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The Branding of African American Slaves

Leonard J. Hoenig, MD
Arch Dermatol. 2012;148(2):271. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2011.2683.
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We are in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As the months go by, we recall the historic battles, such as Shiloh and Antietam, during which the fate of our nation hung in the balance. It is also important to remember that at the root of this conflict was the issue of slavery, in which the color of one's skin determined who was slave and who was master. There were many abuses inherent in slavery, and this article discusses one of them: branding.

The branding of African American slaves was widespread and was performed either for identification purposes or as a punishment.1 The bodily areas branded varied in location, such as the back, shoulder, or abdomen, with the face being a favorite site for punishment. The procedure for branding was described by Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became an important public figure in the abolitionist movement. In an address delivered in England on September 1, 1846, Douglass said, “The process of branding was this —A person was tied to a post, and his back, or such other part as was to be branded, laid bare; the iron was then delivered red hot (sensation), and applied to the quivering flesh, imprinting upon it the name of the monster who claimed the slave. ”2

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