By Courtney Suciu
Despite having been a wide-spread practice in the American South, there has been limited scholarship into the topic of slave hiring, other than how it functioned within the economics of slavery.
Increasingly throughout the 19th century, developing new markets created demand for skilled workers. This proved to be a lucrative opportunity for owners who had a surplus of slaves, and a cost-effective solution to business managers who were short on workers. But what did slave hiring mean for those who were enslaved?
Taking a deeper look into this practice, we dispel the myth of American slavery as a monolithic system with rigidly defined roles of “slaves” and “masters.” Instead, we discover the unique social, economic and personal influences that shaped the experiences of enslaved people – and which continue to cast a shadow over our culture.
“At first glance, slave hiring would seem to have bolstered the system of slavery, and in many ways it did,” Jonathan D. Martin explained in the introduction to his book, Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the South1. “For one thing, hiring ushered many more white Southerners into the slaveholding ranks than would have been possible if the costly slave pens had been the only place to acquire slave labor.”
In other words, it wasn’t just wealthy plantation owners who were able to exploit and profit from slavery. With slave hiring, the system became more visible and beneficial to a wider number of white Southerners and as a result, slavery became more deeply imbedded in the social infrastructure.
However, slave hiring added another dimension of complexity in the relationship dynamics of slavery. Martin explained, “Unlike in slave sales, where total rights to property and mastery were transferred between white Southerners, in hiring arrangements those rights were divided into separate spheres with awkward temporal boundaries.”
“Owners and hirers jockeyed to assert their rights of mastery and property over the same slaves because those rights were the wellspring of prosperity and prominence in the Old South,” he continued, adding that occasionally, enslaved people were able take advantage of these tensions:
The jockeying did not go unnoticed, for between the two principals were the hired slaves themselves, who understood best that a slave with two masters was a contradiction neither law nor custom could readily accommodate. Such knowledge opened up for them frequent opportunities to shape their work and family lives, to bring white people into conflict with each other, and to destabilize the system that trapped them.
Slave hiring encouraged some slave masters (whether they were owners or hirers) to consider enslaved people in terms of their investment value and “that vantage point sometimes obscured the absolute necessity of unabated and complete domination over slaves. Owners wanted quick profits, and these were more easily secured when slaves were amenable to hiring transactions.”
Rule number one of labor relations is that disgruntled workers can be a detriment to productivity, and many masters who hired or hired out enslaved people recognized this. As a result, hired slaves might be granted certain advantages and autonomy that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to them.
For these reasons, the practice of slave hiring could potentially upset what more traditional slaveholders considered the natural order in which it was the duty of white men to have absolute – and absolutely brutal – authority over the people they enslaved.
The institution of slavery endured for centuries in the American South partially because enslaved people were made to be entirely dependent on their masters. They had no choice in how they were clothed, fed or sheltered; and they were prevented from reading, writing or learning trade skills which could empower them to resist or leverage their value as laborers.
“One of the most important justifications for slavery proposed by Southern apologists was that a slave benefitted from the protection and care of his white master,” wrote Jennifer Oast in her book Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-18602.
She explained that this paternalist ideology “posited that slavery was the natural state of people of African descent, that slaves were better off in slavery than they would be as free individuals.”
However, while paternalism toward enslaved people persisted in the decades leading up to the Civil War, there was a slight shift in the attitude as labor needs changed.
In 19th century Virginia, iron works, grain production, coal and gold mining and tobacco factories boomed, creating a demand for skilled workers. Slave hiring proved to be an economical and efficient way for these businesses to quickly fill positions and by the middle of the century, they “had to compete to engage enough slave workers each year,” Oast explained.
In some cases, this gave enslaved workers the opportunity to leverage their value as laborers and assert their autonomy. Where there was a high demand for workers, skilled slaves were often able to influence hiring decisions, and according to Oast, “sometimes urban slaves were even permitted to make their own hiring arrangements without the involvement of their owners, a practice called self-hire."
To appeal to these workers, hirers of slaves would pay cash bonuses directly to them for labor performed beyond assigned duties and allow them free time outside of work hours. In addition, Oast described how rather than provide room, board and clothing to their enslaved workers, many tobacco manufacturers instead gave them a stipend, allowing them to make their own purchasing decisions, and for some, opt to live in communities among free Blacks.
Such forms of compensation gave enslaved workers a degree of independence and economic power that undermined some of the paternalistic social structure of slavery.
In his dissertation Slaves for Rent: Slave Hiring in Virginia3, John Joseph Zaborney thoroughly examined “the question of whether slave hiring presented slaves with opportunities to exercise greater control over their lives than their non-hired counterparts.”
Of course, while certain advantages were possible for some, the lived reality of hired slaves differed greatly depending on various factors.
For example, enslaved women were most often hired for domestic chores and field labor – occupations which required little training or skill, which meant they were more easily replaced and had less bargaining power as workers. In addition, pregnant enslaved women and the enslaved mothers of very young children were particularly vulnerable to the precarious and uncertain conditions of where they might be placed.
“Many pregnant slave women gave birth at their hirers’ residences,” according to Zaborney, and they “never knew what sort of medical care awaited them…Some whites believed that slave women required less attention in childbirth than white women because, they reasoned, regular exercise in the fields had conditioned women for the task.”
Family bonds were also impossible to maintain for slaves who were hired out. One of the most devastating consequences for enslaved women and men was the possibility of “separation of both family members – children from parents, parents from partners– and friends from one another, each year,” Zaborney wrote.
In situations where they wielded any influence, “hired slaves exerted their best efforts to be hired out in the vicinity of slaves they knew in order to cushion the blow of separation,” he explained. However, “rural slaveholders frequently hired slaves out at auction, which meant that many had little hope of being hired out in the vicinity of friends or relatives.”
So, what does research into the practice of slave hiring reveal to us? Most importantly, it dispels the narrative of slavery in the antebellum South as a static, monolithic institution with set rules and customs. Rather, each person held in bondage was forced to negotiate dynamic and unique challenges.
By examining these various influences and the different modes in which slavery was practiced, we can gain deeper insight into the individual experiences of the human beings it affected – and the shadow it continues to cast over American culture.
For further research
Primary sources, including financial documents, business records, personal correspondence and first-person narratives can reveal intimate details, observations and facts related to the various factors that influenced the lives of enslaved people in the United States.
For more information or to request a free trial, click on the product links below.
From the South Life, Slavery and the Civil War collection:
New Slavery in Antebellum Southern Industries (1700-1896) Beyond the traditional image of slaves as forced laborers for plantations, these manuscript collections document the breadth and diversity of the extensive practice of slave hiring by which slaves, particularly those with specialized occupational skills, were contracted to other slave owners or to business owners to work in mines, manufacturing, and other Southern industries. These records document economic diversification and speculation among some members of the slave-owning class and depict aspects of the lives of enslaved persons that are comparatively overlooked.
See related modules and additional History Vault collections:
Slavery and the Law (1775-1867)
Southern Life and African American History, 1775-1915, Plantations Records, Part 1
Southern Life and African American History, 1775-1915, Plantation Records, Part 2
Burton, A. L. (2006). Women's Slave Narratives.
Fulton, M. D. S., & Pitts, R. H. (Eds.). (2009). Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts: Three African American Women's Oral Slave Narratives.
Northup, S., Douglass, F., Jacobs, H., & Truth, S. (2017). Voices of Freedom: Four Classic Slave Narratives.
Taylor, Y. (Ed.). (1999). I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives.
Yetman, N. R. (Ed.). (1999). Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives.
James, D. (Director), & James, D., & Steinman, H. (Producers). (2005). Slavery and the Making of America, Episode 1: The Downward Spiral [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service.
Pellett, G. (Director), & Pellett, G. (Producer). (2005). Slavery and the Making of America, Episode 2: Liberty in the Air [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service.
Gazit, C. (Director), & Gazit, C., & Grant, L. (Producers). (2005). Slavery and the Making of America, Episode 3: Seeds of Destruction [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service.
Farrell, L. D. (Director), & Farrell, L. D., & Dionne, A. (Producers). (2005). Slavery and the Making of America, Episode 4: The Challenge of Freedom [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service.
Also, view the Black History video playlist, including selections from The Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property and Slavery and the Making of America.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu