Episode 54: Urban Slavery in the Antebellum United States

Host: Joan Neuberger, Editor, Not Even Past and Professor, Department of History
Guests: Daina Ramey Berry, Associate Professor, Department of History
Leslie Harris, Department of History, Emory University

When most people think about slavery in the United States, they think of large agricultural plantations and picture slaves working in the fields harvesting crops. But for a significant number of slaves, their experience involved working in houses, factories, and on the docks of the South’s booming cities.  Urban slavery, as it has come to be known, is often overlooked in the annals of slave experience.

This week’s guests Daina Ramey Berry, from UT’s Department of History, and Leslie Harris, from Emory University, have spent the past year collaborating on a new study aimed at re-discovering this forgotten aspect of slave experience in the United States.

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Let’s just start by talking about what urban slavery was. I think when most people think about slavery in the US south, they imagine agricultural workers on big plantations. But apparently there were a lot of slaves in cities. Can you give us a general picture of what urban slavery was about?

LH: I think you’re absolutely right that our vision, particularly in the US, is about southern slavery, antebellum slavery as plantation slavery. But urban slavery was very important to the slave system as a whole. Slaves had to work at every part of the economy in the south. They were not just limited to plantations. In cities about ten percent of slaves in the antebellum south lived and worked in cities, and they did everything ranging from domestic labor to industrial work. They worked in the shipyards, loading and unloading goods onto ships. They traveled back and forth between rural and urban areas, transporting goods. Any kind of work you can imagine people doing, slaves did. They were woven throughout the economy; there were very few jobs, in fact, under slavery that enslaved people did not do in the antebellum south, and in other parts of the world. There have been urban slaves as long as there has been slavery. So it is not at all unusual to have slaves in cities.

What about the regime of slavery in cities? Was it very different from the regime on the plantation?

DRB: It was because they weren’t controlled by the agricultural calendar, which is what you see in the rural communities. They were controlled by a different rhythm of life. If they were working as domestics in the homes of their owners, they would just be doing domestic work like serving and cooking and doing tasks around the house. If they worked in the shipyard, they were doing work based on when ships came in when they needed to be loaded, when they needed to be sent out to go travel. So really the rhythm of work is much different and there’s a lot more geographic mobility among blacks in urban communities.

You mean they could move around the cities more freely? Or from city to city?

DRB: They could move around the city more freely. And I’m saying that hesitantly because they had to have passes. They had to have permission to go where they were going. But often times they lived even in separate quarters from their owners. Some cities had communities outside the edge of the city where all the black workers lived, some enslaved and some free. And so they lived there and there’s a different amount of mobility that you had on a large plantation, where they often could not even go to another plantation or there were a limited amount of people who had the ability to travel.

Can you give us a sense of how many urban slaves there were, or what the ratio was of urban to rural? Do we know?

DRB: We don’t have the exact figures—they change—because we have different census records that can tell us, but depending on what year you’re looking at, what city, how the census was enumerated that year, but for the most part we’re talking about ten to twenty percent of all slaves were in some type of urban community. In other cities like Charleston, they’re closer to twenty percent of those who were living in the city. So it really depends on the time period that you’re looking at.

LH: I would just add, if you look at individual cities, in some cities the black/white population is almost 60/40, or 50/50. Savannah was like that for some time, and New Orleans. And then the gender ratio in cities tends to be overwhelmingly female. And we think this is because women were involved in the upkeep of the fancy homes of the wealthy, but also even middling people would have a domestic servant or two to assist them with cooking and cleaning. So a lot of cities have a majority of women when you’re looking at the slave population.

The other thing I would point out is that the population of cities changes in the 1840s and 1850s in the south. You have an immigrant population moving in from Europe. The percentage of slaves in cities decreases, but so does the actual number of slaves in cities decrease. And we’re still not sure what that’s about. It could be that owners are moving slaves to rural areas because there’s a cotton boom at that time, just on the eve of the civil war. So the owners might be taking slaves out of the cities and moving them to plantations, and moving them West as places like Texas open up. So there is some change over the course of the antebellum period in terms of why the number of slaves in cities go down.

Leslie, you mentioned some of the occupations that black urban slaves performed. Can you talk a little bit more on the kinds of work that people did?

LH: Sure: household labor, as I mentioned; if you were a domestic in a home; if you were a cook, you might start your day by going to the market, bringing that back home, spending your day in the kitchen; laundresses, both in homes for individuals, but also laundry facilities around the city; women also cleaning houses and things like that, either you were owned by someone and did it for that owner in that house, if it’s a large house there might be a team of you, or you might be hired out to do that kind of labor. For men, men do a lot of skilled labor, so they work alongside whites. Things like blacksmithing, iron working, carpentry, all of those kinds of skilled jobs are the kinds of things that male slaves might do.

Some cities owned slaves. We just did a project in Savanah, and the municipal archives in Savanah recently put up a website about the city’s ownership of slaves, and those slaves would do all kinds of infrastructure work on the city, making sure the roads are smooth, doing repair to city buildings, and things like that, even possibly (we still have to investigate this) working in the jail, assisting with cleaning there, cleaning municipal buildings, that’s another option. Any kind of industry that’s happening in the city, it’s likely that there are slaves involved, either it’s a small number or, like Savanah we learned that the timber industry actually employed a large number of slaves. The brick industry actually employed a large number of slaves.

Daina, you mentioned that sometimes they lived separately from their owners, sometimes in communities. What were living conditions like for slaves?

DRB: For those who lived in these black communities, the quality of the housing was not as nice, obviously, as their owners. It was also different from what you would see in the rural plantations, when you would see slave cabins. So there were overcrowded living spaces. We have some images in the post-slavery period with the community that they lived in. And as I mentioned, both slaves and some free blacks lived in this community because they were often married to one another. But for those who lived in the outhouses or carriage houses of their owners—I don’t like to use comparative terms (I was about to say better, but I caught myself)—but their living conditions were different. The quality of the house was different than what you would find in a rural community. But these were small houses, the ones that were outside the city. One-room houses with a chimney and they could cook outside. In the chimney they would cook with large cast iron skillets in pans or pots or put sticks on a fire outside and cook outside. But it was very much communal living in this space.

And did some of the urban slaves live with their masters in their manor houses?

LH: Absolutely. The thing about city living, if the slave lived with the masters, was intimacy. And I don’t mean that in a necessarily positive way, but some owners liked to have the enslaved person sleeping at the foot of their bed or sleeping in the kitchen. They could ring a bell and bring the owner something in the night if they got thirsty or hungry. So for urban slaves there’s a lot of forced intimacy with owners, and separation, too, from slave communities.   If on the rural plantations you have a hundred or fifty slaves in a kind of community, urban slaves could be more isolated depending on how tight the control of their owner was and how many people they knew in the city.

It sounds like there was a lot more mixing between free black, enslaved black, and free white peoples, especially in work places.

Both: Absolutely.

So, how did the presence of free blacks, for example, or whites affect enslaved life in urban communities?

DRB: I think it does a lot, actually. They’re working side by side, so enslaved people are hearing about things about the anti-slavery movement, they’re learning about the Nat Turner rebellion, they have people maybe near them who are literate who might read them pamphlets or things. They’re interacting with people that have traveled all over the world, some of them have come from different places, and they’re learning about things. And so we see this with a lot of the slaves that actually rebelled. In some of the large–scale rebellions in United States history, a lot of them were either free or working with free blacks and whites in very much urban spaces. We’ve seen that historically. So that does have that an influence on their attitude, and particularly those who have been transported back to a rural plantation, they’re bringing all of that knowledge with them.

Is urban slavery taught in the high school curriculum?

DRB: No, it’s not. Not yet. Slavery is hardly taught. They do teach the Civil War but it depends on what state you live in as well. I just came back from a workshop for eighth-grade teachers and they did Civil War. They did not have a sense of the differences between urban and rural, and they were very surprised to learn about, like, a brick-making factory, like Leslie was talking about or working by hauling timber and cotton to urban regions. They were not aware of that. They knew about domestic work inside homes, but they had not thought about the larger urban space as a setting for slavery.

And you’re both involved in doing research on urban slavery. What kinds of things are people studying now? And where is this field going?

DRB: There are a number of scholars right now who are doing work in comparative slavery. There’re people who are doing work in New Orleans and looking at Sierra Leone and Barbados. They’re doing multiple comparative research projects on urban settings and they’re tracing people who went from one city to another. There are people doing work on gender and sexuality, looking at women who were sex workers. I don’t really like that term, because they weren’t really getting paid for the labor that they were doing, but we can’t really call them prostitutes either. But there were a number of women who had power, there were brothel houses that women operated and owned in some of these urban communities. So that’s one area of looking at urban slavery in a comparative sense and not just in the United States.

LH: And I think we still need to know more about who owned slaves in urban areas. In colonial and early national New York for example, you have not only wealthy people owning slaves, but also artisans who owned slaves as helpers. And that sort of middling level of slave ownership, I don’t think we know enough about. And the same would be true in the antebellum south. What does it mean to own only one or two urban slaves because you’re an urban tradesperson and you’re in a city and you don’t have room for more than that—or money for more than that—but those slaves are intimately tied to your economic wellbeing. So I think we still can do some more asking of questions about what kinds of slave owners there are in cities and what does it mean to own a slave in the city if you only own one or two.

How has studying urban slavery changed the picture of US slavery all together?

DRB: It’s forced us to rethink this notion of large cotton plantations, where people are working in the fields from sunup to sundown. It’s moving us into other settings; not just homes and fields, but also industrial settings, shops, workshops, shipyards, and that’s changing the way we think about slavery, as Leslie was saying. We’re looking at cities that owned slaves, universities that owned slaves, medical schools and colleges that owned slaves. So we’re seeing all these different places where enslaved people show up.

So it’s a lot more ubiquitous than we originally thought, a lot more.

DRB: Absolutely, and it’s changing the way we think about it as a whole. And I think we’re at a moment now, historiographically, where we’re trying to understand the diversity of the institution and all of these places before we can really write these larger consensus narratives. And I think it’s ok to teach students that it’s a very diverse system, depending on where you live, what kind of work, and so forth.

LH: I think it’s also important that when we realize that enslaved people can work anywhere, it should make us think differently about African Americans as laborers as well. I think in American history, and even now today people are very dismissive of African American labor or imagine that African Americans can only occupy one place in the economy, and uncovering the variety of ways that enslaved people worked can give us a different picture of what African Americans as laborers have done in this country. I think that is a really important conversation to continue to have.

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