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South Carolina – African-Americans – Brutal Work Regimen

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

Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

South Carolina slaves were worked using either a gang system or task system. In the gang system, slaves worked in unison, led by one or two workers who set the pace, from sunup to sundown. Historians have suggested that regimentation and discipline were the defining characteristics of this system. In contrast, the task system set work quotas. After the work was completed the slaves' time was, theoretically, their own.

On lowcountry rice plantations the task system was most common. Owners subdivided their plantations into plots measuring 105 feet square, or a quarter acre. A slave would be expected to weed that size field in one day. On Manigault's Gowrie Plantation, a daily task was also defined as digging 133 feet of quarter drains – about three feet wide and 18 inches deep. For the main ditches, which were much larger – about five feet deep and five feet wide – a daily task was 24 feet in length. Other jobs were also defined by tasking. For example, the typical quota for fencing was 100 12-foot poles. The weekly task for a pair of sawyers was 600 feet of pine or 780 feet of cypress. Tasking was even done on cotton plantations.

It has been suggested that the task system allowed far more freedom to the slave. To some degree this is true – tasking could be better than unrelenting gang labor. There was time to tend a garden and raise crops for either home use or sale. But life was never easy. Sam Polite, a freed slave explained what slavery was like.
Every slave have task to do, sometime one task, sometime two, and sometime three. You have for work till task through. When cotton done make, you have other task. Have to cut cord of marsh grass maybe. Task of marsh been eight feet long and four feet high. Then, sometime you have to roll cord of mud in cowpen. Woman have to rake leaf from wood into cowpen .... If slave don't do task, they get licking with lash on naked back.
Another freed slave, Prince Smith, explained that on Wadmalaw Island
There was three kinds of day's work on the plantation. One is the whole task, meaning a whole hand, or a person in his prime. He was given two task for his day's work. A task carried from twenty-four to twenty-five rows, which was thirty-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide. The three-fourth hand was given one whole task, which consists of twelve rows. All the young chillun was included in this group. Us half-hand was the old slaves who did a half task for their day's work. When it was time to pick cotton, the three-fourth hand had to pick thirty pound and the half-hand twenty for their day's work. Those who attended to the gin only include the three-fourth hand.


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