Louisiana, where drivers had commanded unusually harsh regimes. The Union advance in 1863 excited many slaves to flee the plantations, but not before they murdered some of their overseers and masters. One Rapides Parish planter wrote that the presence of Federal troops “turned the negroes crazy … and everything like subordination and restraint was at an end.” The slaves slaughtered livestock and plundered furiously. In this, the drivers “everywhere have proved the worst negroes,” perhaps in a bid to retain their leadership through exaggerated displays of violence.