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South Carolina – African-Americans – Hunger and Other Hardships


Also see: African-Americans - 1525-1865 Main Page



Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

The slave's diet was monotonous, low in protein, high in carbohydrates, and usually very low in calories. For example, on Gowrie there was no regular meat allowance. Slaves were expected to find time to fish instead. In fact, meat seems to have been issued at Gowrie only twice between 1833 and 1838 – once at the end of the 1835 harvest and again at Christmas in 1836. This wasn't uncommon. An ex-slave from the coast of Georgia explained, "No meat whatsoever was issued. It was up to the slaves to catch fish, oysters, and other sea food for their meat supply."

The staple at Gowrie was rice. Cowpeas were provided only twice, in 1857 and 1859. Sweet potatoes were grown for slave use only once in 1860. At other plantations, the staple was corn, with the typical allotment being one peck (or roughly enough to fill two gallon milk containers today) of ground corn per slave. That allowed just over four cups of corn per day. It provided about 1,700 calories and about 360 grams of carbohydrates, but no dietary fiber and no protein. We know today that active men and women need 26-22 calories per pound of body weight respectively. For example, an active male slave weighing about 140 pounds would have needed about 3,600 calories a day – far more than would have been provided by his ration of corn.

When meat was provided, slaves got the least desirable cuts, typically heads, vertebrae, ribs, and feet. Prince Smith, an ex-slave on Wadmalaw Island explained that, "Only on Christmas, he [the master] killed and give a piece of meat."

Clothing was little better than the food for most slaves. At Gowrie, Manigault's slaves were provided ready-made winter clothes, while the summer clothing had to be made by the slaves themselves. One South Carolina ex-slave explained:
Our clothes was made at home, spun and wove by the women folk. Copper straw and white cloth was used. Our shoes was made by a shoemaker in the neighborhood .... They was made with wooden soles or bottoms. They tanned the leather or had it tanned in the neighborhood. It was then tacked around the soles. It was rawhide leather, and the shoes had to be soaked in warm water and greased with tallow or meat skin so the shoes would slip on the feet.
Another former slave, Sam Polite, went on to explain:
Every year, in Christmas month, you gets four or either five yard cloth, according to how you is. Out of that, you have to make your clote [clothes]. You wears that same clote till the next year. You wear it winter and summer, Sunday and every day. You don't get no coat, but they give you shoe. (old?)
One overseer at Gowrie wrote Manigault,
The shoes for last season (I believe) were not of the best quality as they wore out in a very short time. I had frequently heard the negroes makeing [sic] remarks about their shoes breaking so early in winter.
Even such simple items as blankets were carefully controlled by the plantation master focused on profits. At Gowrie, for example, only a third of the slaves got a new blanket every year. It was a great "privilege" when in 1852, Manigault provided every slave on his plantation with a new blanket.

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