LITTLE KNOWN

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In the American South before the Civil War, half of all U.S. slaves were under the age of 16. Half of all slave children grew up apart from their father, either because he lived on another plantation, had been sold away, or was white. On large plantations, infants and very young children were supervised and cared for by adults other than their parents. Children as young as two or three might work at domestic chores, including childcare or collecting trash and kindling, toting water, scaring away birds, weeding, or plucking grubs off of plants. Generally, in the U.S. South, children entered fieldwork between the ages of eight and 12. During adolescence, a majority of slave youth were sold or hired away. Deprived of an adequate diet, slave children were very small by modern standards. Slave mothers suffered high rates of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and deaths shortly after birth due to chronic undernourishment. Half of all slave infants weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth. In addition, slave children received harsh punishments, not dissimilar from those meted out to adults. Like children of the Holocaust, they played games that helped them cope with slavery’s oppressions, including mock auctions or games that included whipping. Through folk tales, such as the famous “Br’er Rabbit” stories, parents taught their children how to outwit more powerful adversaries. Their songs, too, helped them deal with slavery’s horrors. One song included the following lyrics that addressed the subject of family separation directly: “Mammy, is Ole’ Massa gwin’er sell us tomorrow? / Yes, my chile. / Whar he gwin’er sell us? / Way down South in Georgia.”