September 27, 2011

Slavery was one of the most brutal events in American history, yet in most history courses, little or no information is offered about the health and health care issues of slaves. Furthermore, the existing literature varies greatly in its description of the type of health care given to African/black African American slaves.

In the early 1800s, the United States Congress passed legislation to decrease and subsequently stop the African slave trade. Nonetheless, that same legislation permitted slavery to continue within the borders of the Americas. Each ship’s captain had to prepare and keep records of his human cargo. The “records” consisted of the slave’s name, age, gender, color, and height. This information was kept with the ship and a handwritten copy was given to the individual who was responsible for the slaves at their point of arrival.

Due to the passage of this legislation and the economic need of the slave owners for a constant stream of laborers, the slave owners began to allow the slaves to mate (the proper term at the time was breed) for the purpose of reproduction and increasing the manpower on the plantation as well as to open up a new economic avenue for the slave owner. During slavery, the men and the women were given work responsibilities according to their age and physical condition. Gender did not play a significant role in the assignment of work. Plantation owners and overseers expected equal amounts of labor from both genders based on their size and age. Female slaves were given cotton-picking equipment consisting of bags, baskets, and sheets that had to be filled to capacity in order to be heavy enough to bring a good fair market value when weighed. The strenuous and heavy labor associated with this work along with inadequate nutrition and exposure to European diseases played important roles in fetal malformation and fetal demise. The age of a pregnant slave also played a crucial role in the high incidence of miscarriages and infant mortality.

The plantation owners depended upon the slave overseer to let them know when a female was pregnant. The overseer depended upon the slave women to tell him when they were pregnant. The women looked for symptoms such as increased urination, ceasing of the menses, enlarged breasts, vomiting, and movement of the child. Once these occurred, the women then reported them to the overseer and the overseer made the decision to allow the women to shift to lighter workloads. However, on many plantations the overseer would not take the word of a slave and would wait until there were visible outward signs of pregnancy. Many times the visible signs did not occur until the female was in the middle of her second trimester.

Female slaves were allowed less than 1 month of downtime during their pregnancies. Those who had infants who survived birth and lived for 1 year received more days out of the field than those who had stillbirths or an infant who died within the first year. There is a significant correlation between the strenuous, heavy labor of the female field hand, the time frame between when the pregnancy was reported and when the female field hand was allowed by the overseer to reduce her workload, and the high incidence of miscarriages, infant malformation, and infant mortality.

In today’s world, there is still a higher incidence of miscarriages, infant malformation, and infant mortality rate for black African Americans than their white European American equivalents. Slavery is no longer an issue, but the poverty, including the low salaries of the working class poor, malnutrition, and lack of immediate medical attention continue to contribute to this problem in the United States.

See Also: African American, Discrimination, Pregnancy

Suggested Reading

  • Bankole, K. (1998). Slavery and medicine: Enslavement and medical practices in antebellum Louisiana. New York: Garland.
  • Campbell, J. (1984). Work, pregnancy, and infant mortality among Southern slaves. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 14(4).
  • Logan, S. L., & Freeman, E. M. (2000). Health care in the black community, empowerment, knowledge, skills and collectivism. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
  • McMillen, S. G. (1991). “No uncommon disease”: Neonatal tetanus, slave infants, and the Southern medical profession. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 46, 291—315.


Category: S