The Story of Lunsford Lane: How Entrepreneurial Spirit Overcame Slavery

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Biographers usually love or hate their subjects.  So, I must admit before writing further that I admire Lunsford Lane.

During the antebellum era, abolitionists also admired Lane.  His accomplishments, they argued, proved that slavery, an institution protected by the government, ignored the individual and restricted economic growth.

Born in 1803, a few miles from Raleigh, Lunsford Lane grew up a domestic slave. After he sold a basket of peaches, young Lunsford became obsessed with “plans for making money.”  After fulfilling his requirements as a bondsman, Lane during nights worked irregular jobs, such as chopping wood, for profit, so he could buy his freedom.  Meanwhile, he saved virtually all his earnings and developed the art of business negotiation.

With powers of invention and an entrepreneurial spirit that bondage could not suppress, Lane as a young man started selling tobacco.  In his words, this is how the enterprise began:

“My father suggested a mode of preparing smoking tobacco, different from any then or since employed. . . . I improved somewhat on his suggestion, and commenced the manufacture, doing as I said all my work in the night. . . . But the tobacco could not be smoked without a pipe, and as I had given the former [tobacco] a flavor peculiarly grateful, it occurred to me that I might so construct a pipe as to cool the smoke in passing through it, and thus meet the wishes of those who are more fond of smoke than heat. . . . These pipes I sold at ten cents apiece.  In the early part of the night I would sell my tobacco and pipes, and manufacture them in the latter part.  As the Legislature sit in Raleigh every year, I sold these articles considerably to its members, so that I became known not only in the city, but in many parts of the State, as a tobacconist.”  

Never fearing competition, Lane eventually opened “a place of business” in Raleigh, and agents in Chapel Hill, Fayetteville, and Salisbury sold his tobacco, with the brand name “Edward and Lunsford Lane.”  As a slave attending state legislators at parties, he sold much of his tobacco; he earned an extra buck helping inebriated lawmakers back to their rooms.  When he married and begat children, Lane experienced how slavery limited his roles as husband and father and restricted his entrepreneurship.  Nevertheless, he eventually bought his freedom for $1,000 (approximately $18,000 today).  However, circumstances dictated that Lane accompany a white acquaintance to the North so that he could be freed legally.

In his autobiography, Lane equated the feeling of being freed to that of one having sins forgiven.   Returning home, Lane encountered disappointing realities. Angry that a free black accumulated significant capital, jealous whites creatively interpreted and selectively enforced a state statute that limited out-of-state free blacks’ visits to North Carolina to a maximum of twenty consecutive days.  In 1841, North Carolina expelled this hard-working, native Tar Heel.  In the North, Lane worked assiduously and penned his slave experiences to earn money to purchase his family’s freedom.  

In 1842, Lane returned to Raleigh and received a most unfriendly welcome.  He was arraigned on false charges but fortunately acquitted.  Yet, a mob later tarred and feathered him.  Only with the assistance of sympathetic whites–some who ironically participated in the tar and feathering–did Lane and his wife, six children, and mother escape on a Northbound train.

Despite continual setbacks and persistent discrimination, Lunsford Lane, like most entrepreneurs, was influenced primarily by the prospects of a better tomorrow and the belief that an individual could improve his circumstances.  When it would have been understandable to abandon hope, Lane persevered.

So let’s celebrate Lane’s entrepreneurship and dogged determination to make a profit so that his and his family’s future might improve.  And wonder with me how much wealth Lane could have created had he been completely free to pursue it.