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[Note: The Table of Contents was added by the transcriber. Footnotes
and Transcriber's notes will be found at the end of the text.]


_DECEMBER, 1885._












"The Man Who Laughs." by C.P.W. 627
Why We Forget Names by XENOS CLARK. 629
A Reminiscence of Harriet Martineau by F.C.M. 631

Illustrated Books. 634


In the following article I propose to give some account of a typical
tobacco-plantation in Virginia and the life of its negro laborers as I
have observed it from day to day and season to season. Although it is
restricted to narrow local bounds and runs in the line of exacting
routine, that life is yet varied and eventful in its way. The negro
stands so much apart to himself, in spite of all transforming
influences, that everything relating to him seems unique and almost
foreign. Even now, when emancipation has done so much to improve his
condition, his social and economic status still presents peculiar and
anomalous aspects; and in no part of the South is this more notably the
case than in the southern counties of Virginia, which, before the late
war, were the principal seat of slavery in the State, and where to-day
the blacks far outnumber the whites. This section has always been an
important tobacco-region; and this is the explanation of its teeming
negro population, for tobacco requires as much and as continuous work as
cotton. There were many hundreds of slaves on the large plantations, and
their descendants have bred with great rapidity and show little
inclination to emigrate from the neighborhoods where they were born.
Some few, by hoarding their wages, have been able to buy land; but for
the most part the soil is still held by its former owners, who
superintend the cultivation of it themselves or rent it out at low rates
to tenants. The negroes are still the chief laborers in the fields and
artisans in the workshops; and, excepting that they are no longer
chattels that can be sold at will, their lives move in the same grooves
as under the old order of things. Their occupations and amusements are
the same. As yet there has been no increase in the physical comforts of
their situation, and but little change in their general character; but
this is the first period of transformation, when it is difficult to
detect and to follow the modifications that are really taking place.

Every large tobacco-plantation is an important community in itself, and
the social and economic condition of the negro can be observed there as
freely and studied with as much thoroughness as if a wide area of
country were considered for a similar purpose. In the diversity of its
soils and crops and in the variety of its population and modes of life
it bears almost the same relation to the county in which it lies that
the county bears to its section. Indeed, no community could be more
complete in itself, or less dependent upon the outside world. In an
emergency, the inhabitants of one of these large plantations could
supply themselves by their own skill and ingenuity with everything that
they now obtain from abroad; and if cut off from all other associations,
the society which they themselves form would satisfy their desire for
companionship; for not only would its members be numerous and
representative of every shade of character and disposition, but they
would also be bound together by ties of blood and marriage as well as of
interest and mutual affection. Similar tasks and relaxations create in
them a similarity of tastes. The social position of all is identical,
for there are no classes among them, the only line of social division
being drawn upon differences of age; and they are paid the same wages
and possess the same small amount of property. They are attached to the
soil by like local associations, which vary as much as the plantation
varies in surface here and there. Each plantation of any great extent is
like that part of the country, both in its general aspect and its
leading features, just as the employments and amusements of its
population, if numerous, are found reflected in the social life of the
whole of the same section.

The particular plantation to which I shall so often allude in this
article as the scene of the observations here recorded, like most of the
tobacco-plantations in Virginia, covers a broad expanse of land,
including in one body many thousand acres, remarkable for many
differences of soil and for a varied configuration. It is partly made up
of steep hills that roll upon each other in close succession, partly it
is high and level upland that sweeps back to the wooded horizon from the
open low-grounds contiguous to the river that winds along its southern
border. At least one-half of it is in forest, in which oak, cedar,
poplar, and hickory grow in abundance and reach a great height and size.
The soil of the lowlands is very fertile, for it is enriched every few
years by an inundation that leaves behind a heavy deposit; that of the
uplands, on the other hand, is comparatively poor, but it is fertilized
annually with the droppings of the stables and pens. Patches of new
grounds are opened every year in the woods, the timber being cleared
away for the purpose of planting tobacco in the mould of the decayed
leaves, while many old fields are abandoned to pine and broom-straw or
turned into pastures for cattle.

The principal crops are tobacco, wheat, corn, and hay, but the first is
by far the most important, both from its quantity and its value.
Everything else is really subordinate to it. The soils of the uplands
and lowlands are adapted to very different varieties of this staple.
That which grows in the rich loam of the bottoms is known as "shipping
tobacco," because it is chiefly consumed abroad, as it bears
transportation in the rough state without injury to its quality.
"Working tobacco" is the name which is given to the variety that
flourishes on the hills; and this is used in the manufacture of brands
of chewing- and smoking-tobacco to meet the domestic as well as the
foreign demand. There is a third variety which grows in small quantities
on the plantation, - namely, "yellow tobacco," so called from the golden
color of the plant as it approaches ripeness; and this tint is not only
retained, but also heightened, when it has been cured, at which time it
is as light in weight as so much snuff. This variety is principally used
as a wrapper for bundles of the inferior kinds, and is prepared for the
market by a very tedious and expensive process; but the trouble thus
entailed and the money spent have their compensation in the very high
prices which it always brings in the market.

The fields where tobacco has been cultivated during the previous summer
are sown in wheat in the autumn, unless they are new grounds, when the
rotation of crops is tobacco for two years in succession, followed in
the third year by wheat, and in the fourth by tobacco again. The soil is
then laid under the same rule of tillage as land that has been worked
for many seasons. As a result of this necessity for rotation, much wheat
is raised on the plantation, although the threshing of it interferes
very seriously with the attention which the tobacco requires at a very
critical period of its growth. The greater part of the low-grounds is
planted in Indian corn, the return in a good year being very large; and
even when there has been a drought, the general average in quantity and
quality falls short very little. The soil here is so fertile that
tobacco planted in it grows too coarse in its fibre, while the cost of
cultivating it is so high that the planter is reluctant to run the risk
of an overflow of the river, which destroys a crop at any stage in a few
hours. Although corn is very much injured by the same cause, it is not
rendered wholly useless, for it can be thrown to stock even when it is
unfit to be ground into meal. At a certain season the fields of this
grain along the river present a beautiful aspect, the mass of deep green
flecked by the white tops of the stalks resembling, at a distance,
level, unruffled waters; but sometimes a freshet descends upon it and
obliterates it from sight, the whole broad plain being then like a
highly-discolored lake, with rafts of planks and uprooted trees floating
upon its surface.

The general plantation is divided into three plantations of equal
extent, each tract being made up of several thousand acres of land; each
has its own overseer, and he has under him a band of laborers who are
never called away to work elsewhere, and who have all their possessions
around them. Each division has its stables, teams, and implements, and
its expenses and profits are entered in a separate account. In short,
the different divisions of the general plantation are conducted as if
they belonged to several persons instead of to one alone.

It is the duty of the overseer of each division to remain with his
laborers, however employed, and to overlook what they are doing. He sees
that the teams are well fed, the stock in good condition and in their
own bounds, the fences intact, and the implements sheltered from the
weather. He must hire additional hands when they are needed, and
discharge those guilty of serious delinquencies. His position is one of
responsibility, but at the same time of many advantages; for he is given
a comfortable house for his private use, with a garden, a smoke-house, a
store-room, and a stable, - a horse being furnished him to enable him to
get from one locality to another on the plantation under his charge with
ease and rapidity; and he is also supplied with rations for himself and
family every month. The social class to which he belongs is below the
highest, - namely, that of the planter, - and above that of the whites of
meanest condition. Formerly one of the three overseers on the plantation
which I am now describing was a colored man who had been a slave before
the war, a foreman in the field afterward, and was then promoted, in
consequence of his efficiency, to the responsible position which I have
named. He was a man of unusual intelligence, and gave the highest
satisfaction. His mind was almost painfully directed to the performance
of his duties, and the only fault that could be found with him was an
occasional inclination to be too severe with his own race. Very
naturally, he was looked up to by the latter as successful and
prosperous, and his influence in consequence was very great. Unlike most
of his fellows, he was given to hoarding what he earned, and in a few
years was able to buy a plantation of his own; and there he is now
engaged in cultivating his own land.

There is a population of about four hundred negroes on the three
divisions of the plantation, this number including both sexes and every
age and shade of color. All of the older set, with few exceptions, were
the slaves of their employer, and did not leave him even in the restless
and excited hour of their emancipation. Born on the place, they have
spent the whole of their long lives there, and consider it to be as much
their home as it is that of its owner. In fact, the negroes here are
remote from those influences that lead so many others to migrate. The
plantation is eighteen miles from a railroad and forty from a town, and
is set down in a very sparsely settled country that has been only
partially cleared of its forests. It has a teeming population of its
own, which satisfies the social instincts of its inhabitants as much as
if they were collected together in a small town. In consequence of all
these facts, and in spite of the new state of things which the war
produced, there survives in its confines something of that baronial
spirit which we observe on a landed estate in England at the present
day, where every man, woman, and child is accustomed to think of the
landlord as the fountain-head of power and benefits. A similar spirit of
loyal subordination prevails particularly among the oldest inhabitants
of the plantation, who were once the absolute chattels of its owner, and
who look upon that fact as creating an obligation in him to support them
in their decrepitude. Being too far in the sere and yellow leaf to work,
they are provided every month with enough rations to meet their wants,
and in total idleness they calmly await the inevitable hour when their
bones will be laid beside those of their fathers. There are few more
picturesque figures than are many of these old negroes, who passed the
heyday of their strength before they were freed, and who, born in
slavery, survived to a new era only to find themselves in the last
stages of old age. They are regarded by their race with as much
veneration as if they were invested with the authority of prophets and
seers. Some of them, in spite of their years, act occasionally as
preachers, and are listened to with awe and trepidation as they lift up
their trembling voices in exhortation or denunciation. As travellers
from a distant past, it is interesting to observe them sitting with bent
backs and hands resting on their sticks in the door-ways of their cabins
on bright days in summer, or by the warm firesides in winter, while
members of younger generations talk around them or play about their

The negro laborers marry in early life, and the size of their families
is often remarkable, the ratio of increase being, perhaps, greater with
them than with the families of the white laborers on the same
plantation, and the mortality among their children as small, for the
latter have an abundance of wholesome food, are well sheltered from cold
and dampness, and have good medical attendance. As soon as they are able
to walk so far, they are sent to the public school, which is situated on
the borders of the plantation, where they have a teacher of their own
race to instruct them, and they continue to attend until they are old
enough to work in the fields and stables. They are then employed there
at fair wages, which, until they come of age or marry, are appropriated
by their parents; and in consequence of this many of the young men seek
positions on the railroads or in the towns before they reach their
majority, in order that they may secure and enjoy the compensation of
their own labor. In a few years, however, the greater number wander back
and offer themselves as hands, are engaged, and establish homes of their

Tobacco being a staple that requires work of some kind throughout the
whole of the year, a large force of laborers are hired for that length
of time. It is not like wheat, in the cultivation and manipulation of
which more energy is put forth at one season than at another, as, for
instance, when it is harvested or threshed. A certain number of laborers
are engaged on the plantation on the 1st of January, who contract to
remain at definite wages during the following twelve months. Whoever
leaves without consent violates a distinct agreement, under which he is
liable in the courts, if it were worth the time and expense to subject
him to the law. He is paid every month by an order on a firm of
merchants who rent a store that belongs to the owner of the plantation
and is situated on one of its divisions; and this order he can convert
into money, merchandise, or groceries, as he chooses, or he gives it up
in settlement of debts which he has previously made there in
anticipation of his wages. The credit of each man is accurately gauged,
and he is allowed to deal freely to a certain amount, but not beyond;
and this restriction puts a very wholesome check upon the natural
extravagance of his disposition.

On each division of the plantation there is a settlement where the
negroes live with their families. The houses of the "quarters," as the
settlement is called, are large weather-boarded cabins. In each there is
a spacious room below and a cramped garret above, which is used both as
a bedroom and a lumber-room, while the apartment on the first floor is
chamber, kitchen, and parlor in one, and there most of the inmates,
children as well as adults, sleep at night. The furniture is of a very
durable but rude character, consisting of a bed, several cots, tables
and cupboards, and half a dozen or more rough chairs of domestic
manufacture, while a few pictures, cut from illuminated Sunday books or
from illustrated papers, adorn the whitewashed walls. The brick
fire-place is so wide and open that the fire not only warms the room,
but lights it up so well that no candle or lamp is needed. The negroes
are always kept supplied with wood, and they use it with extravagance on
cold nights, when they often stretch themselves at full length on the
hearth-stone and sleep as calmly in the fierce glare as in the summer
shade, or nap and nod in their chairs until day, only rising from time
to time to throw on another log to revive the declining flames. They
like to gossip and relate tales under its comfortable influence, and it
is associated in their minds with the most pleasing side of their lives.
Those who can read con over the texts of their well-worn Bibles in its
light, while those who have a mechanical turn, as, for instance, for
weaving willow or white-oak baskets or making fish-traps or chairs, take
advantage of its illumination to carry on their work.

Each householder has his garden, either in front or behind his dwelling,
according to the greater fertility of the soil, and here he raises every
variety of vegetable in profusion: sweet and Irish potatoes, tomatoes,
beets, peas, onions, cabbages, and melons grow there in sufficient
abundance to supply many tables. Of these, cabbage is most valued, for
it can be stored away for consumption in winter, and is as fresh at that
season as when it is first cut. Around the houses peach-trees of a very
common variety have been planted, and these bear fruit even when the
buds of rarer varieties elsewhere have been nipped, both because they
are more hardy and because they are near enough to be protected by the
cloud of smoke that is always issuing from the chimneys. Every
householder is allowed to fatten two hogs of his own, the sty, for fear
of thieves, being erected in such close proximity to his dwelling that
the odor is most offensive with the wind in a certain quarter, and, one
would think, most unwholesome; but his family do not seem to suffer
either in health or in comfort. Every cabin has its hen-house, from
which an abundant supply of eggs is drawn, which find a ready sale at
the plantation store; and in spring the chickens are a source of
considerable income to the negroes. Their fare is occasionally varied by
an opossum caught in the woods, or a hare trapped in the fields; but
they much prefer corn bread and bacon as regular fare to anything else.
They dislike wheat bread, as too light and unsatisfying, and they always
grumble when flour is measured out to them instead of meal. Coffee is a
luxury used only on Sunday. The table is set off by a few china plates
and cups, but there are no dishes, the meat being served in the utensil
in which it is cooked. On working-days breakfast and dinner are carried
to the hands in the fields by a boy who has collected at the different
houses the tin buckets containing these meals.

The hands are as busy in winter as during any other part of the year.
Much of their time is then taken up in manipulating the tobacco, which
has been stored away in one large barn, and preparing it for market, the
first step toward which is to strip the leaves from the stalk and then
carefully separate those of an inferior from those of a superior
quality. Although there are many grades, the negroes are able to
distinguish them at a glance and assort them accordingly. They are not
engaged in this work of selection continuously from day to day, but at
intervals, for they can handle the tobacco only when the weather is damp
enough to moisten the leaf, otherwise it is so brittle that it would
crack and fall to pieces under their touch. They like this work, for the
barn is kept very comfortable by large stoves, they do not have to move
from their seats, and they can all sit very sociably together, talking,
laughing, and singing. It contrasts very agreeably with other work which
they are called upon to do at this season, - namely, the grubbing of new
grounds, from which they shrink with unconcealed repugnance, for outside
of a mine there is no kind of labor more arduous or exacting. The land
cleared is that from which the original forest has been cut, leaving
stumps thickly scattered over the surface, from which a heavy
scrub-growth springs up. Active, quick, and industrious as the negroes
may be in the tobacco-, corn-, or wheat fields, they show here great
indolence, and move forward very slowly with their hoes, axes, and
picks, piling up, as they advance, masses of roots, saplings, stumps,
and brush, which, when dry, are set on fire and consumed. The soil
exposed is a rich but thin loam of decayed leaves, in which tobacco
grows with luxuriance.

In February or March the laborers prepare the plant-patch, the initial
step in the production of a crop that remains on their hands at least
twelve months before it is ready for market. They select a spot in the
depths of the woods where the soil is very fertile from the accumulated
mould, and they then cut away the trees and underbrush until a clean
open surface, square in shape and about forty yards from angle to angle,
is left, surrounded on all sides by the forest. Having piled up great
masses of logs over the whole of this surface, they set them on fire at
one end of the patch, and these are allowed to burn until all have been
consumed, the object being to get the ash which is deposited, and which
is very rich in certain constituents of the tobacco-plant and is
especially conducive to its growth. The ploughmen then come and break up
the ground, hoers carefully pulverize every clod, and the seed is sown,
a mere handful being sufficient for a great extent of soil. The laborers
afterward cover the surface of the patch with bushes, and it is left
without further protection. In a short time the tobacco-plant springs up
in indescribable profusion, and in a few weeks it is in a condition to
be transferred to the fields.

Before this is done, however, the seed-corn has begun to sprout in the
ground. The first cry of the whippoorwill is the signal for planting
this cereal. The grains are dropped from the hand at regular intervals,
both men and women joining in this work; and they all move slowly along
together, the men bearing the corn in small bags, the women holding it
in their aprons. The wide low-grounds at this season expand to the
horizon without anything to obstruct the vision, a clear, unbroken sweep
of purple ploughed land. The laborers are visible far off, those who
drop the grains walking in a line ahead, the hoers following close
behind to cover up the seed. Still farther in the rear come the harrows,
that level all inequalities in the surface and crush the clods. Flocks
of crows wheel in the air above the scene, or stalk at a safe distance
on the ploughed ground. Blackbirds, which have now returned from the
South, sing in chorus on the adjacent ditch-banks, mingling their harsh
notes with the lively songs of myriads of bobolinks, while high overhead
whistles the plover. The newly-sprung grass paints the road-side a lush

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