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The Rail Splitter
An Eyewitness Anecdote
From the account of William H. Robinson concerning events in Eastern Virginia circa 1862
“The farm on the other side of us belonged to a man named Wilkerson; he had seventy five or a hundred slaves, and he, also was a cruel man. Every day, in going for the cows I would have to pass his farm. I heard him say to one of the rail splitters, ‘if you don’t have your task of rails split tomorrow I will hit you one hundred lashes.’ The man told him he was doing all he could do and would die before he would take a single lick. I made it my business the next day to go after the cows about the time for him to go out; I saw him and four or five other men; he asked the rail splitter if he had his task completed. The man answered in the negative; he then ordered him to pull off his shirt, which the man did, then tied his pants around his waist with his suspenders. The reason the slaves would so readily pull off their shirts was so they could not easily hold them by, their flesh being moist they could not easily hold them. When his master told him to cross his hands he began to fight, knocking white men down as fast as they could come to him. Finally they made five or six other rail splitters, working near by, help take him. There were saw-logs from five to six feet through, all round; some of the colored men caught him by the head and hands, while others had hold of his feet, and they bent him back over one of the saw-logs while he was fighting and cursing. His master seized the maul, which the man had been using to split rails with, and struck him across the abdomen; bent over in the position he was the lick sounded like a pop-gun, and the man’s intestines ran out, and he died across the log; murdered because he could not perform the task imposed on him.”
Comment
Throughout history and under the American chattel system most slaves have chosen not to escape, not to resist, not to fight, and not to defend their fellow slaves. Horizontal compliance has always been an effective means of controlling human behavior. It is currently called peer pressure.
Throughout history and under the American chattel system most slaves have chosen to discourage fellow slaves from escaping, resisting, and fighting, often serving as informants against plotting slaves.
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