Human Rights

'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)

The National Humanities Center reprinted an 1857 account by Austin Steward, who escaped slavery in 1813. Titled “Slaves and Slave Patrol,” Steward opens the account with this summary:  

“Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong, without a written pass. Should anyone venture to disobey this law, he will most likely be caught by the patrol and given thirty-nine lashes.

“This patrol is always on duty every Sunday, going to each plantation under their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the conduct of the slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging.”

He then goes on to tell several harrowing stories of personal encounters with the slave patrol, including one that led to the death of six slaves, and reprints the North Carolina Slave Patrol regulations as follows:

1st. Patrols shall be appointed, at least four in each Captain's district.
2d. It shall be their duty, for two of their number, at least, to patrol their respective districts once in every week; in failure thereof, they shall be subject to the penalties prescribed by law.
3d. They shall have power to inflict corporal punishment, if two be present agreeing thereto.
4th. One patroller shall have power to seize any negro slave who behaves insolently to a patroller, or otherwise unlawfully or suspiciously; and hold such slave in custody until he can bring together a requisite number of Patrollers to act in the business.
5th. Previous to entering on their duties, Patrols shall call on some acting magistrate, and take the following oath, to wit: "I, A. B. appointed one of the Patrol by the County Court of Rowan, for Captain B's company, do hereby swear, that I will faithfully execute the duties of a Patroller, to the best of my ability, according to law and the regulations of the County Court.”

The National Humanities Center has many other similar reports in its archives.

Slave Patrols were a regular feature of the South, from its first settlement by slave-owning Europeans until the decades after Reconstruction.

When slavery was abolished, but Whites in the South still want to keep Blacks “in their place,” the Slave Patrols were largely replaced by (or simply renamed as) the KKK, small-town sheriffs, and, apparently, “Neighborhood Watch.”

Slave Patrollers rarely stopped or molested white people. But when Blacks were found in unexpected places, they could expect a swift and severe punishment.

And the legal systems of the South, largely without exception, backed up the Slave Patrollers and their post-reconstruction heirs.

It appears that the more things change - at least in the deep South - the more they stay the same.


As Carl T Bogus writes in his brilliant article for the University of California Davis Law Review, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” a police state of sorts was necessary to enforce slavery in the old South. An essential part of that police state was the Slave Patrols. As Patrick Henry, the largest slave owner in Virginia, and slave-owner James Madison noted in their debates at the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention, these slave patrols were state militias, and were protected, at least in the South, by the very careful wording of the Second Amendment that, in final draft, gave militia powers not to the nation but to the individual states. You can read Patrick Henry’s argument for that below, and James Madison’s comment on Henry’s concern in “Extracts From The Madison Papers” available on Google books.

In a previous article, I documented how these southern militia slave patrols were acknowledged and incorporated into the Second Amendment. That Second Amendment tip of the hat to white power has now been expanded and amplified with the so-called Stand Your Ground laws.

Patrick Henry to the Virginia Ratifying Convention (June 1788) arguing for a Bill of Rights to be ratified along with the Constitution in order to preserve slavery:

With respect to that part of the [Bill of Rights] proposal which says that every power not granted remains with the people, it must be [ratified] previous to adoption [of the Constitution], or it will involve this country in inevitable destruction. To talk of it as a thing subsequent, not as one of your unalienable rights, is leaving it to the casual opinion of the Congress who shall take up the consideration of that matter. They will not reason with you about the effect of this Constitution. They will not take the opinion of this committee concerning its operation. They will construe it as they please.

If you place it subsequently, let me ask the consequences.

Among ten thousand implied powers (sic) which they may assume, they may, if we be engaged in war, liberate every one of your slaves if they please. And this must and will be done by [northerner] men, a majority of whom have not a common interest with you. They will, therefore, have no feeling of your interests.

It has been repeatedly said here, that the great object of a national government was national defence. That power which is said to be intended for security and safety [In article 1, section 8 of the Constitution] may be rendered detestable and oppressive.

If they give power to the general government to provide for the general defence, (sic) the means must be commensurate to the end. All the means in the possession of the people must be given to the government which is intrusted with the public defence.

In this state there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States; and yet, if the Northern States shall be of opinion that our slaves are numberless, they may call forth every national resource.

May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war?

We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free.

Another thing will contribute to bring this event about. Slavery is detested. We feel its fatal effects—we deplore it with all the pity of humanity. Let all these considerations, at some future period, press with full force on the minds of Congress. Let that urbanity, which I trust will distinguish America, and the necessity of national defence,—let all these things operate on their minds; they will search that paper [The Constitution], and see if they have power of manumission [to free the slaves].

And have they not, sir? Have they not power to provide for the general defence and welfare[In article 1, section 8 of the Constitution]? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power?

This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper [the Constitution] speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it.

As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition. I deny that the general government ought to set them free, because a decided majority of the states have not the ties of sympathy and fellow-feeling for those whose interest would be affected by their emancipation.

The majority of Congress is to the north, and the slaves are to the south.

In this situation, I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquillity gone. I repeat it again, that it would rejoice my very soul that every one of my fellow-beings was emancipated. As we ought with gratitude to admire that decree of Heaven which has numbered us among the free, we ought to lament and deplore the necessity of holding our fellowmen in bondage.

But is it practicable, by any human means, to liberate them without producing the most dreadful and ruinous consequences? We ought to possess them in the manner we inherited them from our ancestors, as their manumission is incompatible with the felicity of our country. But we ought to soften, as much as possible, the rigor of their unhappy fate.

I know that, in a variety of particular instances, the legislature, listening to complaints, have admitted their emancipation. Let me not dwell on this subject. I will only add that this [institution of slavery], as well as every other property of the people of Virginia, is in jeopardy, and put in the hands of those who have no similarity of situation with us [who not slaveholders].

This [issue of control over the militia, a.k.a. the slave patrols] is a local matter, and I can see no propriety in subjecting it to Congress.

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Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.