Slave trading produced an ancillary institution called slave renting, or slave hiring. As slave traders transported slaves and distributed them throughout the South, some whites developed a need for short-term slave labor, but did not wish to own slaves, in some cases because they wanted to avoid the stigma of slave ownership. Other whites who could not afford to own slaves did the next best thing—they rented slaves, especially during the harvest season to clear land for cultivation. Some slave owners rented out or hired out their slaves when the cycle of crop production did not demand their intensive labor. Thus, while slave owners and slave renters had various reasons for engaging in the practice, most either wanted to maximize their ownership of slaves or needed slaves on a temporary basis.
The process of slave hiring or slave renting began during the early 1700s as an informal practice based on verbal agreements between slave owners and renters. Later, the practice expanded and became more formal, and written agreements became necessary. Owners and renters signed contracts obligating a single slave or group of slaves to perform work for a specific time period—from a few months to a year—and for an agreed-upon amount of money. Some owners advertised in newspapers the availability of slaves for rent or hire, with prices ranging from $100 per year for an agricultural worker, to as much as $600 per year for a skilled slave. Slaves who were blacksmiths, carpenters, and brick masons typically demanded the highest prices.
By 1800 the business of slave hiring had become even more specialized, with agents drawing up contracts between parties. Moreover, newspapers carried even more advertisements, and there was less of a stigma attached to renting a slave. Owners generally profited from this practice, and renters had the labor of unskilled or skilled slaves without the costs of permanent ownership; the expense of slave ownership and prices for slaves rose between 1820 and 1850 in most regions.
Charleston, South Carolina, more than any other city, became the capital for slave hiring or renting. By 1800 Charleston was home to nearly 10,000 slaves, and about 20 percent were hired out during that year. Most were skilled slaves, including tailors, barbers, cooks, brick masons, butlers, maids, carpenters, and blacksmiths. The city's newspaper printed notices offering the services of skilled slaves for hire by the month or the year. The practice of slave hiring became so common that some whites were fearful of the freedom so many slaves had to walk about the city, and in 1845 the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law making it illegal to rent or hire slaves. Few masters or renters adhered to the legislation, and renting and hiring continued unabated in and around Charleston. In some instances, masters allowed slaves to hire themselves out; this practice permitted some slaves to save enough money to purchase their freedom. Slave-hiring in Charleston became so complex that many slaves wore a badge around their necks with a number indicating their particular skill or craft. The Charleston city council taxed those badges, masters still received money for renting out their slaves, renters had laborers or skilled slaves for extended periods of time, and some slaves earned money in this elaborate process.
In the decade before the Civil War there were an estimated 400,000 urban slaves in the United States. Most were in the cities of Charleston, Richmond, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and New Orleans. About 5 percent were hired or rented. In addition to the skilled slaves hired out in urban areas, slave masters rented out their agricultural slaves after harvests and before the next planting seasons. As the cotton belt extended across the Mississippi River after 1800, many whites in need of additional laborers hired more slaves to clear the land in preparation for planting cotton.
For masters, hiring or renting out their slaves brought additional income; for slaves with skills, especially those who rented themselves out, the process could lead to freedom. Even when masters took a good portion of their money, good carpenters, brick masons, and blacksmiths could, over a period of time, earn enough to buy their freedom. In one such example, William Ellison, born into slavery near Sumter, South Carolina, became a master cotton-gin maker. After working on Sundays for several years, he acquired enough money to purchase his freedom, and then, over the course of more than twenty years (1822–1845), the freedom of his wife and his children. On the eve of the Civil War, Ellison owned more slaves than most white slave holders in South Carolina. His success as a master craftsman led to both social freedom and economic success.
Slave hiring was a complex business within the system of slavery. It was driven by the demand for slaves and relieved renters of the stigma attached to slave ownership. It also helped people who could not afford the outright ownership of slaves. Skilled and resourceful slaves could use slave renting as a means of acquiring freedom. What began as a practice for a few had become a lucrative business for many by the eve of the Civil War.
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Greene, Harlan; Harry S. Hutchins, Jr.; and Brian E. Hutchins. Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783–1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
Johnson, Michael P., and James L. Roark. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.
Jackie R. Booker