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The Role of Free Colored Women During Slavery


Slavery abolition movements differed essentially in the United States of America and in the Caribbean region. Originally, these were two different processes with the single aim, as the struggle on the continent was more civilized, while women on the islands used prostitution and witchery as the key tools for struggle. The fact is that the perspectives of the role of liberated women looks different, nevertheless, their aim was to help the other enslaved people and struggle for the rights of slaves. Moreover, the colored women in the USA joined the emancipation movements, and helped white women to struggle for the common good. The situation was also different from the viewpoint of the treatment of the slaves, as women slaves were highly estimated in the Caribbean region, consequently the slaveholders reluctantly parted with them, while in the USA this treatment was equal, nevertheless the holders did not wish to lose their slaves either.


To begin with, it is necessary to highlight that slavery and freedom in the USA and in the Caribbean region closely coexisted up to 1865, and the environment was quite suitable for enslaved women to get their freedom, as well as for emancipated women to lose it. It is emphasized that in spite of the financial difficulties and unfavorable legislation lots of free black women managed to stay independent and live their meaningful lives. (Gasper, 2004)

The slaves were generally separated into men’s and women’s gangs, as the labor separation was held according to sex. Men were obliged to perform the jobs that required power, such as plowing, while women were engaged in hoeing. Nevertheless, some women performed plowing either, while there were several jobs that women were not allowed to perform: planting seeds, digging ditches, making fences and clearing new ground for planting. In spite of the fact of labor separation, lots of enslaved women performed male jobs. On the one hand it was the matter of pride, and on the other hand this was the way for their liberation and emancipation: women proved that they are not worse than men, and thus they granted the equal treatment for themselves. (Engerman, 1999)

As for the role of free women during the slavery period, it is necessary to mention that they were the basis and the origin for further civil rights movement and emancipation. They were the embodiment of freedom in the white male society, and they showed the example of emancipated female behavior for white women.

Further, these women became the successful worker in farming medicine and household services, as they were trained to be the farmers, the nurses, midwives, cooks and housemaids. Thus, one ex-slave told of how when she was thirteen “my ol’ mistress put me with a doctor who learned me how to be a midwife. I stayed with that doctor for five years. I got to be good. Got to be so he’s sit down.”

United States Perspective

Discussing the slavery perspective in the United States of America it is necessary to emphasize that during the 1830s women became especially deeply involved into the antislavery societies. The role of women in the anti-slavery movements split up the male governed society. The anti-slavery communities were created particularly by free and liberated women, and they promoted the further abolition of slavery. Thus, in 1840 Abby Kelly was elected to the all-male committee which stood for the anti-slavery society. Then, such prominent activists as Lydia Maria Child, Lecretia Mott and Maria Weston were elected to this committee with great opposition. The role of these ladies in the emancipation process is essential, and the contribution to the anti-slavery movement is immense. This, however, was the first female committee, ran by white women, however, it united lots of colored women. It is said that further this committee made Lewis Tappan refuse from his position in the committee, as he refused to deal with women, and lots of other male members followed him. However, one of males supported the adoption of rights of the women and the African American population, and offered to legislate the opportunity of women to participate in male committees. Then he strongly encouraged women to take part in the slavery abolition movements. (King, 2006)

The fact is that lots of female participators of civil rights movements combined the movements for slaves’ rights and women rights. Thus, these committees and movements arranged by free women and supported by liberated female slaves had several aims directed at rights guaranteeing. There were lots of reformers among those who originated the rights movements: Lucy Stone, who taught the escaped slaves to read and write; the Grimké sisters, who stood against slavery in spite of the fact that their father was a slave-holder; Abby Kelly, who supported Frederick Douglas on his tours; and Susan B. Anthony, who was the central activist in the American Anti-Slavery Society. However, it is necessary to emphasize that the key difference between black female abolitionists and white suffragettes was in the matters of confusion. White women did not know for sure what they needed, and could not get conformity, while black activists had freedom as the highest, and often the only priority. (Jones, 1929)

In order to regulate the relations between the slaves and slave owners, the slave codes were established. Originally, these codes were not in favor of the slaves and did not grant them any freedoms or safety guarantees. The key idea of these codes was the following: slave is a human being, who is by law deprived of his or her liberty for life, and is the property of another. The legislation in most states declared the death penalty for those who would help the running away slaves. These codes restricted the relations between the slaves and white people. In some states the marriages between blacks and whites were not permitted, and if children appeared as a result of such marriage, the fine was assigned to be paid. As the cases of interracial marriage were rather rear, the committees did not include these issues in their activity plans. (Cott, 2000)

One of the origins of the movements for equity among men and women was the fact that working on the plantations and farms women and men had equal labor-intensive work, and the hardest work was not performed only by men, but also the women who were past the child bearing age. Emily Winslow was one of the activists who attempted to raise this issue in the World Convention in 1836; however, she was not permitted to take the word. Nevertheless, in 1837 the Antislavery Convention of American Women convened in New York and it united black and white women. The importance of this convention was in the fact that women realized the necessity of arranging separate movements for women rights, as the Slavery Abolition act of 1833 entered into force, and the solutions of this act had been steadily performed.

Later, in London, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady met with other delegates of women rights movements Emily Winslow, Abby Southwick, Elizabeth Neal, Mary Grew, Abby Kimber and defined the further aims of the women rights movement and further liberation of enslaved women and getting rid of discrimination. However, even in spite of the increasing emancipation movement, the arrangers of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Conference, which was attended by Emily Winslow, refused to set women as the delegates, and did not allow them to take part in the discussion. The result of such was the convention with the aim to form a “society to advocate the rights of women”. Then, in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, Stanton and Winslow arranged the women’s rights movement, which became one of the most diverse social forces in American life. (Gasper, 2004)

Prominent Women

Surely, the enlisted women were not the only who struggled for the rights and freedoms of women and slaves. Moreover, the role of liberated women was not only in the struggle for the rights: they also participated in social and business spheres, and became the professionals in the activities which the selected.

Margaretta Forten made the great contribution into the education for liberated slaves. She was a teacher in Philadelphia school, which was founded by Sarah Mapps Douglass, and then founded her own private grammar school for black students. She was also a professional business lady and run her father’s estate after his death. His father was one of the co-founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, however, the membership of women were not permitted in this organization, so, Margaretta Forten established Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. She supported anti slavery movements and stood for the equality between races.

Sarah Douglass was from a prominent black family. She is often regarded as an early member of biracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, where she got acquainted with Grimké sisters Sarah and Angelina. Later they managed to establish the academy for black children, and were the prominent activists of civil rights movements.

Another prominent colored woman is Mary Terrell. Her career represents the brightest instance of the connection between the abolitionism and the Civil Rights movements that took place in the middle of the twentieth century in the United Sates of America. Originally she was engaged in the civic activism, and later, she gained the powerful support by Frederick Douglass. Having this support Mary Terrell became an educator in the African American community in the District of Columbia, an anti-lynching activist, a suffragist, temperance activist, and the co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women, which later united with the founding group of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and was the powerful actor in the struggle process. It is stated that her writings have created the powerful background and the basis for the multi-directional activism in the sphere of civil rights movement.

In spite of the powerful campaigns and active committees, the liberated slaves in the USA were treated like the second sort of citizens. Decades after the emancipation, lots of liberated slaves had the lowest level of life, and wee seriously discriminated until the second half of the twentieth century.

Caribbean Perspective

At the beginning of the slave era the amount of African American women were few in the North America and the Caribbean region. Originally, it is explained by the fact the men were more suitable and desired for the hard working, and the American and Caribbean colonial experience was aimed at the increase of the amount of slaves by driving them away from Africa. Some historians also assert that the African colonists restricted the amount of women sold to slavery, as they were the highly estimated as good filed and farmworkers. Though, the overall amounts of the slaves in Caribbean region were not high. Thus, by 1623 there were no more than a hundred of African slaves. Some of the slaves managed to gain freedom and make families. These families acquired lands, and this property helped them to survive and defend their liberty. Originally, slavery in the Caribbean region was not as strict as it was in America, though, the amount of enslaved women was low, and thus, it may seem their role is not sufficient enough.

Historical Background

It is necessary to mention that the Caribbean slavery was always regarded as the deadly system. The enslaved people died young and often had few or even no children. Of more than two million people brought to the British Caribbean colonies, only 700 thousand gained freedom in 1834.

The key reason for appearing women in the Caribbean region is their labor value, as it has been already emphasized ‑ they were highly estimated agricultural workers, and plantation owners bought them for the work on tropical plantations. Women were engaged in digging holes for canes, weeding, and hoeing. In Jamaica, most of women between 19 and 54 were working on the farms and plantations.

There were slaveholders who cared of their workers, offering them food and shelter, and they believed that beating of the slaves seriously impacts the efficiency of their work, and decreases the motivation to work properly. Along with loyal owners, there were masters who believed that cruelty is the common thing to cope with slaves and make them work. Thus, lots of slaves were beaten to death, and this was the essential reason for the initiation of liberation movements. There were also numerous stories of ravished and raped women, who were bearing mulatto children from their owners. These children were accepted neither by whites nor by blacks, consequently, they had nothing to do but join the struggle movements.

The family life among slaves was encouraged, however, soon, the plantation owners realized that it was economically illogical, and bought new slaves. The increased amounts of women slaves trafficking were one of the reasons for the appearing of the civil rights movements and movements for the rights of slaves.

Girls worked on the Caribbean plantations from the early age of four or five years. Surely, they were given for them within their powers, however, the work for older girls (12 – 19 years) varied from stock work, domestic work, washing to fieldwork. Some were engaged in midwifery, medicine and housekeeping. Though, among the restricted amount of occupations available to Caribbean slave women, the most highly estimated was nursing.

The situation with the lack of women on the Caribbean plantations has led to the opposite situation. Thus, by the late eighteen century, there were much more women than men slaves who were working in the fields. This was reasoned also by their lower mortality rates. The importance of women on the plantations has impacted the economic situation on the slavery market. Thus, while the price for a young man slave rated from approximately £50-70, while the price for a young women was £5-60. The liberation cases became fewer than it was in the beginning of the slavery epoch, and was even lower than in the United States.

The only way which gave an opportunity for the Caribbean female slaves to gain freedom and get financial independence was prostitution. (Bush, 1981) This was the only possible way to save money for freedom. Moreover, there was no enough courage among liberated women to originate emancipation movements, as on the one hand there was no experience of such movements, and on the other hand, women did not wish to lose their only serious source of financial independence.

Anyway, the struggle against slavery was observed; however, it was not as powerful as it was in the USA. It was the prominent feature of the life of slaves in the Caribbean, especially in the lives of women, who were no less active in this struggle. This struggle took numerous forms: from outright revolt to less aggressive behavior. The Europeans regarded the enslaved and mostly liberated women (who helped their enslaved companions) even more troublesome than men. These women were difficult to manage on the one hand, and the colonists could not murder them or punish seriously as they were highly estimated as workers. Women also resorted to concealed boycotts, and did the assigned works incorrectly or improperly in spite of immense efforts to “teach” them how to perform the duties correctly. There are cases in literature, stating the facts that women often avoided work, verbally abused the supervisors, simulated deceases lied and even stole. Some of them totally refused to complete the task. It is necessary to mention that some of the means of resistance were secretly taught by the liberated women. (Jirran, 2001)

Originally, the information of punishments was gathered from plantation journals and punishment lists. Punishments for the violators of the rules differed essentially between men and women. If male slaves were punished, they got 15-20 stripes, while the punishment for women included solitary confinement of varied duration. This difference of punishment measures was not the result of emancipation movements; however, the liberated (as well as enslaved) women helped the confined slaves to escape.

In spite of the supernormal cruelties and the stern requirements for the enslaved women, the spirit of most of them was only getting stronger, and the wish to survive by any means endured. These women, after escaping or liberating infected the others with their cruelty and malice, helped the others to escape, and sometimes participated in the murdering of the slave owners. The stubborn will of the activists and their unwavering determination carried them through the hard times – the times of cruelty and discrimination. While their immediate aim was to keep the integrity as a personality, the final aim was to gain freedom. (Schumann, 1991)

Women (especially liberated women) in the Caribbean region played a great role in religious issues of the African culture. They participated in religious ceremonies and the religious practices helped the slaves to arrange the resistance actions. Thus, there was the practice called “Obeye”: it is the practice of calling for the help of supernatural forces and spirits. This ritual was widely spread among Caribbean slaves and was resorted to before serious resistance actions. Actually, it was mostly used for evil aims, closely linked with instrumental purposes. It was the source of strength and the form of resistance, which was used for the slaves’ rebellions. Women, who practiced this ritual, were extremely important in the resistance movements. They were the activists of the movements, they resisted the colonial oppressors, they were the teachers for their followers, they preserved the culture and religion of their peoples. Independently, liberated or enslaved, these women were often chased by the slaveholders, as they were regarded as evil witches, who could call for disasters.

Originally, the beginning of the liberation process was also featured with the essential increase in the slave trade, as the liberated slaves were replaced by the newly brought Africans. Almost 400 thousand were brought by the beginning of the liberation process.


The role of liberated women in the movements closely linked with slavery and civil rights was immense. These women were the basis of the emancipation movements, they promoted the development of education, medicine and farming. These women were highly estimated for their diligence (if they were free) and high professionalism. It is necessary to mention, that mostly these women are regarded as the keepers of original African culture, religion and customs, as they were practicing the spiritual traditions which unified the slaves from all over the continent and gave them powers to resist and struggle. Most of these women were the prominent activists of the civil rights movements and various committees, which stood not only for women’s rights but also for the abolition of slavery.

The differences in the perspectives essentially differ by the scales; however, there is almost no difference in the essence. The key difference of the perspective is in the opportunities of the liberated women. Thus, in the United States of America these women could join the emancipation committee, acquire land, have a family and defend their property and private life, as white women were supporting them. Liberated women of the Caribbean did not have such support from committees, they did not have an opportunity to live full-fledged life of a free human, and so, they devoted their free lives to liberation of other slaves, practiced witchery or became prostitutes.

Finally, it is necessary to emphasize that the common feature of these two perspectives was the wish to gain freedom by any means: it was the real struggle and, all is fair in war.


Bush, Babara. “White Ladies , Coloured ‘Favorites and Black Wenches’: Some Considerations on Sex Race and Class Factors in the Caribbean,” Slavery and abolition 2 (1981).

Cott, Nancy F., ed. No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Cox, Edward. Free Coloured in the Slave Societies of St. Kitts and Grenada, 1763-1833. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984

Gasper, David Barry and Darleen Clerke Hine, eds. Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Clor in the Americas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004

Engerman, Stanley L., ed. Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Jirran, Raymond J. “Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879 & Slave Counterpoint Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry.” The Journal of Negro History 86, no. 1 (2001): 56

Jones, Chester Lloyd, Henry Kittredge Norton, and Parker Thomas Moon. The United States and the Caribbean. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1929.

Jones, Eric A. “Fugitive Women: Slavery and Social Change in Early Modern Southeast Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 38, no. 2 (2007): 215

King, Wilma. The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women during the Slave Era. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006.

Schumann, Willy. Being Present: Growing Up in Hitler’s Germany. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991.

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