Black History Month 2021: Paying Tribute to African-American Soapmakers during Slavery
During this Black History Month (2021) i'd like to pay tribute to African-American soapmakers during the era of slavery (1619 - 1865) in the United States. Although there are many artisans and soapmakers of color that have thrived from slavery until now, there is limited spotlight on the history and contributions of slaves in the field of soap making.
In the era of slavery in the United States, it was largely the task of slaves (mainly women) to create soap and complete the laundry processes for their assigned plantation. To initiate the soapmaking process, women usually started with making the lye substance, which we know today is a key ingredient in the process of saponification--the process of transforming an oil, fat, and/or liquid mixture into soap. In an interview shared by the Encyclopedia of Virginia, Mrs. Georgia Giwbs (a former slave) said that the process of making the lye to create the soap included slowly mixing water with oak wood ashes to create an oak ash lye to begin the task of laundry. In some other instances, women made their lye soap via animal skin as opposed to ashes.
Women washing clothes during the slavery era. Origins and image author unknown.
The methods African-American women used to make soap in the slavery era aren't very well documented, however, we know that their experiences in making soap on plantations are plentiful because the methods were handed down through generations. It was very common for African-American women to make soap for their family's in the early 1900's. In my personal lineage, I have learned that my great grandmother made her own "lye soap"--I will be sharing more about this in an upcoming blog post.
The work yard at The Oaks plantation, Colbert County, Alabama (11.4)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1935)
Another interesting perspective regarding the history of soapmaking among African-Americans in slavery is the unique opportunity that becoming an "artisan" or craftworker provided slaves. For many slaves, becoming skillful in a craft, such as soapmaking, wood working, or even making candles, served as a way to provide opportunities to make extra money and sometimes even be hired for projects outside of the plantation. Of course, slaves had to make special agreements with their plantation owners and would usually have to pay a portion of their commissioned earnings back to the plantation. However, becoming an artisan allowed slaves an opportunity to experience more freedom than usual.
The "wash place" at Thornhill plantation, Greene County, Alabama (11.1)
(Photograph by Alex Bush, 1934)
These very important moments in time are the history we cannot forget! Especially with the current racial/societal climate today. Black artisans and craftworkers, like myself, must learn the history of our ancestors and their contributions to fields, like soapmaking, so that we can (1) uplift their work and experiences and (2) understand the importance of our presence in the current field of soapmaking, which at times can seem to be dominated by white artisans and soapmakers. This can be seen in many articles that are written about the history of soap and soapmaking leave out the history and contributions of African-Americans during slavery (prime example: "The Dirty History of Soap").
The history of our ancestors experiences and the experiences that we face today as Black artisans are not unrelated. We have even more of an opportunity to share our stories and heritage today via social media (and I suggest we do just that). The presence and contributions of BIPOC soapmakers and artisans should be continually recognized, not just during Black History Month.
About the Author: Candace Parrish, Ph.D. is the Founder and Chief Creator of Odelia, Marie, & Patrice--the "Patrice" in the generational name. As a vegan, her mission is to create vegan, ethical, and sustainable beauty, design, and home good products through #OMandP.