I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
To slaves they were known as “pater-rollers;” they were an early example of a police force whose job was to enforce discipline and track down any slaves who tried to escape. Is it possible to hear echoes of slave patroller behaviour today?
Origin of the Slave Patrol
The first organized slave patrols date to 1704 in South Carolina and they spread throughout the slave-owning South. In some areas, membership in the slave patrol was a civic duty, in other regions, men were recruited and paid for their work.
Historian Dr. Gary Potter writes that “Slave patrols had three primary functions:
- to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves;
- to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and,
- to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.”
Becoming a Patroller
The requirements for being a patroller were fairly simple: white, male, and adult. Abolitionists need not apply. According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia “Former slaves often recalled the patrollers as drunken, rowdy men from the lowest rungs of society, but men of property did serve as patrol captains, particularly during the colonial period.”
In some cases, the patrollers were drawn from the ranks of militias, in others they came from landowners. In South Carolina, names were drawn from a list of those who owned land, including women. If a woman’s name was drawn she was allowed to nominate a man to serve in her place.
Each patroller swore an oath similar to this one from North Carolina: “I [patroller’s name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God.”
Slaves were not allowed off their owner’s property without a pass, so one function of patrollers was to stop any Black person to check their status. No pass meant a beating and, perhaps, worse.
Patrollers raided the quarters of slaves seeking weapons or evidence that plots against the master might be hatching. In some states, slaves were banned from learning to read so finding a book would lead to a whipping.
Suppression of Rebellion
An effective patroller did not flinch from the use of violence against slaves, in fact it was deemed to be necessary to instill fear in the Blacks. The hope was that through physical and psychological terror the slaves would remain docile, submissive, and not even think of rising up against their masters.
The diaries and journals of slave owners tell us they lived in constant fear of rebellions. They had good reason to be afraid.
In 1943, historian Herbert Aptheker published American Negro Slave Revolts. In it he “found records of approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery.” Other researchers have upped the number to 313.
Rather than being browbeaten into obedience, thousands of slaves decided the risk of getting killed in an uprising was preferable that continuing to live as the abused property of another person. Even the harsh measures of the patrollers could not entirely suppress the human instinct for freedom.
The Civil War Ended Slave Patrols
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 spelled the end for the patrollers; or did it?
When the Civil War ended and slaves were, in theory, freed, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) stepped in to perform the role of the now-illegal slave patrollers.
Confederate soldiers formed the KKK, pledging to work for the “purification” of America and that meant making sure that African-Americans “knew their place.” The tactics involved in educating Blacks about their status were similar to those of the slave patrollers―violence and intimidation.
The need for the KKK to suppress African-American assertiveness diminished with the enactment of Jim Crow laws in the late 1870s. Sociology professor David Pilgrim notes that “Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African-Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism.”
The Jim Crow laws were dismantled in 1960s, but the attitudes of white supremacy have not gone away, nor has the Ku Klux Klan. Now, other groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have joined the KKK and they have found support in very high places, including within the justice system:
- A 2020 study by Professor Matthew Miller at Northeastern University found that Black people are killed by police at twice the rate of white people;
- In 2017, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that Black people, on average, receive 19.1% longer sentences than white people who commit similar crimes.
- The Pew Research Center found that “In 2018, Black Americans represented 33 percent of the sentenced prison population, nearly triple their 12 percent share of the U.S. adult population. Whites accounted for 30 percent of prisoners, about half their 63 percent share of the adult population.”
- And, the Brennan Center reports that “Alarmingly, internal FBI policy documents have also warned agents assigned to domestic terrorism cases that the white supremacist and anti-government militia groups they investigate often have ‘active links’ to law enforcement officials.”
Laurence Ralph is with the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. He completed a study in 2019 about the interaction between African Americans and the justice system. He writes that “The African Americans interviewed for this study view the gun in the hands of a police officer as a technology that is rooted in the slave patrol. This is because it is the descendants of enslaved people who are disproportionately subject to police shootings.”
And, that brings us to a poll.
There is a direct link between the actions of slave patrollers and some American police today.
This African-American folk song dates from at least 1851.
“Run, [slave], run; de patter-roller catch you
Run, [slave], run, it's almost day
Run, [slave], run, de patter-roller catch you
Run, [slave], run, and try to get away
“Dis [slave] run, he run his best
Stuck his head in a hornet’s nest
Jumped de fence and run fru the paster
White man run, but [slave] run faster
- “Slave Patrols: An Early Form of American Policing.” Chelsea Hansen, lawenforcementmuseum.org, July 10, 2019.
- “History of Policing in the United States.” Dr. Gary Potter, plsonline.eku.edu, undated.
- “Did African-American Slaves Rebel?” Henry Louis Gates Jr., PBS, undated.
- “Slave Patrols.” Matthew H. Jennings, South Carolina Encyclopedia, May 22, 2018.
- “What was Jim Crow.” Dr. David Pilgrim, Ferris University, 2012.
- “Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement.” Michael German, Brennan Center, August 27, 2020.
- “Black Imprisonment Rate in the U.S. Has Fallen by a Third since 2006.” John Gramlich,
- Pew Research Center, May 6, 2020.
- “The Logic of the Slave Patrol: the Fantasy of Black Predatory Violence and the Use of Force by the Police.” Laurence Ralph, Nature, October 29, 2019.
- “The Research Is Clear: White People Are not more Likely than Black People to Be Killed by Police.” Ian Thomsen, News@Northeastern, July 16, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on May 11, 2021:
Patter rollers exist today in different forms.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 11, 2021:
This history is a sad one. Even more sad is the fact of Blacks not getting equal justice today.
Iqra from East County on May 11, 2021:
Hi Rupert, Slave patrols traditionally known as patrollers, patter rollers, patty rollers, or paddy rollers by enslaved persons of African descent were organized groups of armed men who monitored and enforced discipline upon slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states.