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'Neighborhood Watch' Groups Like Zimmerman's and in Much of the Deep South Are Hardly Different Than Slave Patrols of Old

Slave patrollers traveled, through the countryside looking for African-Americans who were “not where they belonged.”

George Zimmerman kept close watch over his neighborhood. When Black men walked or even drove through the area, he alerted the police, over and over and over again. Finally, exasperated that “they always” got away, he went out on a rainy night armed with a loaded gun and the Stand Your Ground law, looking for anybody who should not be in his largely White neighborhood.

The South has a long history of this sort of thing. They used to be called Slave Patrols.

Prior to the Civil War and Reconstruction, the main way Southern states maintained the institution of slavery was through local and statewide militias, also known as “Slave Patrols.”  These Patrols were, in many states, required monthly duty for southern white men between the ages of 17 and 47, be they slave-owners or not.

Slave patrollers traveled, usually on horseback [the modern equivalent would be in a car], through the countryside looking for African-Americans who were “not where they belonged.” When the patrollers found Black people in places where they “did not belong,” punishment ranged from beatings, to repatriation to their slave owners, to death by being whipped, hung or shot.

Some of the most comprehensive reports on the nature and extent of the Slave Patrols came from interviews done by the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by FDR) during the Great Depression. At that time, former slaves and the children of former slaves were still alive and had stories to tell, and the WPA put people to work in the American South gathering and documenting those stories.

The WPA’s Georgia Writers Project, Savannah Unit, produced a brilliant summary of stories taken from people who were alive (most as children) during the time of slavery, about their and their families interactions with slave patrollers. The report’s title was “ Drums and Shadows: survival stories among the Georgia coastal Negroes).

Many other oral and written histories compiled by the WPA Writers Project are now maintained by the Library of Congress.

Dozens of other similar reports, as well as detailed state-by-state studies of slave patrols, even including membership rosters, are published in Sally E. Hadden’s brilliant book “ Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas.” 

Hadden cites numerous stories and scores of sources about how the slave patrollers would beat, whip, or otherwise abuse African-Americans who were found off the plantation. Women were routinely subjected to rape, and men were usually beaten with sticks or whips.  Hadden writes of the stories compiled by the WPA:

“Slaves might beg to be left out of a whipping from the patrol, hoping that mercy or caprice might avert a beating. Patrollers sometimes toyed with a slave, threatening a whipping, then let the slaves go free. The inherent arbitrariness of punishment added to the fear most slaves felt when they encountered slave patrols.

“One former bondsmen [slave], Alex Woods, recalled how a patrol reacted to a begging slave. He said that the patrollers ‘wouldn't allow [slaves] to call on de Lord when dey were wippin’ ‘em but they let ‘em say, “Oh! pray, Oh! pray, marster.”’

“The harsh punishment a patrol could administer caused one former slave to like meeting the patrol with being sold to a new master – a slave would seek to avoid both fates at any cost. Few things compared to the agony a slave endured from a patroller beating. One ex-slave from South Carolina recalled what people heard when she was born: her mother ‘screamed as if she were being beaten by patrollers.’”  (p.117)

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