What New Year’s Day Meant to the Enslaved
“On New Year’s Day, we went to the auctioneer’s block, to be hired to the highest bidder for one year.” Israel Campbell 1861
When New Year’s Day arrives in 2021, there will be much to celebrate despite the worldwide pandemic that encompasses us. Multiple vaccines have either arrived or are on the way, bringing hope that the virus will be eradicated. Whatever your feelings about the soon to be gone President, there will be more stability in the Oval Office, and the whims of a narcissist won’t erratically dictate policy. The economy will return to some sense of normalcy, employment will rise, and families will once again be able to gather safely, sharing meals and special occasions.
For the enslaved people in America, New Years' had entirely different concerns. It might be the day their families were broken up for a year, or forever, depending on their owners' whims or financial concerns. In those days, the fiscal year began on January 1st, and all settlements were made at the end of the year. Farmers and plantation owners who were in debt often paid their bills by the leasing or selling their enslaved people. Resistance was futile; whippings and slave jails were the response.
For those enslaved people fortunate enough to have families, what happened was obscene. If the husband was sold off or leased and the wife remained, she was still expected to fulfill her role as a breeder. Whoever the master designated would come around and take her as violently as needed. If her husband returned, he might find a child he didn’t conceive of an impregnated wife he hadn’t touched. His only option was to deal with it, just as she had.
The reasons the husband might not return were numerous. There was often danger in the work. Leased enslaved people often worked for the railroads, using dangerous explosives to dig out tunnels. Any that tried to escape, whether seeking freedom or return to their family, were subject to beatings, return to their new environment, and of course, death, for which there would be no punishment.
The economy of several states depended on the forced breeding of enslaved people. Black women are mated with appropriate Black male specimens to produce bigger and stronger children who would fetch a higher price. They also might be raped by their masters or relatives and friends; their lighter-skinned children would also fetch a high price whether they ended up as household servers of fancies in the girls' case.
The economics of slave breeding was set up in the Constitution. Slave states like South Carolina were able to negotiate a twenty-year extension of the international slave trade, with Charleston, South Carolina, being the main port. Little did they know that the day that agreement expired, Thomas Jefferson would end the international slave trade causing southern plantations to rely entirely on domestically produced slaves. Virginia, Maryland, and other states had excess slaves due to the lower yield of tobacco due to poor farming techniques. They made up for it by churning out as many enslaved people as possible by whatever means necessary to sell them South, where they were needed to harvest sugar, rice, and cotton.
The week before New Years' was Christmas. Depending on the wealth of the plantation. Christmas might be somewhat of a celebration even for the enslaved. They might receive special food, small gifts they weren’t expected to reciprocate, perhaps even a few days off. But it was all a set-up. Come New Year’s Day; families might be broken up, whatever slight joy might have come from small gifts were offset by tears and the destruction of homes.
While there is still reason for anxiety at the beginning of any new year, the fear of your family being torn apart by the whims of another isn’t quite as indiscriminate. We only have over-policing, mass incarceration, and caging and separation of brown children. Progress?
Article 1, Section 9: Clause 1
Clause 1. The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit…