Urban Slaves a Little-Recognized Part of The Southern Economy

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

In my experiences teaching United States history, students have a misconception that American slavery was strictly an agricultural institution. The slave labor experience, in particular, is considered one that existed entirely on plantation fields, sowing, tending, or harvesting cash crops — tobacco, cotton, or rice. Not all rural slaves worked on plantations, though; many toiled on smaller farms with a workforce of five to 10 field hands.

Most slaves worked on farms in some capacity and primarily in the fields, to be sure, but sweat fell from their brows in factories, in trade shops, in the sun while laying railroad tracks in between towns, and even as fishermen in boats on the waters. (During a recent trip to Pensacola, Fla., I visited Fort Barrancas and marveled at the arched passageways inside the massive structure constructed primarily by slave engineers and laborers).

Slavery existed in urban areas, too. According to historians, 400,000 souls — about 10 percent of the South’s slave population — lived in urban areas. After the harvest season, some rural slaves, who possessed trade skills, were “hired out” and worked temporarily in towns and cities until they were needed back on the farm. It was not uncommon for there to be among the plantation slave population blacksmiths, carpenters, and mechanics, to name three jobs. In their spare time and with the master’s approval, according to historian Alan D. Watson, some bondsmen hired themselves out.

Most urban slaves possessed a skill. In cities and towns, one could find, among many occupations within the urban slave community, coopers, painters, cabinetmakers, cobblers, tailors, and carpenters.

It also was not uncommon to find urban slaves working in factories. During the Civil War, Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Va., for one, used skilled slave labor. During the war, Tredegar, along with its associated plants, employed approximately 1,200 slaves and free blacks. (By May 1863, 343 slaves comprised 59 percent of the work force among Tredegar’s affiliates in Georgia.) Even though their skills were in high demand, slaves of course did not have the opportunities to negotiate wages like their free black counterparts, who increased their compensation during the war. By the war’s end, writes one historian, Tredegar produced much of the South’s firepower — 1,600 cannons and 90 percent of shot and cannonballs.

In North Carolina, it was common to find slaves in towns such as Edenton, Fayetteville, New Bern, and Wilmington.

In coastal towns, according to Watson, urban North Carolina slaves served “as stevedores on the docks, pilots along the rivers, and cooks, stewards, and sailors on ships.” Watson writes further: “Women worked in towns as cooks, laundresses, and housekeepers. Wilmington slaves helped to fight fires, repair the streets, and build the town’s famed arches (later tunnels) for directing the flow of streams through the town.”

John Gilliard, for example, made a proposal to the town of Wilmington to “work the fire engines” and find four slaves for the same purpose. Once a month, the bondsmen made any necessary repairs on the fire engines and protected the town from incendiary threats. In 1778 Wilmington, slave owners commonly “hired out” slaves to help provide the town’s infrastructure. For instance, Priscilla Kennon was paid 10 pounds for a slave who worked on the arch — tunnels, Watson writes, that “direct[ed] the flow of streams through town.” In other places, such as Elizabeth City, tobacco factories such as Cameron & Towns employed slaves to manufacture an emerging and distinct Southern industry — plug tobacco.

Although primarily an agricultural institution, slavery took many forms. And one form was in bustling towns and cities.