Suicide Under Slavery & Trust in God

November 11, 1835

“I hope that my death would leave God thinking something is wrong down here” Annie Coley said it with her teary eyes.

Women Slavery

Women Slavery

Although vast number of slaves successfully escaped from their masters, it was different in Coley’s case.[1] Two weeks ago, she ran away from her slave owner in Virginia, hoping to find the freedom she longed for. But she was soon captured and now waited to be “removed” from the farm.[2]  Compared to the last few years, slavery had become a more violent issue in the country. Greater amount of Americans were engaged in antislavery and women rights, causing numerous riots.[3]  “All these owners like to torture escaped slaves in public,” she added.[4]   She had cried everyday ever since the capture. “To be born again,” she said, “you have to die.” Her accumulated tears now lodged in her body and let the soul out slowly. She started off as a young slave, working in the fields of cotton and corn. She knew well enough what was going to happen to her: a dreadful public torture on a bitter cold evening. She told me that she would rather end her existence by herself than being killed by her master.

“I live to serve God, and now he shall call me into eternity,” she said

Many slaves converted to Christians in the last years.[4] They held the common belief of God who was the man who had the power to free them. Suffering among the Christian slaves did not lead to a rejection of the idea of a God who was simultaneously sovereign and loving.[1]  “God will help us” she added, “let us try and be patient.” Among the poor slavery conditions, they saw God as the solution; the only man who could bring slavery and its outrages to an end. Not only slaves used religion as a reason for freedom, but societies also did, too; as stated by Boston Female Anti-slavery Society “Believing slavery to be a direct violation of the law of God, and productive of a vast amount of misery and crime; and convinced that its abolition can only be effected by an acknowledgement of the justice and necessity of immediate emancipation.”[1] More Northerners, and some Southerners, believed that returning the slaves to their homeland of Africa would be the solution of this persistent slavery problem.[3] But when cotton spread, so as slave.

In fact, it was more than suffer from abusive punishment that caused Coley wanting to commit suicide. No slave woman was safe from unwanted sexual advances. This was one of the factors that caused slaves to get revenge on their masters. Surprisingly, more common than the murder of children was murder of the whites. Many ex-slaves often shared through narrative and interviews that they had murdered a white person.[1] Slaves were constantly torture, as or as not punishments.

“To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip. To induce, proper humility, he relies on the whip. To bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife, the pistol and the bloodhood…” she said.[4]

Murder and assault were not the only ways slaves retaliated. The most popular way of avoiding the pain and suffer was to run away. There was no revenge in the belief of most slaves. [1] “Slaves aren’t allowed anytime off for buryings, so the folks had to bury their dead at night…Yes, we sang at the buryings, and at church, and while we were at work,”[4] Coley added. Every word she said reflected the presence of God in her mind.

Coley, who held a strong faith in freedom, reminded me of Nat Turner. On August 22, 1831, this preacher and religious mystic led dozens of others on an attack.[6] He was a well-know example of a violent revolt; the rebellion was one of the bloodiest rebellion I had heard of.[8] Turner’s revolt also contained a suicide element since as a punishment, he was executed. The revolt frightened the people because Nat Turner was an educated man who gained his intelligence of fighting for freedom.[7] It ignited a culture of fear in Virginia then eventually spread out through the South.[8] Many slaves, and ex-slaves, had tried to get their voices heard in the public in the last few years, but the only outcome was execution.

Slave Housing in Virginia

Slave Housing in Virginia

The housing of the slaves that Coley lived in was a small cottage. I could barely fit the amount of this many people in there. From outside, the house looked unstable; but from inside, the house was worst than expected. “We don’t have any beds and mattresses. There are just bunks built in the wall with sacks filled with hay to lay on. The children slept on the floor,” she described. Coley then explain the life of slavery: she worked in the fields of cotton and corn since early morning till sundown, including Saturdays. On Sundays, the master gave each man a piece of ground to make a crop of corn and cotton of himself. “Sunday each slave worked out his own crop,” she said.[4] When I left the cottage, I still remembered those cries from Coley. They still rang in my ears. Slavery came along with suffer, but it also came along with faith in God and freedom. Slaves fought for their own people, but in this time when slavery was still in great demand, the only outcome I could see was disagreement and violence.

Then a scream came across the sky. She did it, I thought to myself. With the death of one, so might the others.

Jillian McGrath


1)    Kneeland, Linda Kay. African American Suffering and Suicide Under Slavery.



4)    Bailey, Thomas Andrew. “The South and the Slavery Controversy, 1793-1860.”The American spirit. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1963. 377-379. Print.

5)    UNC Libraries. The life of a slave.

6)    Gorn, Elliott J, Randy Roberts, and Terry D. Bilhartz. Constructing the American Past: A Source Book of a People’s History. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995. Print.


8)    Larson, Jennifer L. A Rebellion to Remember: The Legacy of Nat Turner.

9)    Image 1:

10)   Image 2:

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