Historian Peter Kolchin, writing in 1993, noted that until recently historians of slavery concentrated more on the behavior of slaveholders than on slaves. Part of this was related to the fact that most slaveholders were literate and able to leave behind a written record of their perspective. Most slaves were illiterate and unable to create a written record. There were differences among scholars as to whether slavery should be considered a benign or a “harshly exploitive” institution.
Kolchin described the state of historiography in the early twentieth century as follows: During the first half of the twentieth century, a major component of this approach was often simply racism, manifest in the belief that blacks were, at best, imitative of whites. Thus Ulrich B. Phillips, the era’s most celebrated and influential expert on slavery, combined a sophisticated portrait of the white planters’ life and behavior with crude passing generalizations about the life and behavior of their black slaves. 104] Historians James Oliver Horton and Louise Horton described Phillips’ mindset, methodology and influence: His portrayal of blacks as passive, inferior people, whose African origins made them uncivilized, seemed to provide historical evidence for the theories of racial inferiority that supported racial segregation. Drawing evidence exclusively from plantation records, letters, southern newspapers, and other sources reflecting the slaveholder’s point of view, Phillips depicted slave masters who provided for the welfare of their slaves and contended that true affection existed between master and slave. 105] The racist attitude concerning slaves carried over into the historiography of the Dunning School of reconstruction history, which dominated in the early 20th century. Writing in 2005, historian Eric Foner states: Their account of the era rested, as one member of the Dunning school put it, on the assumption of “negro incapacity. ” Finding it impossible to believe that blacks could ever be independent actors on the stage of history, with their own aspirations and motivations, Dunning et. l. portrayed African Americans either as “children”, ignorant dupes manipulated by unscrupulous whites, or as savages, their primal passions unleashed by the end of slavery. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, historiography moved away from the “overt” racism of the Phillips era. However, historians still emphasized the slave as an object. Whereas Phillips presented the slave as the object of benign attention by the owners, historians such as Kenneth Stampp changed the mphasis to the mistreatment and abuse of the slave.  In the culmination of the slave as victim, Historian Stanley M. Elkins in his 1959 work “Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” compared United States slavery to the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps. He stated the institution destroyed the will of the slave, creating an “emasculated, docile Sambo” who identified totally with the owner. Elkins’ thesis immediately was challenged by historians.
Gradually historians recognized that in addition to the effects of the owner-slave relationship, slaves did not live in a “totally closed environment but rather in one that permitted the emergence of enormous variety and allowed slaves to pursue important relationships with persons other than their master, including those to be found in their families, churches and communities. ” Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman in the 1970s, through their work “Time on the Cross,” presented the final attempt to salvage a version of the Sambo theory, picturing slaves as having internalized the Protestant work ethic of their owners. 108] In portraying the more benign version of slavery, they also argue in their 1974 book that the material conditions under which the slaves lived and worked compared favorably to those of free workers in the agriculture and industry of the time. In the 1970s and 1980s, historians made use of archaeological records, black folklore, and statistical data to describe a much more detailed and nuanced picture of slave life.
Relying also on autobiographies of ex-slaves and former slave interviews conducted in the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project, historians described slavery as the slaves experienced it. Far from slaves’ being strictly victims or content, historians showed slaves as both resilient and autonomous in many of their activities. Despite the efforts at autonomy and their efforts to make a life within slavery, current historians recognize the precariousness of the slave’s situation.
Slave children quickly learned that they were subject to the direction of both their parents and their owners. They saw their parents disciplined just as they came to realize that they also could be physically or verbally abused by their owners. Historians writing during this era include John Blassingame (“Slave Community”), Eugene Genovese (“Roll, Jordon, Roll”), Leslie Howard Owens (“This Species of Property”), and Herbert Gutman (“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom”).