Last Updated 04 Jan 2023

History of Arkansas: Relationships and Attitudes

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Slavery in Arkansas, formerly a minor institution in the Franco-Spanish settlements that controlled the region prior to the 19th century, grew rapidly as it became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, organized into Arkansas Territory in 1819, and admitted as a state in 1836. Orville W. Taylor notes that “slavery in Arkansas grew as long as it survived. The rate of growth from 1820 to 1850 was far greater than that of any other territory or state, and from 1850 to 1860 was surpassed only by that of Texas.”[footnoteRef:1] One factor that affected the rise of slavery in the Southern state was the increasing profitability of the cotton industry, the staple product of the Southern plantation system, which increased the number of slaves in Arkansas to around 25% of the state’s population by 1860.[footnoteRef:2] The presence and later massive growth of Arkansas’ slave population resulted in the development of a unique relationship between slaveowners and their slaves.

Both slave and slave owner were required to fulfill several responsibilities to one another, creating an odd semblance of a symbiotic relationship between the two groups; however, this relationship was always unequal as the slaves were burdened with several legal provisions that restricted their daily activities. While slave owners were required to provide for the physical needs of their slaves (clothing, housing, food, etc.), such provisions were not always ample and were truly given to keep their slaves healthy enough to continue working.[footnoteRef:3] Slaves were expected to perform the tasks assigned to them by their owner or by their “overseer” or “slave driver,” either a white man or black slave whose purpose was to ensure that slaves fulfilled their agricultural work quotas and to punish those who did not cooperate.

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Restrictions like the Black Code (Code Noir in French), which was inherited from the French Louisianan administration, prevented slaves from engaging “in contractual relations for labor, business, or even marriage. The owner, on the other hand, could dispose of slaves just like any other asset, including hiring them out, selling them, or even sending children away from their parents.”[footnoteRef:4] Further restrictions prevented them from assembling, wielding firearms, travelling, and doing normal everyday activities.[footnoteRef:5] With harsh repercussions awaiting those that tried to rebel or violate slave codes, slaves frequently expressed opposition to slavery by engaging in “passive resistance” against their owners. Slaves who tried to hamper the cotton industry “slowed the pace of work, faked or exaggerated illnesses, and pretended not to understand instructions… Although these types of indirect resistance to slavery did not overthrow the power of masters as a group, such activity did assist slaves in coping with and surviving the regime.”[footnoteRef:6]

With a thriving cotton industry, slaves in Arkansas were primarily concentrated in large plantations in the lowlands of the Arkansas Delta; however, some slaves (particularly female slaves) operated within their master’s household. It is within this context that instances of harsh punishment and even sexual harassment against slaves occurred. Sexual interaction – occasionally consensual but frequently not – between slaveowners and slaves (miscegenation) present an interesting facet in the owner-slave relationship. In the case of Elisha Worthington, Arkansas’ largest landowner with 543 recorded slaves in 1860, he recognized and raised two of his slave-born children. Such acts, while uncommon, prove the active (or intimate) involvement of plantation owners with their slaves’ lives, with miscegenation being “the most extreme example of the complex series of relationships between white masters and black slaves.”[footnoteRef:7]

Religion was a major factor in influencing Southern pro-slavery attitudes and propagating Biblical myths that supposedly justified the institution of slavery to both whites and blacks, with the latter even being slightly integrated into Baptist and Methodist services; however, attempts at integration were primarily to convince black slaves of their subordinate status and their Scriptural need to obey their masters and work efficiently on the plantation. While their white owners were certainly paternalistic and convinced of the inferiority of the African race, Taylor claims that some Baptist churches achieved some semblance of an “idealistic equality before God” and even ordained black slaves as preachers; however, they were usually relegated to preaching in black-only services.[footnoteRef:8] The prevalence of Christianity in Arkansas occasionally worked to the slaves’ benefit, as some slave masters refused to enact harsh punishment upon their slaves as a result of their personal beliefs.[footnoteRef:9] With Protestant Christianity dominating much of Arkansan culture, organized religion was fundamental in cementing slavery and the owner-slave relationship in Southern life.

With the Emancipation Proclamation and end of the American Civil War in 1865, African Americans were finally liberated from the bonds of slavery and could now condemn the vile institution without (legal) repercussive punishment; however, their ability to do so was often limited because their former owners, who often retained their plantations after the war, continued to dominate the agricultural sector in Arkansas and were thus able to keep their former slaves economically dependent upon them. Fear of violence or unemployment prevented many African Americans from revealing the truth of their slave experiences to interviewers in subsequent years. This resulted in a “slave narrative” that kept many of the harsher characteristics of their former servitude from being revealed to reporters and the public at large, culminating in “a generally benevolent judgment of their own masters with a harsh condemnation of neighboring slave owners and of the institution in general.”[footnoteRef:10] Whether the relationship between slave and master was benevolent or not, it did not justify the continuation nor the expansion of the “peculiar institution” in the United States.


[bookmark: _Hlk43923584]Jones, Kelly H. “Slave Resistance.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Last modified January 7, 2019.
Moneyhon, Carl H. “Slavery.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Last modified February 10, 2020.
Taylor, Orville W. “Baptists and Slavery in Arkansas: Relationships and Attitudes.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 38, no. 3 (1979): 199–226.
Whayne, Jeannie M., Thomas A. DeBlack, George Sabo III, and Morris S. Arnold. Arkansas: A Narrative History. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2013.

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