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‘The Hardest Day of the Whole Year’ – Slavery on New Years Day

In our last post of the holiday season, we’ll take a look at how former slaves remembered New Years Day.

While the week following Christmas was, for many, a time of relative relaxation, on most plantations and slave labor camps New Years Day was recalled with sorrow and dread.

This was the day when life would return to normal for the enslaved. Most remembered it as the day when the masters and drivers would work them the hardest. For a good many, however, it was auction day. On this day, they could be sold away from all they’ve ever known and from all they ever loved.

What follows are remembrances as given by the former slaves, looking back on their time in bondage.

Rachel Adams, Athens, Georgia
New Year’s Day was rail-splitting day. They was told how many rails was to be cut, and them Niggers better split that many or somebody was going to get beat up.

Julia Williams, Chesterfield County, Virginia
New Years was the big auction day. All day hollering on the block. They come from all over to Richmond to buy and sell the slaves.

Mary Colbert, Athens, Georgia
We didn’t have any special observance of New Year’s Day. It was the same as any other day.

William McWhorter, Greene County, Georgia
New Year’s Day was the hardest day of the whole year, for the overseer just tried himself to see how hard he could drive the Niggers that day, and when the work was all done the day ended off with a big pot of cornfield peas and hog jowl to eat for luck. That was supposed to be a sign of plenty too.

Easter Huff, Oglethorpe County, Georgia
On New Year’s Day all the slaves went to the big house for a council. Marse Jabe would talk to them and counsel them for the New Year and tell them how to live.

Mary James, James River, Virginia
On New Year’s Day everybody was scared as that was the day that slaves were taken away or brought to the farm.

James Bolton, Athens, Georgia
We knowed Christmas was over and gone when New Year’s day come, because we got back to work that day after frolicking all Christmas week.

John Estell, Missouri
When some farm had more slaves than was needed, he would hire them out to some body or sell them. New Year’s day was always sale day or the day they would hire out for the year.

Minnie Davis, Athens, Georgia
New Year’s Day was no different from other days, except that Marse John gave the grown folks whiskey to drink that day like he did on Christmas morning. They couldn’t risk giving slaves much whiskey because it made them mean, and then they would fight the white folks. They had to be mighty careful about things like that in order to keep down uprisings.

Henry Ryan, Edgefield County, South Carolina
We had New Year’s Day as a special day for working, because it was a sign if we worked good that day, we would work good all the year.

Georgia Baker, Athens, Georgia
The night after Christmas Day us pulled syrup candy, drunk more liquor, and danced. Us had a big time for a whole week and then on New Year’s Day us done a little work just to start the year right and us feasted that day on fresh meat, plenty of cake, and whiskey. There was always a big pile of ash-roasted ‘taters on hand to go with that good old baked meat. Us always tried to raise enough ‘taters to last all through the winter because Niggers sure does love them sweet ‘taters.

“Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, 1861.

Silas Jackson, Ashbie’s Gap, Virginia
On New Year’s day we all were scared, that was the time for selling, buying and trading slaves. We did not know who was to go or come.

Addie Vinson, Oconee County, Georgia
On New Year’s Day, if there weren’t too much snow on the ground, the Niggers burnt brush and cleared new ground.

Stack Thomas, Florida
Each year around New Years, itinerant “speculators” would come to his vicinity and either hold a public sale, or lead the slaves, tied together, to the plantation for inspection or sale.

Green Willbanks, Commerce, Georgia
As a general thing there was a big day’s work expected on New Years Day because we had to start the year off right, even if there was nothing for the slaves to do that day but clean fence corners, cut brush and briers, and burn off new ground. New Years Day ended up with a big old pot of hog jowl and peas. That was for luck, but I never really knowed if it brought luck or not.

Irene Robertson, Arkansas
They hired their slaves out. Some was hired for a year. From New Year day to next New Year day. That was a busy day. That was the day to set in working overseers and riding bosses set in on New Year day.

John F. Van Hook, Macon County, North Carolina
Marse George didn’t make much special to do on New Year’s Day as far as holiday was concerned; work was the primary object, especially in connection with slaves.

Elisha Doc Garey, Hart County, Georgia
New Year’s Day the slaves all went back to work with most of them clearing new ground that day. There was always plenty to do. The only other holidays us had was when us was rained out or if sleet and snow drove us out of the fields. Everybody had a good time then a frolicking.

Prince Johnson, Yazoo County, Mississippi
Us didn’t work on New Year’s Day. Us could go to town or anywhere us wanted to.

Wallace David, Newberry County, South Carolina
On Christmas Day master always give big dinners for slaves, and on New Year we had a holiday.

Della Fountain, Winfield, Louisiana
Mother always say, “If you visit on New Years, you’ll visit all de year.” We always had black-eyed peas and hog jowl for New Year’s dinner, for it brought good luck.

Frances Willingham, Twiggs County, Georgia
Hard work started again on the day after New Year’s Day. Old Marster allowed them mighty little rest from then ’til after the crops was laid by.

Charlie Hudson, Elbert County, Georgia
New Year’s Day, they raked up the horse and cow lots if the weather was good. Marster just made us work enough on New Year’s Day to call it working, so he could say he made us start the New Year right.

Mary Hicks, North Carolina
On the night before the first day of January we had a dance what lasts all night. At midnight when the New Year comes in marster makes a speech and we is happy that he thanks us for our year’s work and says that we is good, smart slaves.

Lizzie Baker, North Carolina
Mammy said they gave the slaves on the plantation one day Christmas and that New Years was when they sold them and hired them out. All the slaves was scared because they didn’t know who would have to go off to be sold or to work in a strange place.

Dennis Simms, Contee, Maryland
We would work from sunrise to sunset every day except Sundays and on New Year’s Day.

Dosia Harris, Athens, Georgia
Come New Year’s Day, it was time to go back to work and every slave was made to do a heap of work on that day to start the year off right.

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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