King on Slavery

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

March 29, 1996

Childhood Slavery Experiences Recalled

By Ellie Walradth
UW-RF News Bureau

In recognition of Black History month, author and scholar Wilma King spoke to an attentive audience at UW-River Falls about her recent book, "Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in 19th Century America."

During a public presentation on March 26 as part of a three-day visiting professorship, King said she was motivated to write the book because of the fact that 56 percent of slaves in 19th century America were under the age of 21.

"My aim in writing the book was to bring children from the background and push them into the center where questions could be asked about their lives," said King.

After many hours of research, King found that most slave children did not know their own ages, and the owners of the slaves deliberately kept them ignorant. She added that Booker T. Washington never knew his age.

King compared slavery to war and quoted several enslaved people who used the word "war" when describing their lives. She said they lived in an area as if it were under siege.

Chapter by chapter, King summarized the critical points of her extensively researched book about the lives of 19th century African American children. King related her historical research findings about child birth and relationships. After describing the ways in which African American children were named, King pointed out that parents taught their children behavior appropriate for children and for slaves.

King gave examples of how children at the early ages of four and five were expected to work, which they would do the rest of their lives.

King went on to describe the play and leisure activities that enslaved engaged in when their work was finished. She determined the popular games they played were marbles, dolls and hopscotch, along with telling folk tales that offered alternatives to the way they lived. King shared an example of a folk tale about a rabbit and a fox with a message intended to help children survive in the world.

Religion and education goals for many adults was to have the ability to read the Bible before they died, and she claimed that although children played make-believe church and funeral, they did not understand religion.

Tragedy, trauma and the viciousness of the system also were evident. Even though all 19th century slave children may not have been whipped, separated or abused, King claims that they were all affected and threatened by it. King recited a quote from "Beloved" by Toni Morrison as she said, "Children were whipped like adults, and adults were whipped like children."

King concluded that enslaved families maintained love so that they and their children could survive.

Following her presentation, King answered questions from the audience and provided autographs.

A prominent scholar in the field of African American history, King is a visiting professor at the University of Houston in the African American Studies Department.

She holds a bachelor's in history from Jackson State University and a master's and doctorate in American history from Indiana University.

Other publications by King include: "A Northern Woman in the Plantation South: Letters of Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, 1856-1876"; and "Toward the Promised Land, 1851-1861." King has also published extensively in numerous academic journals.

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