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October 20, 2022

This Bell Rack Was Used by Alabama Slave Owners to Guard Runaway Slaves

The bell rack, contraption used by an Alabama slave owner to guard a runaway slave. This rack was originally topped by a bell which rang when the runaway attempted to leave the road and go through foliage or trees. It was attached around the neck. A belt passed through the loop at the bottom to hold the iron rod firmly fastened to the waist of the wearer.

The photograph shows Richbourg Gailliard, assistant to the director of the Federal Museum and also a well-known Mobile, Alabama artist, posing with the bell rack invention.

Slave bell rack, one of the specimens displayed in the Federal Museum of Mobile, Alabama.

As many as 435,000 enslaved people lived in Alabama in 1860, comprising about 45 percent of the state’s total population. No evidence of an organized underground railroad has been found in Alabama, forcing scholars to assume that slaves seeking freedom in the state relied upon their own survival skills with help from some fellow slaves and free blacks as well as some members of the white community.

Historians have also encountered difficulties estimating the number of slaves who ran away at any given time. Many historians have typically relied on anecdotal information contained in contemporaneous newspapers in which slave owners advertised only a small fraction of the total number of runaway slaves who in turn comprised a small subset of the overall slave population. Most large plantations in the South, however, had slaves who escaped.

Slaves’ resistance to captivity took many forms, such as performing careless work, destroying property, or faking illness. Many enslaved persons who were able chose escape, however. In Alabama and throughout the rest of the South, enslaved people did so for many reasons. Some tried to rejoin family members living on a nearby properties. Others wanted to avoid the harsh working conditions in the fields during the growing season, while still others desired to escape cruel owners and brutal punishments. An overseer with a reputation for treating slaves harshly likely caused some slaves to seek freedom, if only for a few days away from the plantation. Of course, the main reason to flee was to escape the oppression of slavery itself.


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