Three women and one man hoeing in field, (1899), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91785649/]
This photograph, titled Three women and one man hoeing in a field, depicts the agricultural labour of unidentified African Americans in the late nineteenth century. The image not only offers a glimpse into the lives of Black Southerners before the turn of the century, but also provides an insight into the labour performed by enslaved people during the antebellum era (1815-1861) and the height of ‘King Cotton.’
The hoe served as a crucial tool of agricultural development on Southern slaveholding sites during the antebellum era. Enslaved men and women often hoed crops alongside each other in back breaking conditions from ‘sun-up to sun-down’, cultivating the land of the elite and thus lining the pockets of their enslavers. Consequently, for many African Americans, the hoe not only served as a tool of oppression but also stood as a symbol of their enslavement.
Paradoxically, enslaved women often utilised tools of slavery such as the hoe as an object of resistance. Enslaved women created various violent strategies to resist victimisation, affirm agency and identity, and to protest against the legalised rape and abuse of their bodies in creative and subversive violent ways. The utilisation of plantation labour equipment ironically provided strategies for survival and allowed women to protest and resist white mechanisms of control.
Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted in the 1930s reveal a clear and distinct theme of enslaved women’s violence and illuminate how agricultural implements, such as the hoe, were utilised as an object of women’s resistance. When interviewed in the state of Texas, one formerly enslaved man described how an enslaved woman, Clarinda, violently resisted her slaveholder’s sexual advances, or attempts to ‘[inter]‘fere with her,’ by physically assaulting him with the hoe she was operating in the plantation field:
‘De worst whippin’ I seed was give to Clarinda. She hits massa with de hoe ‘cause he try ‘fere with her and she try stop him.’
Additionally, a respondent named Richard Crump described how his mother would stand inside her cabin equipped with a hoe and would challenge the residing overseer to enter and beat her. Afraid of trespassing into the armed enslaved woman’s cabin, the overseer let her be. Lucindy Allison reported to a WPA interviewer how her mother, while labouring in the field, violently threatened to ‘chop up’ the plantation overseer ‘into pieces’ with her hoe if he attempted to whip her pregnant daughter. Unwilling to take the risk of potentially combatting two armed women, the overseer relented. These examples demonstrate that women converted agricultural equipment into deadly weapons which could be utilised against slaveholders and overseers at any time to subvert authority. Bondswomen used plantation equipment as their own form of personal protection which extended to their children as women attempted to curb the generational cycle of abuse which operated on slaveholding sites.
Slaveholders expected women who laboured as field hands to perform the same heavy work as men and little distinction was made between the two sexes, as highlighted by Anne Clark, who informed her interviewer that she ‘ploughed, hoed, split rails. I done the hardest work ever a man did, I was strong.’ The enforced labour implemented upon enslaved women inadvertently gave them the skills and experience needed to be able to transition the hoe from an innocent farm implement into a deadly weapon within seconds.
The weaponization of the agricultural hoe specifically had many practical advantages. The hoe easily transitioned from an everyday farming tool to offensive weapon due to its light weight, long reach and sharp metal blade. Swinging the lightweight hoe required minimal strength and the metal blade edge could easily damage skin or crack bones of the intended target. Additionally, its long reach allowed the user to attack the intended victim and kept them from any immediate short-range counterattacks. Overall, converting equipment into weapons bolstered bondswomen’s violence, provided extra protection for themselves and others, and allowed them to overcome any possible physiological shortcomings due to the practical advantages of the weapon. Therefore, it is not surprising that enslaved people, most notably women, converted this tool of enslavement into an object of resistance.
The descriptions of these women speak to a celebration and appreciation of the efficacy of women’s violence. They demonstrate how enslaved women rejected contemporary narratives of both white supremacy and inevitable masculine dominance through a resistance tactic still largely unexplored by historians of slavery. The weaponization of equipment by enslaved women forces historians to expand our understandings of those behaviours and actions we constitute as gendered. The testimony provided by the formerly enslaved clearly reveals that violence was not solely a male phenomenon, and it challenges contemporary and historical ideas around resistance, activism and identities forged in slavery. It asks us to reconceptualise the gendered boundaries we have drawn around strategies for survival.
 Henry D. Jenkins, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 3
 Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2
 Richard Crump, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1
 Lucindy Allison, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1
 Anne Clark, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 1
Erin Shearer is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @erinshearer05
First posted on the Reading Gender History Research Cluster blog here