Sugarcane was a labor intensive crop, much more so than a tobacco or cotton plantation, and as plantations along the Mississippi river turned to sugarcane as their main crop, the demand for enslaved workers reached a fever pitch. The enslaved community at Oak Alley, for example fluctuated between roughly 110 and 120 men, women, and children. And while not as large as some other area planters, it’s human capital was significant.
Life on a sugar plantation for a field slave was difficult, often violent and short, and Oak Alley was no exception. In these pre-pesticide times, the crop demanded constant attention, weeding and irrigating what was often hundreds of acres of stalks. When harvest time came exhausted slaves swung machetes and operated dangerous sugar house machinery for up to 18 hours at a time, turning sweet cane juice into molasses and sugar. In between planting, cultivating and harvesting the cane slaves were tasked with an endless list of chores primarily aimed at preparing for the next cane season.
It was not a predominantly male workforce either. At Oak Alley, women performed the majority of heavier maintenance work. Repairing roads and levees was ‘women’s work’, while their more expensive male counterparts were organized around tasks immediately related to sugarcane cultivation, such as cutting wood, irrigation, and machinery repair.
Regardless of their particular assignments however, Oak Alley slaves were part of a larger and unenviable group of enslaved laborers who toiled in the Louisiana cane fields. Even without differences in treatment that inevitably varied from plantation to plantation, Louisiana developed a reputation along the eastern seaboard as a death sentence for any slave unlucky enough to be sent here.
Oak Alley House Slaves labored in a very different environment than a field slave. Under constant supervision, their presence fulfilled two purposes at the mansion: One, they were individuals designated byt the Romans as being suitable or appropriate individuals to complete tasks such as cooking and serving dinner, cleaning the house, watching children, etc. Two, they were the ultimate proof of the Roman’s incredible wealth. While some planters deemed it prudent to have the maximum number of individuals working in their fields, others, the Romans included, enjoyed the ability to have a large number of men and women serving them directly. It was the ultimate statement of wealth. Oak Alley house slaves were dressed to reflect this role and accompanied the family as they traveled, with as many slaves as one per family member. Oak Alley was a plantation where such a lavish expenditure was routine, and those slaves who failed their tasks or who reflected poorly on their masters were quickly sent to the fields in a combination of humiliation and job reassignment.