“Useless”: Disability, Slave Labor, and Contradiction on Antebellum Southern Plantations

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Dea Hadley Boster


African-American history, slavery, plantation labor


African American slaves with disabilities (broadly defined as physical, mental or aesthetic conditions seen as unfavorable or impairing) performed a variety of duties on antebellum southern plantations. However, tensions between goals of production, profit, control, and planters’ expectations often created contradictory assessments of disability in slaves. Slaves with disabilities were also at risk of abuse—including corporeal punishment, neglect, and murder—from masters. 

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