Slavery in the Border States (DE, Dist. of Columbia, KY, MD, MO)

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Slavery in the Border States (DE, Dist. of Columbia, KY, MD, MO)

The so-called "border states"—Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—were slave states whose geographic positions helped shape the tension between the perpetuation of slavery in the United States and progress toward abolition. These five states separated the Northern free states from the major slave states of the Upper South: Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Some of the border states had recognized slavery from the early colonial period. For example, slavery existed in Maryland in 1634, fifteen years after the first slaves landed in Jamestown, Virginia, but the institution was not officially recognized there until 1663, when Maryland passed a law that established the legality of lifelong servitude for slaves of African descent.

Maryland gained admission to the Union as a slave state in 1788. Because Maryland borders Virginia, the slave trade and the plantation-based system of slave labor spread to Maryland and developed there, so that by 1860 there were 87,189 African American slaves in Maryland. Slavery continued in Maryland until November 1, 1864, when the state adopted its state constitution, which outlawed slavery. Delaware was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1787, but because it is such a small state geographically and had such a small number of slaves (1,798 in 1860), slavery there was not significant except for the fact that it and Kentucky were two of the northernmost slave states (Gienapp 1992, p. 14).

In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains to gain admission to the United States as a slave state. Slavery flourished in Kentucky, except during a period in the mid-1800s when the state suffered an economic downturn. In 1860 Kentucky had more than 225,000 African American slaves within its borders. Kentucky did not completely abolish slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.


President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the American slaveholding states when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, on April 16, 1862, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. This law made slavery illegal in Washington, D.C. This federal law was the first time that the U.S. government took any positive legislative action to abolish slavery, although many individual states had already abolished slavery in their borders. It was also the first example of the United States paying any type of compensation or reparations to African American slaves or their descendants. The act provided for payment of up to $100 to former slaves who chose voluntary colonization to colonies outside of the United States, in addition to compensation of $300 to former masters who were loyal to the Union.

Since 2004 the District of Columbia has celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16. In that federal district, it is a legal public holiday commemorating the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States.


Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Random House, 2004.

Provine, Dorothy S. Compensated Emancipation in the District of Columbia: Petitions under the Act of April 16, 1862. Westminster, MD: Willowbend, 2005.

The District of Columbia was founded in 1790, and because it followed Maryland's laws, including those that dealt with slavery, it too allowed slavery. On April 16, 1862, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, a law that made slavery illegal in Washington, DC, and compensated slave owners with $300 for each freed slave.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to be admitted to the United States as a slave state at the same time that Maine gained admission as a free state. The institution of slavery was well embedded in the Missouri Constitution of 1820, which stipulated that slaves could not be set free "without the consent of their masters, or without paying them, before such emancipation." Missouri governor Thomas C. Fletcher banned slavery in Missouri through an executive order on January 11, 1865, but total abolition of slavery in Missouri did not occur until after December 1865, with the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

General Slave Conditions

The living and working conditions of slaves in the border states were similar to conditions of slaves in other parts of the country, except that there were more avenues of escape available to them: Their homes bordered the free states of the North, and there were larger free African American populations than in slave states in the Deep South. Slaveholders still maintained complete dominion and control over their African American slaves, and conditions were often harsh and dangerous. Many enslaved people escaped to freedom along established Underground Railroad routes, including Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). The daughter of a former slave from Cockeysville, Maryland, recounted one failed escape:

There were about this time a number of white people who had been going through Cockeysville, some trying to find out if there was any concerted move on the part of the slaves to run away, others contacting the free people to find out to what extent they had "grape-vine" news of the action of the Negroes. The Negro who was seen coming from mother's home ran away. She was immediately accused of voodooism by the whites of Cockeysville, she was taken to Towson jail, there confined and grilled by the sheriff of Baltimore County—the Cockeys, and several other men, all demanding that she tell where the escaped slave was. She knowing that the only way he could have escaped was by the York Road, north or south, the Northern Central Railroad or by the way of Deer Creek, a small creek east of Cockeysville. Both the York Road and the railroad were being watched, she logically thought that the only place was Deer Creek, so she told the sheriff to search Deer Creek. By accident he was found about eight miles up Deer Creek in a swamp with several other colored men who had run away (Work Projects Administration 1941).

The border states typically did not have the extensive plantation systems that were prevalent in the Upper and Deep South, except in parts of Kentucky and Maryland, but nonetheless most African American slaves worked in agriculture. Missouri and Kentucky's main agricultural resources were grains and livestock, which did not require the labor-intensive workforce of the cotton industry (Gienapp 1992, p. 14).

Slave Population and Ownership Statistics

By 1860, before the start of the Civil War, the slave population of the border states numbered 432,586, according to William Gienapp: Delaware had 1,798 slaves; Kentucky, 225,483; Maryland, 87,189; and Missouri, 114,931. Even in Kentucky and Maryland, the border states with the largest slave populations, the majority of white citizens did not own slaves (and most of those that did owned only a few), and the slave populations were a small percentage of the total state populations. In Delaware, African American slaves comprised only 1.6 percent of the state population. Although Kentucky had the largest slave population of the border states, slaves were only 19.5 percent of the state's total population. In comparison, slaves comprised 29 percent of the total population of the slave states of the Upper South—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—and 47.5 percent of the total population of the slave states of the Deep South—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, and Texas (Gienapp 1992).


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Maryland Narratives. Available from

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

Gienapp, William E. "Abraham Lincoln and the Border States." Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 13, no.1 (1992): 13-46.

Greene, Lorenzo J., Antonio F. Holland, and Gary Kremer. "The Role of the Negro in Missouri History, 1719–1970." Official Manual, State of Missouri, 1973–1974. Available from

Lucas, Marion Brunson. A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760–1891. 2nd ed. Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 2003.

Stroud, George M. A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America. Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, 1827.

"The Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland." Maryland State Archives. 2007. Available from

                                      Jocelyn M. Cuffee

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Slavery in the Border States (DE, Dist. of Columbia, KY, MD, MO)

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Slavery in the Border States (DE, Dist. of Columbia, KY, MD, MO)