Slave Entrepreneurs

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Slave Entrepreneurs

The notion of enslaved African Americans employing the principles of capitalism to accumulate wealth might initially seem odd, considering their legal status as property. Yet some slaves, under favorable conditions, accrued capital in the form of currency, commodities, and, on the rare occasion, real estate by providing essential services to the local populace, either by utilizing their artisanal skills or supplying goods for various trade exchanges. One former slave observed that "[t]here were lots of Negroes who had trades. They could make brooms and chair bottoms, and lots of them made a lot of money that way … and sometimes they would take money and buy their wife and children, and then buy himself" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 18, p. 41). These enslaved capitalists peddled handicrafts made in their limited free time and produce from their own gardens in the street markets of such cities as Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans. They sold goods and bartered in the slave quarters of Southern plantations and they engaged in trade and self-hiring negotiations with white merchants, factory owners, and planters. Like their free counterparts, enslaved entrepreneurs sought to improve the living conditions of themselves and their families, but ultimately their goal was to use the resources of their economic activities to gain their freedom.

During the era of American slavery, a small number of enslaved laborers were able to use their skills to establish businesses with the blessings or at least acquiescence of their slave owners. For example, in 1850 former slave Benjamin Montgomery of Loudoun County, Virginia, was purchased by Mississippi planter Joseph Davis (brother of the future president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis). On the Davis family's plantation, Davis Bend, Montgomery learned to operate the plantation's steam-powered cotton gin and acquired knowledge in land surveyance and building construction. In addition, with the help of Joseph Davis, Montgomery established an importing business, providing goods from New Orleans to both white and black consumers. The business prospered, enabling Montgomery to purchase his family's freedom and his own. After the Civil War, Montgomery bought Davis Bend plantation and supervised its operation until his death in 1877. By 1881, however, the Davis family had re-acquired the plantation as a result of foreclosure proceedings against Montgomery's family.

Most enslaved entrepreneurs were artisans. Some enslaved African Americans were taught their skills by family members, but others had been trained by white artisans engaged by slave owners who recognized the high return on hiring out enslaved artisans in a laborshortage market. They held such occupations as blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, cooks, seamstresses, ferry operators, wheelwrights, shoemakers, and millers. These were skills in high demand and therefore yielded sustainable livelihoods that could be turned into lucrative businesses. In her autobiography Behind the Scenes (1868), Elizabeth Keckley, formerly enslaved in Dinwiddie Court-House, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri, told of her mother teaching her to sew as a child and using her skills as a young adult to support the impoverished slaveholding family who owned her as well as her mother. She stated:

I was fortunate in obtaining work, and in a short time I had acquired something of a reputation as a seamstress and dress-maker. The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders. With my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months (2005 [1868], p. 45).

As a result of the slaveholding family's poverty, Keckley was allowed to hire herself out as a seamstress to the affluent women of St. Louis and thereby began a flourishing dressmaking business. In gratitude for her kind demeanor and superb talent, the "best ladies" of St. Louis loaned Keckley $1,200 in 1855 to purchase her son's freedom and her own. In 1860, she moved her dressmaking business to Washington, DC, and eventually counted among her patrons the wife of Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and the first lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Like Keckley, slave entrepreneurs took advantage of the flexibility and semi-independence that being hired out or self-hired afforded them. It was an accepted practice for slave owners to loan the services of skilled or semi-skilled slaves to local merchants, factory owners, or other planters needing temporary laborers. The terms of the loan were often set out in contracts stipulating housing, food, and clothing provisions for the slave, as well as payment schedules for use of the slave's labor. In self-hire arrangements, however, slave owners left it to the enslaved worker to make his or her own contracts, as in the case of Keckley. Such hiring practices often led to hired slaves living independent of their masters as nominal or virtually free slaves. Lewis Clarke, a self-hired slave in Kentucky, managed to provide for all his needs even though he had no distinctive skills. In his autobiography Narratives of the Suffering of Lewis and Milton Clarke (1846), he explained: "… I hired my time at $12 a month; boarded and clothed myself. To meet my payments, I split rails, burned coal, peddled grass seed, and took hold of whatever I could find to do" (Bland 2001, p. 137).

Although being hired out or self-hired were possible avenues to some degree of economic independence, the possession of qualities deemed necessary for any successful business endeavor were also prerequisites for potential entrepreneurs within the slave community. Risktaking, ingenuity, business savvy, and aggressiveness were characteristics enslaved children learned from their elders. Slave-born Lunsford Lane recounted his introduction to business in his autobiography The Narrative of Lunsford Lane (1842). When he was a child, his father gave him a basket of peaches. He states: "I sold them for thirty cents, which was the first money I ever had in my life" (Bland 2001, p. 94). After several small-scale "money-making" schemes, Lane established a tobacco and pipe manufacturing operation in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his enslaved father as his mentor. Lane was able to purchase his freedom from the proceeds of his venture.

Taking the risk of establishing a business was a precarious undertaking for enslaved African Americans. The act itself was illegal. State slave codes prohibited slaves from entering into business contracts on their own behalf. Enslaved laborers were not allowed to acquire property and were banned from learning to read and write. Furthermore, slaves could not venture beyond their master's property without written permission and were sometimes required to obtain licenses or permits to engage in artisanal endeavors. These were major obstacles for enterprising slaves. Nonetheless, economic agency continued within the slave community. Slave owners utilizing the hiring out time and self-hiring schemes customarily ignored state regulations that conflicted with their profit-making schemes.

Slave entrepreneurship was manifested in a variety of ways, depending on region, temperament of the slave owner, and labor system employed. In urban areas, most slaves were domestics and often were assigned food marketing duties that facilitated opportunities to trade in the marketplace on one's own behalf. While making purchases for the slave-owning family, enterprising slave women sold or bartered pastries, cakes, and handicrafts to make their own money. In addition, enslaved men contributed fish, baked breads and many other items, including the game from hunting trips. Although state slave codes prohibited slaves from carrying guns, slaves were able to circumvent the laws when necessary. According to Mr. Huddleston, a formerly enslaved Tennessean, "Cullud folks been had guns all their life. They kept them hid" (Rawick, p. 36). Some urban slaves also cultivated vegetable gardens on small plots they were allowed to use. Fresh produce flowed into food markets from many of the gardens of enslaved workers.


Born a slave in 1777 and manumitted in 1819, "Free Frank" McWorter was the first African American to legally register a town. With profits from various entrepreneurial endeavors, McWorter founded New Philadelphia, Illinois, in 1836 on land purchased from the U.S. government. In 1785, McWorter assisted his master, George McWhorter (who was allegedly his father), in establishing a farm in Pulaski County, Kentucky. When the master moved on to Tennessee to start a new farm, he left McWorter in Kentucky to manage his holdings. McWorter oversaw operations of the farm by day and by night, operated a mining and manufacturing enterprise he had founded during the War of 1812. His business extracted crude niter from nearby caves to produce saltpeter, an essential ingredient in gunpowder. The proceeds from his business and other revenuegenerating opportunities he undertook by hiring out his time enabled McWorter to purchase his freedom, whereupon he petitioned the court to have the h in McWhorter dropped from his surname and acquired the nickname "Free Frank." Before his death in 1854, McWorter had purchased the freedom of sixteen family members with profits earned through land speculation, commercial farming, and the sale of town lots in New Philadelphia.

SOURCE: Walker, Juliet E. K., Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.

In the countryside, some plantation owners also allowed their slaves to grow vegetables and raise livestock on small parcels of land and often purchased the produce in surplus after enslaved gardeners had put aside a portion of the harvest for their family's consumption. In one particular case, a planter demanded that his slaves keep chickens on their assigned lots. According to an ex-slave, "each family had a chicken house and they had to raise chickens. They'd (the white people) buy them from you" (Rawick, p. 11).

Allowing slaves the use of small parcels of land was not an act of generosity. Slave owners reduced the food rations of slaves who were permitted to cultivate small lots. Moreover, the enslaved workers had to continue their daily work schedules for the master and only after their work was done could they toil in their private gardens or tend to their livestock. On plantations adopting the gang system of labor, slaves worked from sunup to sundown. Some slaves then worked in their gardens at night and on Sundays, traditionally a day of rest for slaves. Most planters on the outskirts of New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, however, used the task system where slaves were assigned individual tasks daily. When their daily chores were completed, the remainder of the day was their own.

Whether residing in the city or countryside and whether skilled or unskilled, enslaved African Americans gained access to exchange networks which facilitated small-scale money-making enterprises. While race and their unfree status significantly hindered the economic agency of bondpeople, market demand for their products sometimes prevailed against the bigotry of white consumers. Moreover, the slaveholders' complicity with the practice of slave self-hiring—a potential stepping stone to economic freedom—conferred legitimacy to the enslaved worker's foray into the free market system. Ultimately, as historian Juliet E. K. Walker suggests in Black Entrepreneurship: "the goods and services offered by slave entrepreneurs … were a necessary and integral part of the antebellum southern economy" (Walker 1983, p. 47).


Bland Jr., Sterling Lecater. African American Slave Narratives: An Anthology, vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Blassingame, John W. Black New Orleans 1860–1880. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House [1868]. New York: Penguin Books, [2005].

Mintz, S. "African American Voices." Digital History. Available at

Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.

Schweninger, Loren. "Black-owned Businesses in the South, 1790–1880." Business History Review 63, Spring (1989): 22-60.

Walker, Juliet E.K. "Black Entrepreneurship: An Historical Inquiry." Essays in Economic and Business History 1 (1983): 37-55.

Wood, Betty. Women's Work, Men's Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

                                      Carol J. Gibson