Industrial Work

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Industrial Work

Most slaves in the New World toiled in the fields, but some increasingly worked in industrial occupations, such as the processing of wheat or the manufacturing of iron, as American slavery expanded. This was especially true in Richmond, Virginia, where the slave population continued to increase until 1860 in contrast to other southern cities such as Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans, all of which witnessed a corresponding decrease in the late antebellum era. Slave artisans had always been present from the colonial era onward with their craftwork in clay and iron being influenced by western African as well as by western European styles. Industrial Richmond's reliance upon slave labor was relatively new; however; free white labor dominated the city's first workforces for small tobacco and flour mills in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, by 1820, entrepreneurs in Richmond as well as all over the American South quickly began to prefer slave labor over free labor, seeing European immigrants in particular as more expensive and troublesome than bondmen and women.

Canal and railway companies had no other choice but to resort to slaves when immigrants refused to work in unsafe and disease-ridden environments. The tobacco industry in Richmond and nearby Petersburg, for example, almost exclusively came to hire male slaves, who then would go on to control the pace and quality of their production to a remarkable degree. Indeed, the very hallmarks of urban slavery, such as hiring out and living apart, that made slave labor attractive to employers helped slaves to exercise varying degrees of autonomy both inside and outside the factory. Bans on self-hiring were frequently circumvented by slaves who continued to hunt for jobs with signed permission slips from their owners. This relative freedom came with its own costs; industrial work in the nineteenth century was inherently arduous and dangerous. Slaves in the construction, fishing, canal, steamboat transportation, lumbering, and sugar refining industries put in the longest hours. Their days could exceed the twelve- to sixteen-hour norm, and their owners could preempt any customary breaks for the Sabbath or holidays. Fires and explosions at the workplace prematurely ended many slaves' lives, with mining and transportation the most deadly pursuits of them all.

The hazards and monotony associated with industrial work pushed the hired out to run away for good, even if they had relatively more control over their lives than field hands or domestics. Historians have found that urban, skilled workers were as likely as plantation workers to want to escape and were more likely to succeed in their attempts because of personal connections made alongside the docks and canals. For those left behind, at least in Richmond, industrial slaves became the mainstays of emerging black communities and institutions. Slaves could earn cash, pooling their savings together to build and to purchase churches. This liberating effect of their reliance upon semi-independent laborers was noted by some fearful whites who worried about careless owners sowing the seeds of slave rebellion. In Richmond, many remembered Gabriel Prosser (1776–1800), the hired-out blacksmith at the turn of the century who had plotted to kill all the whites except for poor women, Quakers, Methodists, and Frenchmen. Those qualms had largely subsided by the outbreak of the Civil War (1861–1865), however, as southern nationalists pointed with pride to the economic successes of the industrial and urban slave systems with up to one-fifth of American manufacturing output coming from the Old South.


Industrial slave labor encompassed an array of occupations and literally built the American South. Immigrants were seen as less reliable and more expensive in the early nineteenth century, so slaves became the workforces at factories, mines, boats, and shops. Richmond, Virginia, was the epitome of an industrial city reliant upon slave labor with its Tredegar Iron Works eventually becoming the arsenal of the Confederacy. While industrial labor could be especially grim and onerous, the hiring-out and living apart components of industrial slavery allowed bondmen and women somewhat more control over their lives as compared to domestics and field hands.

SOURCE: Starobin, Robert S. Industrial Slavery in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Ironically, the Civil War would deepen the South's reliance upon industrial slave labor, as the Confederacy needed conscripted workers to build defenses while white male workers joined the army. Wartime provisions tried to restrict the movement and behavior of industrial slave labor more precisely than ever before, but selfinterested owners helped their chattel property to avoid such unpleasant jobs as digging trenches or mining lead. Field hands, whom the Confederate government commandeered to build bridges and to unload cargo, used this turn of events to their advantage to plan their escape or to prepare for their emancipation under the Yankees. Eventually, the Confederacy was so desperate to win that it tried to move slaves from being noncombatant support in mobilization to being armed soldiers, but such virtual abolition was too late to preserve southern independence.


Boles, John B. Black Southerners, 1619–1869. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Starobin, Robert S. Industrial Slavery in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782–1865. Charlottesville; London: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

                                        Charles H. Ford

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Industrial Work

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