Slave Portrait

Head of a Negro – John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815. Oil on Canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts

All plantations relied on the work of enslaved individuals and and Somerset Place would be no different.

Labor needs dictated the number, age, gender, and skills of the first workers brought to Somerset. This work force included 167 enslaved men, women, and children. Mostly, they were young, strong men in their late teens and early twenties. Some young women worked beside them in planting and harvesting crops but tasks such as uprooting tree stumps and hauling mud away from the farm's ditches were seen as "men's work."

This initial labor force came from three basic sources. Almost half—including a man named Guinea Jack; his wife, Fanny; a man named Quaminy; and 77 others—were brought to the plantation directly from their homeland in West Africa. Others included 49 people from neighboring counties and states, women like Sucky and Rose, who cooked and washed. The remaining men and women were artisans already in Edenton: a carpenter named Lewis, a brick mason named Joe Welcome, and others who were joiners, cobblers, millers, and weavers.

Only 113 of those 167 survived to be counted in the census of 1790; but within those few years, the swampland at Somerset was transformed into a prosperous plantation.

Slaves at Somerset - Living History

Living Historians Portray Slave Life at Somerset Place

These slaves were skilled laborers but they were also people with their own traditions. Each man, woman, and child brought to the plantation had a special identity and culture that could be passed on to future generations.

Guinea Jack, Quaminy, and the other native Africans bore special "day names," indicating the day they were born. Quaminy meant "born on Saturday," and Kofi, or Cuff, meant "born on Friday." Each person also carried a family last name chosen by the father and given to the child during a special naming ceremony attended by the whole village, eight days after birth. These special African last names were eventually lost as the Africans were forced to adopt the last names of their first owners—thus Guinea Jack and Quaminy became Collinses.

Slaves at Somerset - Living History

Living Historians Portray Slave Life at Somerset Place

Fanny brought her love of African foods like rice, black-eyed peas, watermelon, okra, yams, and cucumbers. Of course, these foods had been brought to America on slave ships long before Fanny arrived.

Quaminy made musical instruments, bowls, and dippers from gourds that grew from seeds brought from Africa. He also adapted and used gourds native to America.

Guinea Jack likely brought spiritual beliefs that involved worshipping elements of the universe humankind could not have created. He also may have had "healing hands," or skills that could make the sick sell. And he used "May Rain", the practice of collecting May's first rain to wash the eyes and prevent allergies.

Living Historians at Somerset

Living Historians at Somerset Place

In time, these traditions mixed and what had been purely African became part of African American tradition. Some slave descendants still use May Rain. The carpenters, joiners, and masons who built the 14-room mansion where Josiah Collins III lived, as well as the the 37 houses in the enslaved community, and the plantation's barns and mills, passed on their skills to their sons. The cooks, spinners, weavers, laundresses, and housemaids passed all they knew to their daughters. And the plowmen and field hands passed on their knowledge about working the land.

The enslaved people had fears, but they also had hopes. Though no one in the slave community at Somerset was there voluntarily or was paid, most did not try to leave. Laws passed prior to 1808 allowed Americans to import Africans and hold them as slaves on plantations like Somerset Place. Overseers supervised the enslaved and kept them from running away. Plus, each county had teams of "patrollers" to catch slaves who tried to escape. If runaways were captured, the law required that "finders" return this "property" to their legal owners. The owners could then issue punishments that might include whipping, putting them in stocks, or selling the runaways.

One slave named Smart ran away and was caught. He was promptly sent to the West Indies and sold. Becky Drew also ran; when captured, she was put in stocks overnight. The weather turned bitterly cold and the poor woman's feet froze, necessitating the amputation of both legs.

Some slaves did not run away, but managed to commit other acts of defiance. When caught, their punishment was swift and severe. In 1853, field workers led by Peter and Elsy Littlejohn tried to poison the overseer at Somerset Place. Sixteen of the plotters were taken to the Deep South by a slave trader and sold.

Knowing the potential consequences, most slaves—especially mothers afraid of being sold away from their children—remained captives. Most who did try to escape were almost always caught soon after. Those who remained in bondage simply focused on preparing their children for the freedom they prayed would one day come.

When the Civil War finally ended slavery in 1865, these African American men and women left behind every tangible thing they had created. But they took into freedom their families and the knowledge that their elders had passed on.

Adapted and edited from "The Slave Community at Somerset," Carolina Peacemaker, February 14, 1996, by Dorothy Spruill Redford.


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