The Home Life and Family Life of African Americans in Berks County in the Eighteenth Century - Woven With Words
The 1700s were a time of great disparity for African Americans in the United States. A large gap in rights and opportunities existed, and slaves who were disadvantaged in the South migrated towards the more liberal and compassionate North. The best estimate is that 138 slaves lived in Berks between 1780 and 1825; of these, only a few were women (Goda 2004-05, 12).
African Americans in the eighteenth century had varied home lives that depended chiefly on who their owners were. “Domestics,” or house servants, generally lived in the master's household. The masters at this time were primarily white, upper-class men who owned large businesses or iron furnaces in Berks County. For slaves to communicate, many had to learn how to speak their master's native tongue. In predominantly Germanic Berks County, German was often the language of choice, and many slaves eventually became fluent (Blockson 1994, 2).
Domestic slaves found themselves responsible for a variety of household tasks. They could be commissioned to do anything from cooking and cleaning to helping the master build a house. Building a house often required clearing the thick forests that blanketed Berks County at this time and then assisting in the actual construction (Blockson 1994, 2).
Slaves in Berks County were usually treated more equally than in other parts of Pennsylvania. This treatment was reflected in slaves' living quarters, which were usually on the property of the master in a separate building. These quarters were similar to one-room log cabins, with dirt floors and a small plot of land. They were generally given pots, pans, and cooking utensils to work with, but not much else. Many slaves gardened their small plots of land (Wood 2003, 69).
Slaves were given clothing made from the cheapest, thinnest fabrics. They were usually given only one set of clothes, but two sets were not uncommon. While some slave owners were no doubt looking to save money, there was another, more devious reason why they were reluctant to give slaves more clothes: When slaves ran away, slave owners wanted to be able to easily identify what they were wearing so that they could place a newspaper advertisement that included a description of the slave's attire.
At the local furnaces, lodging was often equivalent to that of white workers. For example, on the grounds of Hopewell Furnace in the 1700s, rent was one dollar per month to live on the grounds, and the African American workers ate their meals side by side with their white counterparts in the Mansion House (Walker “Negro,” 480).
Domestic slaves also found a home on the grounds of Hopewell. They served the wealthiest people in the village and generally lived in the homes of their masters (Walker 1966, 416). It was quite different from the situation given to other domestics in the area who typically found themselves separated from their masters and their masters' families by living in another building entirely.
Slaves who lived off the furnace grounds and in the nearby village also had a decent living situation. Housing was generally not segregated, and it was affordable and comfortable (Walker 1966, 310). Many slaves even found they had money left over after paying rent to spend at the local stores. Records indicate African Americans often chose to shop at Hopewell's own store on the village grounds ( Walker 1963).
Richard G. Johnson reports that social life on the plantations in Robesonia included barn dances, corn huskings, country parties, and once-or twice-yearly trips to the borough fair (“Black in Berks” Part II 8).
The family lives of slaves in the United States at this time are well-documented, although little is known about Berks County specifically. Generally, slaves brought from Africa were separated from their relatives by the time they arrived in the New World, and it was highly unlikely that they would ever see each other again. Family life at this time was thus characterized by instability—slaves never knew when someone they had grown attached to would be sold or traded away. Marriage in the 1700s was generally not allowed by slave owners, but they generally encouraged long-term relationships among slaves to encourage loyalty, create ties that would preclude a slave from running away, and to increase their labor force (Wood 2003, 61-63).
In the African Americans families of the iron furnaces in Berks County, sons of indentured servants or free African Americans were taught their father's profession if he was a skilled worker because skilled jobs could be inherited (Walker 1966, 416). Slave mothers who were domestics would teach their daughters the basics of being a domestic slave so that when the mother was unable to work anymore, the daughter could take her place.