Unfamiliar Faces Special Edition: Lost to History – Slave Patrols


Slave Patrols – The History of American Policing

Considering the ongoing tragedies surrounding the shooting of unarmed (or armed) black men and the deaths of police officers, it is only fitting to present a special Unfamiliar Faces, Lost to History Edition. Today, we’re discussing a lost and often unfamiliar historical fact in the history of American policing.

During the institution of chattel slavery, controlling the actions and whereabouts of slaves was of vital importance. As nothing more than a commodity, slaves were worth hundreds and thousands of dollars. Big feet for example may indicate to a slave owner that his slave may be strong and stout one day, while his “skin and bones” appearance may bring down a hopeful price.

Through care and discipline, slaves’ bodies were physically incorporated with their owners’ standards of measure”.

– Soul by Soul, Walter Johnson, Life Inside The Antebellum Slave Market

If a slave approached the auction block with two fingers cut off, both of which were done in the slave’s desperate attempt to escape chains–choosing rather to go about with eight fingers than to become a slave–the true manner of his or her disablement would have to be concealed for the time being. Basically, the fact that this slave cut her own fingers off would have to be a secret for now. Her attempted escape would have to transform itself into one in which a doctor cut off one of her fingers due to illness and she, in an attempt to comply with the doctor’s orders, cut off the other one. In such case the slave is seen as so stupid and imitative that she would mutilate herself because it’s what the doctor did. For the auctioneer, this increased his chances of selling this slave, whereas the truth would decrease the auctioneers chances of selling the slave.

Slavery was such an ingrained part of American society that it influenced every fabric of society, from the least to the greatest. Many would not admit it, but the economic disparity between African Americans and Europeans can (on one level) be traced back to the fact that many European families still benefit from the financial gain that slavery produced (Duet. 28:43). While many of this generation may not possess the same racists feelings and thought processes as their ancestors, many of them still benefit economically from their forefather’s owning of slaves.

Nonetheless, these kinds of situations, not to mention the constant running away of slaves, caused for serious security over the slaves whereabouts and required a policing of them known as Slave Patrols. These patrols were formed by county courts and state militias, and were the closest enforcers of codes governing slaves throughout the South. Strangely, modern day police enforce the laws of the land and are the most brutal force in its handling of African Americans and black related crimes in this day. According to Google:

Slave patrols (also called patrollers, patterrollers, pattyrollers or paddy rollers by the slaves), were organized groups of white men who monitored and enforced discipline upon black slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states. The slave patrols’ function was to police slaves, especially runaways and defiant slaves.

Today, members of the black community still refer to large police vehicles as “patty-wagons”, a play on the former “pattyrollers”.

Slave Patrols and Night Watches were designed for controlling slaves and later evolved into modern day Police Departments. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”


“We Slipped and Learned to Read”


It is common knowledge that slaves were lawfully restricted from learning to read and write. One less commonly stated fact however, was that slaves were not completely ignorant. They could not read and write English but this did not mean they could not read and write period. As strangers in a foreign land, many African American’s had no knowledge of English or even America itself and thus had to be re-educated. Something they were restricted from as slaves.

It was obvious that slave owners understood that their control over the slave had to supersede the physical. To keep a slave in bondage, not just physically but spiritually and mentally, slave owners knew they had to invent a much stronger rope than one that wrapped itself around the Magnolia. To do this, they realized that knowledge is power and this realization became the beginning of slave codes throughout the United States that put restrictions on slaves learning to read and write. This included, most especially, reading the bible.

However, ironically, it was the reading of the bible and listening to the speech of their slave masters (who often spoke openly around blacks they assumed ignorant) that helped coach slaves into the reading process. The law was specific, reading or even teaching reading both had death penalties. Still, persistent as they were, slaves still found a way to by pass the law, slipped, and learned how to read. For many slaves reading and writing meant, if not physical freedom, mental and spiritual freedom. They could use it as a tool to escape slavery physically or write of the horrors of the institution as did many in the famous slave narratives. The following is an excerpt from a writing done by Janet Cornelius and published by Clark Atlanta University on slaves and literacy:

“Despite the dangers and difficulties, thousands of slaves learned to read and write in the antebellum south. Few left traces of their accomplishments, but 272 ex-slaves who told how they learned to read and write during slavery provide insight into the literacy process within the slave community. For slaves, literacy was a two-edged sword: owners offered literacy to increase their control, but resourceful slaves seized the opportunity to expand their own powers. Slaves who learned to read and write gained privacy, leisure time, and mobility. A few wrote their own passes and escaped from slavery. Literate slaves also taught others and served as conduits for information within the slave communication network. Some were able to capitalize on their skills and literacy as a starting point for literacy careers after slavery ended. Historians of education have drawn a distinction between bible literacy, whose prime motive was the conservation of piety and liberating literacy (slaves used the bible to learn to read), which facilitates diversity and mobility.”

– by Janet Cornelius, Phylon (1960-)

Vol. 44, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1983), pp. 171-186
Paper Published by: Clark Atlanta University