Such autonomy was not totally lacking. In the quarters—the collection of slave cabins that on large plantations resembled a miniature village—slaves developed their own way of life. The degree of social independence available to slaves was not constant: throughout the South, a continuing power struggle raged in which slaves strove to increase and masters strove to limit this independence. The character and resolution of this struggle in turn depended on a host of factors, from size of holdings and organization of production to residence and disposition of masters. Masters rarely were able, however, to shape the lives of their slaves as fully as they wanted.
Away from the view of owners and overseers, slaves lived their own lives. They made friends and made love, played and prayed, sang, told stories, cooked, joked, quarreled, and engaged in the necessary chores of day-to-day living, from cleaning house, cooking, and sewing to working on their garden plots. Especially important as anchors of the slaves’ lives were their families and their religion.
Throughout the South, the family defined the actual living arrangements of slaves: most slaves lived together in nuclear families—mother, father, children. The security and stability of these families faced severe challenges: no state law recognized marriage among slaves, masters rather than parents had legal authority over slave children, and the possibility of forced separation, through sale, hung over every family. (Such separations were especially frequent in the slave-exporting states of the upper South.) Still, despite their tenuous status, families served as the slaves’ most basic refuge, the center of private lives that owners could never fully control.
Religion served as a second refuge. Although African slaves usually clung to their native religions, and many slave owners in the early colonial period were leery of those who sought to convert their slaves to Christianity (in part because of fears that converted slaves would have to be freed), during the antebellum years Christianity was increasingly central to the slaves’ cultural life. Many slaves were converted during the religious revivals that swept the South in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Slaves typically belonged to the same denominations as white Southerners—Baptists and Methodists were the largest groups—and some masters encouraged their "people" to come to the white church, where they usually sat in a special "slave gallery" and received advice about being obedient to their masters. In the quarters, however, there developed a parallel ("invisible") church controlled by the slaves themselves, who listened to sermons delivered by their own preachers.
Not all slaves had access to these preachers and not all accepted their message, but for many, religion served as a great comfort in a hostile world.
If their families and religion helped slaves to avoid total control by their owners, slaves also more directly challenged that control through active resistance. The limits of such resistance must be kept in mind. Unlike slaves in Saint-Domingue, who rose up against their French masters in bloody rebellion and established the black republic of Haiti in 1804, American slaves faced a balance of power that discouraged armed resistance. When it occurred, such resistance was always quickly suppressed and followed by harsh repression designed to discourage repetition.
Aside from "conspiracies" aborted before any actual outbreak of violence in New York (1741), Virginia (1800), and South Carolina (1822), the most noted uprisings included the Stono Rebellion near Charleston, South Carolina (1739), an attempted attack on New Orleans, Louisiana (1811), and the Nat Turner insurrection that rocked Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The Turner insurrection, which at its peak included 60-80 rebels, resulted in the deaths of about 60 whites; the number of blacks killed during the uprising and executed or lynched afterward may have reached 100. But the rebellion lasted less than two days and was easily suppressed by local residents. Like other slave uprisings in the United States, it caused enormous fear among whites but did not seriously threaten the slave regime.
Lower-level resistance was both more widespread and more successful. This included "silent sabotage," or foot dragging, by slaves who pretended to be sick, feigned difficulty understanding instructions, and "accidentally" misused tools and animals. It also included small-scale resistance by individuals who fought back physically—at times successfully—against what they regarded as unjust treatment. But the most common form of resistance was flight.
About 1,000 slaves per year managed to escape to the North during the late antebellum period (most from the upper South), but this represented only the tip of the iceberg, since for every slave who made it to freedom, several more tried. Other fugitives remained within the South, heading for cities or swamps, or hiding out near their plantations for days or weeks before either returning voluntarily or being tracked down and captured. On a continuing basis, slaves "voted with their feet" against slavery.