Corn-Shucking Festival

Corn-Shucking Festival

Date Observed: Between early November and mid-December
Location: Southern plantations

Corn shucking was a harvest festival held between early November and midDecember on plantations in areas around the Chesapeake, in the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and east Texas. Plantation owners encouraged slaves to compete (usually in teams) to see who could shuck the most corn. Afterward, slaves shared a feast and held a dance.

Historical Background

The harvest period in the pre-Civil War South meant extensive labor for slaves. They harvested crops such as cotton and tobacco, and then had to cut the field corn and remove the husks - time-consuming and tedious tasks when no modern machinery was available. Following the harvests, they had to prepare the fields for the next year's plantings.

Creation of the Festival

Corn-shucking festivals emerged during the late 18th century. Plantation owners wanted to speed up the corn-husking process so their slaves could go back to their field work. Owners created incentives for their slaves to work quickly by promising such rewards as feasts, whiskey, and socializing. A planter would invite slaves from nearby plantations to gather at his barn, usually at night after the day's labor was done.


Neighboring plantation owners allowed their slaves to attend corn-husking festivals, because they expected to be compensated in the same way. Slaves came from miles around, looking forward to the shucking because they could take part in a community gathering in which work and recreation were combined. At some corn shuckings, whites and blacks worked together, but that was the extent of their socialization. Before the event itself, slaves pulled corn (still in husks) from stalks in the field and hauled the crop to the plantation yard. There they would pile bushel upon bushel of corn in a high mound. When slaves had gathered, the mound was divided into two sections with a fence rail or pole, and two teams were chosen to compete in husking the corn. Or, huskers simply competed among themselves, and the person who shucked the most corn won an award, sometimes cash or a suit of clothes. Anyone who found a red ear of corn also received a reward - perhaps a kiss from a young woman or a jug of whiskey.

As the corn husking continued, a captain led the singing, making the job easier as the workers kept up with the rhythmic songs: "Come to shuck that corn to-night/Come to shuck with all your might..." Much of the singing was call and response, a verse and chorus, verse and chorus, many times over. Singing might stop for a time, and jokes and stories flew back and forth.

While the shucking was going on, plantation owners provided the workers with jugs of whiskey, and slave women prepared a huge supper which everyone could enjoy, slaves and planters alike. Late at night after the work was done, the frolic began. Fiddlers and banjo players created the music, and dancing went on for hours, sometimes until dawn.

Because of the festive nature of corn shuckings, some historians concluded that slaves were "happy" captives on the plantation. But others point out that slaves viewed this event as a rare opportunity to socialize and to have some relief from debilitating field work. Still, corn-shucking festivals continued even after emancipation into the 20th century, including among freedmen farmers who assisted each other with the huge task (see also Emancipation Day).

Shucking the Corn

Shuckers were usually men, and they worked swiftly and efficiently. As Roger D. Abrahams, a professor of folklore, explained:

The men would stand or sit around the edges of the pile, in a ring. The shuckers picked up an ear with their left hand with the silk top facing upward, and tore downward with their rights, often with the aid of a hardwood pin strapped onto and emerging from the palm of the right hand. Their left hand then fastened on the back half of the shuck and tore it off to the shank, or butt. The ear was then broken off, the shuck thrown behind the shucker, and the ear thrown back into the pile. A good shucker could do the sequence in a matter of seconds.

Contact and Web Site

"Abstracts to the Maryland Slave Narratives of the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1938" Montgomery County Historical Society 111 W. Montgomery Ave. Rockville, MD 20850

Further Reading

Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the Master. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Berlin, Ira, Mark Favreau, and Steven Miller, eds. Remembering Slavery: African Ameri- cans Talk about Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom . New York: The New Press, 1998. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Maryland. Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves . Vol. VIII. Maryland Narratives. Washington, DC, 1941. . White, Shane, and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007