Slavery in the Upper South (AR, NC, TN, VA)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Slavery in the Upper South (AR, NC, TN, VA)

Relatively new in Arkansas and Tennessee, slavery was far more ingrained in Virginia and North Carolina by the time Eli Whitney's 1793 invention of the cotton gin assisted in increasing the profitability of slavery in the United States. From one slave owner to another, a tremendous deal of ambiguity existed in regard to individual policies with slaves. Nevertheless, slaves in the Upper South generally lived under masters who owned fewer slaves and were generally more benevolent in their treatment of the slave populations. As slavery grew in each of the states in the Upper South as the Civil War approached, thousands of slaves poured out of the Upper South to the new cotton developments in southwestern states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. For the vast majority who remained, slaveholders almost universally banned slave education and often utilized religion as a means for preaching obedience to slaves in the wake of burgeoning fears of slave insurrection.

Very few slaves inhabited French- and Spanish-controlled Arkansas in the eighteenth century. In 1820, after being sold to the United States as a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and becoming a U.S. territory in 1819, Arkansas was home to 1,617 slaves, according to the census taken that year. Between 1820 and 1850, the rate of increase in Arkansas slavery exceeded all other states. By 1830, 4,576 slaves resided in Arkansas. The first U.S. Census following the 1836 statehood, compiled in 1840, reported 19,935 slaves, and by 1850, the new census documented 47,100 slaves. The 1860 Census reported 111,115 slaves in Arkansas, belonging to just 3.5 percent of the white population. As the population of those in bondage increased, so did legislation regulating them. The 1836 Arkansas Constitution guaranteed equal treatment under the law for slaves and no law existed to bar slaveholders from educating their slaves in Arkansas, but few Arkansas slaves were educated and harsh penalties existed for runaways, including lifetime imprisonment after 1849. Nevertheless, many slaves in Arkansas embraced Christianity, with the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian sects all boasting increasingly substantial slave memberships as the nineteenth century progressed.

While Arkansas ranked sixth among all states in cotton production in 1860, just 12 percent of the slave owners classified as planters, a classification requiring ownership of at least twenty slaves. Since only 50 percent of Arkansas slaves lived under a planter, many slave marriages in Arkansas, which had no legal recognition, were between slaves on different plantations. In the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives (later compiled as The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography), the slaves from Arkansas provided a wide array of positions regarding their masters. William Baltimore recalled that his master did not even call them slaves, but rather "servants," and Katie Arbey pointed out that she had been "treated so nice that when freedom came, I thought I was always free" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 8, pt. 1, pp. 97, 65). On the other hand, Sallie Crane remembered brutal whippings, families being split apart, and slaves being forced to make their own furniture and store their own food. Many slaves from Arkansas mentioned the Yankee soldiers in their interviews, as many had joined the Union cause once the Civil War broke out. Arkansas slave William Baltimore joined the Union Army, while fellow slave Adeline Blakely prepared food for Yankee soldiers. As was nearly universal for all slaves, reading was strictly prohibited by nearly all Arkansas slave owners. Adeline Blakely claimed that "when folks can read and write it's going to be found out," demonstrating the level of fear and difficulty involved in educating oneself as a slave (p. 182).

Slavery in Tennessee developed primarily after the formation of the United States. The first slaves entered the area in 1760, but there were only 3,417 slaves in Tennessee in 1790. From 1790 until 1860, slavery hastily expanded in Tennessee. In 1800, there were 13,584 slaves. That number increased to 44,535 slaves in 1810; 80,135 in 1820; 141,603 slaves in 1830; 183,059 slaves in 1840; 239,459 in 1850; and 275,719 by 1860. Western Tennessee opened up in 1818, and afterward slavery expanded a great deal in that region, largely due to the profitability of cotton there. Mountainous eastern Tennessee had some cotton production, largely in river valleys, but it was not very conducive to farming and hence its slave population never rose above 27,660. Middle Tennessee proved to be an excellent area for tobacco farming, and therefore its slave population steadily rose throughout the nineteenth century, culminating with 146,105 slaves in 1860. Western Tennessee rose from just 239 slaves in 1820 to 101,954 in 1860. Just 2,932 of the total 36,844 Tennessee slaveholders, or just under 8 percent, qualified as planters.

As in Arkansas, slaves in Tennessee received equal protection under the law, as the law guaranteed them jury trials. The law required masters to provide adequate food and clothing to their slaves, and very few slaves escaped from Tennessee. No planter aristocracy existed in Tennessee, and for the most part slave conditions were better in Tennessee than in Deep South states. While the interstate slave trade was banned in Tennessee from 1826 to 1855, it was still a transferring state, as 26,000 Tennessee slaves were sold south in the decade preceding the Civil War. The WPA Slave Narratives from Tennessee reflect both the relatively merciful treatment the laws in Tennessee insured slaves and the harsh conditions they faced upon emancipation. In the Slave Narratives, Tennessee slaves universally denounced not receiving anything upon getting their freedom, with many specifically lamenting not receiving the forty-acre land allotment they were promised. Tennessee slave Julia Casey aptly summed up her feelings on how freedom and the ensuing lack of provisions allotted to the slaves affected their outlook on slavery itself. She stated, "In slavery days you didn't hab ter worry 'bout yo clothes en rations but dese days you hab ter worry 'bout eve'thing" (Rawick, vol. 16, part 15, p. 3).

The first slaves brought into the British colonies were delivered to Virginia by Dutch traders in 1619. By 1671, there were 2,000 slaves living in Virginia. However, for as long as white indentured servitude proved to be a more economical way to supply Virginia's labor needs, slavery remained a relatively small enterprise. As the profitability of slavery increased in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, slavery gradually replaced white indentured servitude in the tobacco fields of Virginia. By 1708 some 12,000 Africans lived in Virginia, a number that ballooned to 23,000 by 1715. The 1790 U.S. Census reported 293,427 slaves in Virginia, and forty years later the 1830 Census reported there were 469,757 African slaves there. After 1830 an annual average of 6,000 slaves exited Virginia for the new cotton empire in the southwest, and the growth of slavery in Virginia stagnated. The 1840 Census reported a slight decrease in the population, with 448,987 slaves. The 1850 Census reported 472,528 slaves, and the 1860 Census reported 490,865 slaves, more than any other state.

There existed a tremendous amount of diversity across the spectrum of Virginia's slaveholders, but about half of Virginia's slaves belonged to a slaveholder with fewer than twenty slaves in his possession. Virginia's slave laws were relatively lax, as Virginia did not enact any legislation banning education for slaves and many slaves openly participated in churches. There were Sunday Schools on many plantations in Virginia, including that of Stonewall Jackson. The loyalty of a vast majority of slaves to their masters during the Civil War attested to their status, which was often more like a servant than a slave. Of course, a great deal of variation existed. Even when masters were intolerant of slave religion, slaves often met in secret prayer meetings, with the slave who knew the most about the Bible serving as de facto pastor, according to Virginia slave Minnie Fulkes. Even in Virginia, however, many masters were very strict, including the master of Albert Jones, who beat slaves for being literate. Many slaves maintained substantial family relationships, often marrying (unofficially) by "jumping over the broom," a process described by Virginia slave Minnie Fulkes. This custom is an example of cultural traditions forged by slaves themselves, exhibiting their agency in creating their own cultural institutions.

Slavery in North Carolina was a well-entrenched institution, with Africans arriving as early as the 1680s and the legal sanctioning of the institution occurring in 1715. Governor George Burrington reported that 6,000 slaves lived in North Carolina in 1733, and tax lists demonstrated the existence of 17,370 slaves by 1765. The slave population subsequently skyrocketed, as crops like tobacco, cotton, and rice became increasingly more profitable. The 1790 U.S. Census reported 102,726 slaves; the 1800 Census reported 133,296 slaves; the 1810 Census 168,824; the 1820 Census 205,017; the 1830 Census 245,601; the 1840 Census 245,817; the 1850 Census 288,548; and the 1860 Census 331,059. Considered as a percentage of the total population, the slave population gradually increased from 25.5 percent in 1790 to 33.3 percent in 1860. Despite a significant exodus of slaves from North Carolina to Deep South states such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi between 1820 and 1860, because of the greater need for slave labor there—an average of 2,867 slaves per year exited North Carolina—the slave population continued to rise, due to natural increase. Despite the large numbers of slaves in North Carolina, however, only 3 percent of North Carolina slaveholders, whose proportion of the white population fell from 31 percent in 1790 to 27.7 percent in 1860, qualified as planters.

As in Virginia, in North Carolina the small numbers of slaves on individual plantations and imbalanced sex ratios often forced slaves to marry slaves from other plantations, particularly in the western counties, where the slave population did not significantly increase until cotton production spread there in the decades after 1830. Treatment of slave populations was relatively draconian compared to the other states in the Upper South, as North Carolina prohibited black churches in 1715 and officially banned slave education in 1830. Despite the legal restriction on slave religion, many slaves still actively practiced religion, either on their own or at their respective master's church. Baptists and Methodists claimed the largest contingencies of black members in antebellum North Carolina. Control of the slave masses was the key aim of the masters' policies; education was banned and religion was used to instruct slaves to obey their masters, whether they were benevolent or not. For example, North Carolina slave Elias Thomas remembered "pretty good" food, fishing during leisure time, and "laughing, working, and singing" songs like "Crossing over Jordan" and "Bound for the Promised Land" with poor white neighbors. He even recalled attending Methodist and Presbyterian churches with whites, but "no books were allowed to slaves in slavery time" (Hurmence, ed. 1984, pp. 9-13). Hannah Crasson claimed that slaves received ample food, including collards, peas, corn bread, milk, and rice, and wore clothes woven by her mother and grandmother. Yet despite attending church with whites and dances with slaves from other plantations and enjoying holidays off from work, "You better not be found trying to learn to read" (p. 18). On the other hand, Jacob Manson remembered a harsh owner, who issued slaves poor clothing and served food in troughs. Allowing the slaves to attend church only so that they could be instructed to be obedient, that master enforced a strict policy forbidding slaves from reading and possessing books. According to Manson, the churches instructed them to "obey our marsters and be obedient at all times" (pp. 40-41).


Ballagh, James Curtis. A History of Slavery in Virginia. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1902.

Bassett, J. S. "The Religious Conditions of Slavery in North Carolina." The News & and Observer, December 17, 1899.

Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas, 1800–1860: Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.

Hurmence, Belinda, ed. My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk about Slavery: Twenty-One Histories of Former North Carolina Slaves. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1984.

Lamon, Lester C. Blacks in Tennessee, 1791–1970. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

Mooney, Chase C. Slavery in Tennessee. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1957.

Patterson, Caleb Perry. The Negro in Tennessee, 1790–1865. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1922.

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

Taylor, Orville W. Negro Slavery in Arkansas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1958.

Taylor, Rosser Howard. Slaveholding in North Carolina: An Economic View. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1926.

                                          John French


Slavery in the Upper South (AR, NC, TN, VA)