Author: Leni Sorensen

retired African American research historian at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

Enslaved House Servants

Enslaved house servants labored on large rural plantations and in urban homes, as well as in urban taverns and hotels, performing all the jobs involved with keeping a private or public house running. These included maintaining fires, hauling wood, sweeping hearths, carrying water, emptying chamber pots, sweeping and scrubbing floors, washing and ironing clothing, sewing, minding babies and children, helping to groom adults, cooking and serving food, and otherwise remaining on call for the commands of enslavers. The work was daily, constant, sometimes difficult, and often tedious, and enslaved servants often slept on pallets on the floors of bedrooms or hallways near where they labored. Beginning work as young apprentices, many house servants eventually inherited the positions of their parents or relatives. This meant learning the culinary arts or the skills required of a butler, which involved interacting with whites in a manner that was discreet but knowledgeable of the social status of visitors and the routines of the house. This proximity to whites allowed at least some house servants, especially those who labored on elite rural plantations, to receive slightly better clothing and housing. Evidence suggests that they did not receive more or better food, however. That same proximity also made enslaved women and girls especially vulnerable to the sexual predation of male enslavers and their guests.