Slavery did not function as many people now think it did. It was not as large-scale as it is imagined to be and was very systematic. Our textbook tells a lot about how it worked, but it did not tell us of the brutality and harsh reality of the system. Douglas, though, did reveal this to us. From his experience and the textbook, we learn of slavery s effects and the difference between city slaves and plantation slaves. However, Douglas stories do differ from what the textbook teaches us. Slaves on the plantation had a much different life than slaves in the city. City slaves were far better off. They could work, eat well, sleep well, and do much more than the desolate plantation slave.
A city slave had a better chance of learning how to read and write, as Douglas did. The difference in the amount and difficulty of work was tremendous; the city slave did not have the difficult task of working in the fields. Also, especially in Maryland and other northern parts of the South, it was easier for a slave to reach freedom from a city rather than an isolated plantation. Douglas was a great example of this; he failed to reach freedom from the plantation but succeeded in reaching freedom from the city. No slave wants to live on a plantation in the country; Frederick Douglass is somewhat luckier than most in this regard. For much of his life, he lived in Baltimore, where he was better fed and clothed than anywhere he had ever been. Slaves in the cities were generally treated better than those on plantations. There were also community standards regarding how slaves should be treated and slaves are treated better, and which is an easier place from which to escape to freedom.
In the country, slaves are often whipped brutally, and they are rarely given enough food or clothing. Slave owners in the city would be ashamed for their neighbours to see their slaves without enough food or clothing. Nevertheless, slaves in the city enjoy relatively greater freedom than plantation slaves. Urban slave owners are careful not to appear cruel or neglectful to slaves in the eyes of non-slaveholding whites. In the city, Douglass learns to read and meets a wide variety of people who help him on his road to freedom: the white children who help him learn to read and write, the sailors who teach him a trade, and people from the North who show him that not all whites are slave owners.
Plantation slaves in the South were generally agricultural workers, and few owners had more than two dozen slaves. On a typical plantation, some slaves would be involved in domestic chores. Life on the plantation was gruelling work, with little respite from the cruelty of the master or overseer’s watchful eyes. Depending on their size, plantations included a gathering of buildings: the homes of the master’s family, overseer, and slaves, as well as outbuildings, barns, and workshops. Large plantations operated like self-sustaining villages and were often isolated from the outside world. Work on these plantations was never-ending for slaves. Adult male slaves were primarily relied on to tend the fields, pastures, and gardens.
Overseers on horseback equipped with whips monitored slaves, always threatening to punish “stragglers” with a flogging. Plantation owners also exploited the work of skilled slaves, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, for their own ends. Lastly, female slaves and young children usually served as domestics, tending to the master’s family as cooks, servants, and housemaids, and were often starved, whipped, and even raped. City slaves, either domestics or tradesmen, participated in the economies of the urban areas and represented up to a fifth of the population in some large antebellum cities. Many of the city slaves were given training as artisans or tradesmen.