In historical slave societies, what jobs were left over for poor free laborers?

And what laws or institutions sprang up to deal with them?

Slaves have the effect of depressing wages for poor workers. If this has been a universal, I'm curious whether slave-owning cultures have found ways to keep adequate jobs available for the free working class, or otherwise compensate them to avoid social unrest. (For example, like the Roman cura annonae.) And regardless of state intervention, is there an identifiable trend in what jobs were left over?

I'm most interested in classical and medieval slave-owning civilizations in the Mediterranean and Near East - apart from Rome, as it was well covered in the question linked above, and in this one as well.

I think this is an appropriate scope for a question about world historical trends, as I'm asking about a very specific effect of slavery rather than the whole institution, an effect that has presumably been more prominent in some societies than others, which could help further narrow it further. But if you think it's still too broad please indicate in the comments and I'll edit the question if I see a consensus. Thanks.

The phrase "left over" implies slaves doing most of the work. While seemingly intuitive, it is in actuality quite implausible. For most of history in farming based civilisations, the vast majority of humans were engaged in cultivation. Percentage wise this is far higher than the proportion of slaves, even in the most heavily enslaved populations. Thus, while certain professions may become dominated by slaves in some places, farming always relied on free labour.

In fact, the (admittedly arbitrary) standard formulated by Sir Moses Finley uses 20% as the cut off for defining a slave society. By this metric, there are only two non-colonial examples: Roman Italy and Ancient Athens. Hence, although the question ruled it out, I will cite Rome as an example why agricultural labour demand exceeded the supply of enslaved labour.

In Rome, even by the mid Republic,

slaves were relatively scarce at Rome; the working classes in the city were still largely free natives, the farms were usually owned in small plots by working farmers, and the few slaves on them were still treated… as members of the household.

Frank, Tenney. Life and literature in the Roman Republic. Vol. 7. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Roman slavery expanded as Rome expanded around the Mediterranean. Slaves became a majority of the domestic and urban work forces, as well as a significant component of the rural labour in massive aristocratic estates. Yet even at the peak of Roman slavery during the Empire, free peasantry persisted in the countryside.

[I]t is not true that Roman society was based on slavery. The system of large estates cultivated by slave gangs was limited to certain regions such as southern Italy and Sicily. Elsewhere, estates were worked by sharecroppers and hired laborers as well as slaves; in some provinces, such as Egypt, rural slavery was virtually unknown.

Veyne, Paul. The Roman Empire. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Veyne goes on to note that slaves, forming an estimated 25% of the Italian labour force, supplemented free workers, but did not replace them. Hired farm hands, sharecroppers and other free tenants remained a large majority of the rural labour pool, even within Italy, where slavery was much more extensive than the rest of the Roman Empire.

The situation in Ancient Greece was similar to pre-Imperial Rome. Most citizens in most city states were free farmers, although wealthier families may have one or two slaves to help work on their farms. Sparta infamously subjugated the helots, but they were more like serfs than slaves. Spartan society further contained the perioeci, who were non-citzens and yet free.

[The perioeci] enjoyed personal freedom and local autonomy, but had no political rights in Sparta. Many of them were farmers. After Spartan male citizens made themselves an elite whose sole legitimate occupation was fighting, the perioeci filled this vacuum by becoming craftsmen and traders… It appears that the helots were sharecroppers, who gave up half of their crops. This form of payment constituted an easier and more flexible burden than fixed taxes.

Roisman, Joseph. Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander: the evidence. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Ancient Athens, the only other "genuine" slave society of antiquity, is a bit of a an exception. Here the picture is complicated by wide disagreements over how many slaves were there in Athens. Classical sources claim a slave population of 400,000, which is widely dismissed by modern scholars, but if true would seem to imply there were no possible jobs for free lower class Athenians. This angle is sometimes held when Athens is described as an aristocracy of 20,000 citizens supported by 400,000 slaves - that is to say, all poor people were slaves.

More credible modern estimates vary wildly, but all generally puts the slave population at about 1/5 to 1/3 of the total Athenian population.

A. H. M. Jones… calculated that there were about 20,000 slaves in a total population of circa 144,000. Other estimates for the same period are cited by Victor Ehrenberg. One of them, attribtued to A. W. Gomme, gives a total population of 258,000, including 104,000 slaves. Another estimates the population at between 140,000 and 190,000, including between 30,000 and 60,000 slaves. William Westermann concluded that the slaves of Attitca, during the early part of the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 B.C., numbered from 60,000 to 80,000 or about a third or possibly a fourt of the population.

Sellin, J. Thorsten. Slavery and the Penal System. Quid Pro Books, 2016.

Assuming they are correct, this leaves plenty of work opportunity for free Athenians labourers. This is indirectly verified by the fact that Athens boasted a large metics population, free immigrants from elsewhere in Greece who had moved to Athens for the economic opportunities present there. This could not have happened if slaves saturated the labour market.

It should be pointed out that slaves were not without costs. Although they were often cruelly exploited, slaves do require certain levels of upkeep, and represent a non-trivial up front investment with a significant risk of early death. Thus, while slaves diminish the value of free workers, an abundance of free workers likewise reduce the attractiveness of enslaved labour. Outside of temporary supply side shocks (e.g. a recent victorious war) or demographic shocks, this functioned as a sort of self-corrective market mechanism that balances labour costs.

As a final note, in slave societies, truly desperate people often could sell themselves into slavery, or be enslaved for their debt.

As a supplement to Semaphore's excellent answer dealing with ancient slavery thought I'd add one data point from US history…

I remember taking a tour of New Orleans and hearing that the canals were dug by Irish immigrants rather than slaves as the slaves were too valuable to risk in such harsh conditions.

A bit of googling has turned up some support for this:

The builders of the city's New Basin Canal expressed a preference for Irish over slave labor for the reason that a dead Irishman could be replaced in minutes at no cost, while a dead slave resulted in the loss of more than one thousand dollars.

And a bit more on Wikipedia:

Significant emigration from Ireland to the United States occurred during the period 1810 - 1850, with a particularly large wave to New Orleans during the decade of the 1830s. The point of debarkation was Adele Street, where many immigrants, penniless, took up residence in simple cottages, providing the beginnings of today's shotgun houses.[7] These Irish immigrants arrived primarily to dig the New Basin Canal,[6] and were generally regarded as expendable labor.[7]

White Poverty and the Legacy of Slavery in the US South

While the moonlight-and-magnolias myth of the Old South continues to persist, the region’s history actually is much more sinister and grim – even for many white Southerners. Recently scholars have revealed the brutal, bloody realities of slavery in the late-antebellum Deep South. Yet to truly understand the gross inequalities endemic to slave societies, it is also important to acknowledge what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor.

With the rising global demand for cotton, and thus, slaves, in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. These landless poor whites simply could not compete – for jobs or living wages – with profitable slave labor. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences as a result of living in a slave society. These “masterless” men and women threatened the existing Southern hierarchy and ultimately helped push Southern slaveholders toward secession and civil war.

By recognizing that the lives of poor whites and blacks followed similar trajectories during the mid-nineteenth century, the far-reaching impact of slavery is ultimately revealed. Traveling through the South just a couple of years prior to the Civil War, one northerner plainly stated that the rather pitiful status of the South’s poor whites was a blight upon the entire country. A direct result of slavery, non-slaveholders’ “poverty, ignorance, and debasement, are not merely sectional” problems, he wrote, but “constitute a national calamity, an element of impoverishment, a running sore in the body-politic. The whole Union is weakened by it.”

A century and a half later a team of economists revealed similar sentiments. Finding that the “historical use of slavery is significantly correlated with current levels of inequality,” their research convincingly demonstrated that even today slavery’s legacy is undeniably visible in the economic circumstances – and thus the material well-being – of all non-elite southerners, both black and white. While the consequences were certainly far more severe and sustained for black Americans, it is important to recognize that the economic repercussions of slavery also greatly affected lower-class whites.

Indeed, acknowledging class conflict among whites also helps dispel several racist tenets and other maddeningly enduring myths concerning Southern history:

1. The Racist Stereotype: The most racist white Americans have long branded African Americans as lazy, ignorant, immoral, and/or criminal – the exact same words that upper and middling class whites once used to describe impoverished whites in the Deep South. Indeed, one scholar wrote, poor whites were generally characterized by “laziness, carelessness, unreliability, lack of foresight and ambition, habitual failure and general incompetency.” [1]

Kept uneducated and mostly illiterate, poor whites had few chances to rise out of poverty. Historian James Ford Rhodes compared the South’s poor whites to northern laborers, concluding that “they were in material things abjectly poor intellectually they were utterly ignorant morally their condition was one of groveling baseness.”[2] Accused of being sexually promiscuous, and prone to alcoholism, gambling, and violently fighting, poor whites served as the Old South’s social pariahs. Following emancipation, white racists simply used the same stereotypes – stereotypes ultimately stemming from dire poverty – to condemn and humiliate newly freed African Americans.

2. The “Black” Criminal: While criminality would become almost exclusively associated with African Americans during and after Reconstruction, the overwhelming majority of inmates in the antebellum Deep South’s prisons and jails were poor whites. During the 1840s and 1850s, some particularly disillusioned poor whites chose to drop out of the workforce altogether, preferring to live on the fringes of society. As Governor James Henry Hammond reported to the South Carolina Institute, many poor whites obtained “a precarious subsistence by occasional jobs, by hunting, by fishing, by plundering fields or folds, and too often by what is in its effects far worse—trading with slaves, and seducing them to plunder for their benefit.”[3]

Shut out of the formal economy, poor whites, free blacks, and the enslaved created their own informal, underground economy: the original “black market.” This illicit trading, coupled with the high numbers of young, property-less white men drifting from county to county in search of work, caused slaveholders to begin selectively enforcing behavioral laws, especially in places with both high slave populations and recent influxes of transient whites. By insisting that poor whites be arrested for vagrancy, buying liquor on Sunday, or engaging in lewd behavior, slaveholders incarcerated non-slaveholders whenever they needed to reinforce subordination to their authority.

But emancipation ultimately brought an end to the high rates of incarceration for poor whites who had threatened the stability of slavery. Instead, African Americans became the primary targets of the southern legal system, but their punishments were much more extreme and vicious than they ever had been for poor whites. The end of slavery, therefore, heralded many new freedoms for lower class white southerners, leaving black Americans to occupy poor whites’ former place at the bottom of “free” society.

3. The Myth of White Unity over Slavery (or, The “Proud” Confederate Myth): Poor whites supported slaveholder policies, and even fought for the Confederacy, the argument goes, because they greatly admired slaveholders and aspired to own slaves themselves. While there was certainly near-universal consensus among Southern whites regarding racism, support for slavery varied significantly, especially among members of lower economic classes. If historians would heed the work of recent economists regarding the valuation and cost of slaves, they surely would come to accept that most poor whites recognized the near-impossibility of eventually owning slaves.[4]

To be sure, class tensions between white southerners ultimately added to the causes of the Civil War. Angered by their lack of job prospects, poor white laborers – whose ranks were rapidly increasing in southern cities due to immigration – were becoming more and more militant in the decades leading up to secession. They began forming “associations,” or labor unions, and demanded freedom from competition with slaves and free blacks, whose wages always undercut their own. Vocal leaders of these groups even threatened to stop supporting slavery if something was not done to help raise their wages. Planters and pro-slavery men were already strenuously defending the peculiar institution from attacks by northern abolitionists and by slaves themselves. When poor whites created a three-front battleground, slaveholders had few viable alternatives other than secession to protect their main source of wealth and revenue.

Thus, people waving Confederate flags and glorifying the Confederate cause today are, in many cases, descendants of Southerners who were either Unionists or were anti-Confederates – they simply wanted to be left alone. They certainly had no desire to fight for the property of the rich slave-lords. And if their ancestors were soldiers, often their forefathers were conscripted or forced to fight. Many of these men eventually deserted the Army and returned home, hiding out for the duration of the war, and hastening the Confederacy’s demise.

My new book Masterless Men aims to challenge some of these remaining fictions by analyzing class alongside race. Indeed, these grave inequities – the direct result of the depravities of slavery – still enduringly plague the region. The South remains the poorest section of the nation the Deep South, an area that had the highest rates of slavery, is poorer still. The indelible stain of slavery, it seems, not only serves as a constant reminder of a painful past, but it also unmercifully continues to dictate the future. As Charles Darwin so eloquently concluded, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Keri Leigh Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research focuses on race and class in U.S. history. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She has also co-edited a book on southern labor history with Matthew Hild (Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, forthcoming), and is currently conducting research for two additional books. One is on radical black resistance during the Reconstruction era, while the second examines the changing role of law enforcement in the mid-nineteenth century South. It will ultimately link the rise of professional police forces in the Deep South to the end of slavery.


[1] A.N.J. Den Hollander, “The Tradition of ‘Poor Whites,’” in W.T. Couch, ed., Culture in the South (Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 1935), 414.

[2] James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896, Vol. 1, 1850-1854, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1920), 344, Web.

In historical slave societies, what jobs were left over for poor free laborers? - History

A Brief History of African Americans in West Virginia

Compiled by the West Virginia State Archives

In 1619, a Dutch trader brought the first 20 African Americans to the colony of Virginia to be used as slaves. Each year, more and more slaves arrived to serve the growing colonial population. By 1700, the settlement of eastern Virginia and its slave population had grown immeasurably. To keep slaves from revolting against the system, owners became increasingly brutal.

Wealthier pioneers who were expanding their landholdings occasionally brought slaves into western Virginia. Although most western Virginians were engaged in farming and livestock operations too small to support slaves, parts of the region used slave labor. The South Branch, Greenbrier, Monongahela, and Kanawha valleys consisted of larger farms of tobacco and other cash crops which used slaves. In 1860, there were 490,308 slaves (approximately 30 percent of the total population) in eastern Virginia belong to 48,308 slaveholders, averaging over ten slaves per owner. In western Virginia (including Eastern Panhandle counties), 18,451 slaves (4 percent of the total population) belonged to 3,820 slaveholders, or less than 6 slaves per owner. It is important to note that in both regions most slaveholders owned fewer than five slaves. Substantial free black populations also developed in areas where slavery was common. In 1732, the Johnson family crossed the Potomac, and became the first family of "free blacks" to settle in Jefferson County.

By 1800, laws already forbid teaching slaves to read or write. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Virginia General Assembly enacted measures prohibiting the education of the increasing free black population. Slaves were forbidden to hold their own church meetings, but they were instructed by white ministers who emphasized the slaves' Christian duty to be loyal to their masters. Secret religious ceremonies became a centerpoint of slave society and today, churches remain among the strongest bonds of black communities.

Most slaves from present-day West Virginia lived in the Eastern Panhandle counties, but a substantial slave population existed in the Kanawha Valley. Due to the decline of plantation agriculture in the 1800s, slavery was no longer as profitable in the east and slaves were frequently hired out or sold. The salt industry was driven by poor white transients and slave labor, often leased from eastern Virginia. This was the first significant introduction of slavery into western Virginia because salt was the first major industry to develop. In fact, by the 1800s, slave labor was rarely used in areas that did not rely heavily upon industry. Similarly, industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s would later bring many transient African Americans into the state.

Of the slaves in the Kanawha Valley, half were owned or hired by salt firms. Forty percent of these slaves were used to mine coal for the salt works because they could be hired from their owners for much lower wages than white laborers demanded. These slaves were usually leased and insured rather than bought due to the risk of death or injury in the coal mines.

The Abolitionist Movement

The failure of slavery to become as vital and profitable to the western Virginia economy led many to the opinion that the existence of slavery actually harmed the economy and discouraged immigrants from settling in the region. In 1831, this issue was brought to the forefront following Nat Turner's raid, in which sixty-one whites were killed in Southhampton County, Virginia. That same year, William Lloyd Garrison first printed his newspaper, The Liberator, marking the beginning of an organized national movement to end slavery, called abolitionism.

Some abolitionists disapproved of slavery on a moral basis. Others, including prominent western Virginia political leaders, supported abolitionism because they felt slaves were performing jobs which white laborers should be paid to do. Washington College President Henry Ruffner, the son of Kanawha Valley salt industry pioneer David Ruffner and a slaveholder himself, wanted to end slavery in trans-Allegheny Virginia in order to provide more paying jobs for white workers. He outlined this theory in an address delivered to the Franklin Society in Lexington, Virginia, in 1847. His speech, later printed in pamphlets and distributed nationally, stated that slavery kept white laborers from moving into the Kanawha Valley. To prove this theory, Massachusetts abolitionist Eli Thayer established an industrial town at Ceredo in Wayne County, beginning in 1857. The laborers, white New England emigrants, were all paid for their work. The experiment failed when some of the investors were unable to contribute and a national economic depression restricted the availability of additional money.

The nation's most famous abolitionist came to western Virginia in 1859. John Brown and a group of raiders wanted to establish a colony for runaway slaves in the mountains of western Maryland as an outpost for those escaping from the South. Brown needed a large supply of weapons to secure such a colony. On October 16, 1859, he and his men seized the U.S. armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry. When area slaves did not revolt against their masters as Brown had hoped, the plan fell apart. The raiders were trapped in a small engine house and captured two days later by U.S. Marines under Col. Robert E. Lee. Ironically, the first casualty of the raid was a free black baggage handler, Heyward Shepherd, who was shot when he confronted the raiders. Brown was hanged for treason in Charles Town on December 2, after declaring slavery would not be abolished without great bloodshed.

The Civil War, Statehood, and the End of Slavery

The Civil War and the secession of Virginia from the Union allowed pro-union western Virginians the opportunity to form their own state. First, they created a government of Virginia loyal to the United States, called the Restored, or Reorganized, Government of Virginia. The state of West Virginia came into existence on June 20, 1863, only after the heated debate concerning the issue of slavery was resolved.

Slavery was the most controversial subject in the debate about the new state constitution. Delegate Gordon Battelle proposed the gradual emancipation of slaves already in the state and freedom to all children born to slaves after July 4, 1865. Although some delegates opposed Battelle's position, they knew they could not create a pro-slavery document and gain approval for statehood from Congress. Following much debate and compromise, the provision written into the constitution banned the introduction of slaves or free African Americans into the state of West Virginia, but it did not address the issue of immediate or gradual emancipation.

When Congress addressed the West Virginia statehood bill, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner demanded an emancipation clause to prevent the creation of another slave state. Restored Government Senator John S. Carlile wanted a statewide election to decide the issue. Finally, a compromise between Restored Government Senator Waitman T. Willey and Committee on Territories Chairman Benjamin Wade of Ohio determined that all children born to slaves after July 4, 1863, would be free, while slaves under the age of ten would be freed at the age of twenty-one and those between ten and twenty-one years of age would gain their freedom at the age of twenty-five. The Willey Amendment prohibited some slavery but did not end the ownership of slaves entirely. Therefore, West Virginia became the last slave state to enter the union. In February 1865, Governor Arthur I. Boreman signed an act officially freeing all slaves.

When the Civil War ended, West Virginia pro-union Republicans inflicted harsh penalties on residents who had been loyal to the Confederacy. Among other restrictions, former Confederates were forbidden from voting or holding public office. In response, the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and other secret organizations advertised in newspapers to gain members during the late 1860s. The societies commonly directed their vengeance at African Americans, who were receiving voting rights at the same time former Confederates were losing their rights.

In the 1868 election for governor, Republican William E. Stevenson defeated Democrat Johnson N. Camden by only a narrow margin, indicating the state's voters were becoming displeased with the Radical Republican policies. On March 23, 1869, the legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting the right to vote to African-American men. Even the Radical Republican legislature was split over the Fifteenth Amendment and it passed by narrow margins. Racist citizens could not understand why over 2,800 African Americans had the right to vote while an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 white residents did not. In December 1869, violence broke out between white and African-American residents of Malden in Kanawha County.

In 1870, a Democrat, John J. Jacob, was elected governor. The following year, a Democratic legislature adopted the Flick Amendment, granting former Confederates the right to vote. They also demanded the re-writing of the state constitution, which discriminated against former Confederates. Like the original constitution, the 1872 constitution forbid the teaching of white and black students in the same school. Vengeful Democrats enacted numerous laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which discriminated against African Americans. The courts became increasingly tolerant of the brutal murders, or lynchings, of blacks. Democrats remained in power until almost 1900.

The new state of West Virginia placed a greater emphasis on funding white schools than it did black schools. The African- American community took it upon itself to create the first schools in the state for blacks. In 1862, a year before the state's creation, a black school was opened in Parkersburg. In 1866, the state agreed to take over the Sumner School, making it the first publicly financed black school in the entire South. Black schools sprang up in other towns, including Charleston, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Grafton, Keyser, Lewisburg, Malden, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Piedmont, Point Pleasant, Ronceverte, Shepherdstown, Union, Weston, Wheeling, and White Sulphur Springs. There was a growing need for individuals to teach the increasing number of black students. Storer College, established at Harpers Ferry in 1867, was comprised of two components, a grammar school and a normal school for the training of teachers. In the 1890s, the state created two additional black normal schools, West Virginia Colored Institute (later West Virginia State College) and Bluefield Colored Institute (later Bluefield State College).

Population Growth

Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the late 1860s and early 1870s brought many African-American laborers into southern West Virginia. An estimated 1,000 blacks helped dig the C&O tunnel at Talcott in present-day Summers County. One of these laborers was supposedly John Henry, remembered in folk tradition. New steam-powered machines were considered by many to be more efficient than human labor. Legend has it John Henry defeated one of these machines in a digging competition at the Big Bend Tunnel at Talcott.

The C&O railroad accelerated the development of southern West Virginia's coal industry in the 1870s, creating more jobs and attracting more blacks to the state. The Norfolk and Western Railroad did the same for the southwestern part of the state. McDowell County experienced an influx of migrant laborers, increasing its black population from 0.1 percent in 1880 to 30.7 percent in 1910. During the same time, the black population of the entire state increased from 17,000 in 1870, to 64,100 in 1910, and reached a high of nearly 115,000 in 1930.

The Progressive Movement

By 1900, voters had elected a state government controlled by Progressive Republicans, who sought to reform the way government took care of its people. They established a number of public institutions to serve the growing black population. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the legislature created an orphanage, a home for the aged and infirmed, a tuberculosis sanitarium, industrial homes for boys and girls, a deaf and blind school, and an insane asylum, all for African Americans. Previously, blacks had been forced to travel to other states to receive these services despite the fact the same services were available in West Virginia for whites.

The source of employment for many African Americans, the coal industry, suffered severe economic problems following World War I. It received another blow during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many blacks lost their jobs and left the state. Additional jobs were lost as the coal industry replaced miners with machines at an increasing rate. Between 1930 and 1980, the number of black coal miners fell from over 20,000 to less than 1,500.


The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education forced West Virginia to integrate its public schools and institutions. Desegregation in some regions proceeded quickly and peacefully while it took a number of lawsuits to integrate the schools of southern West Virginia. The school systems of Hampshire, Hardy, and Jefferson counties were the last with black students to desegregate. While integration had many positive effects, it also eliminated a significant element of black society. African-American schools had given blacks a sense of identity in their communities. After the Brown decision, many African Americans chose to keep their children in all-black schools, some of which remained open until the late 1960s.

The integration of schools and state-operated institutions sparked a national civil rights movement to desegregate the rest of society. In 1958, the West Virginia's first chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was formed in Charleston and began boycotts of the Woolworth, Kresge, and Newberry five-and-ten-cent stores which refused to serve African Americans at their lunch counters. The following month, the stores integrated. CORE targeted other cities, including Bluefield and Huntington. Boycotts led to the integration of restaurants, department stores, and movie theaters, although some businesses remained segregated until the late 1960s. In 1961, 50 percent of restaurants, 70 percent of hotels and motels, and 85 percent of pools in the state still discriminated against African Americans.

West Virginia's coal industry experienced a rebirth during the national energy crisis of the early 1970s and employment increased. However, the industry suffered through a severe recession beginning in the late seventies and unemployment reached all-time highs. Blacks again left the state in dramatic numbers. Today, African Americans represent just over 3 percent of West Virginia's total population.

Historical Background on Antislavery and Women’s Rights 1830-1845

Background Notes: An overview of how the campaigns for abolitionism and woman’s rights emerged together and affected each other.

In the years before the Civil War the Northern United States abounded with movements for social change. Reformers and reform organizations created new institutions such as prisons, asylums and orphanages, sought to transform the public schools, to eradicate social ills such as prostitution and drunkenness in order to strengthen family life, and to reform the system of support for the poor. Many of these reform agendas have modern counterparts in attempts to redefine welfare, attack drug addiction and spousal abuse, and contain crime. But the two most controversial reform movements, and the ones which struck deepest at the foundations of American society, were the campaigns for the abolition of slavery and the equality of women.

These documents focus on New England in the 1830s and 40s and tell the story of how the campaigns for abolitionism and woman’s rights emerged together and affected each other. They also show how these movements were intertwined with New Englanders’ everyday lives. They provide a way to develop a historical perspective on two issues that Americans continue to debate and struggle with—racial justice and the equality of the sexes.

The great majority of Americans who joined the antislavery and woman’s rights causes in the 1830s—in many cases the same individuals—came from the countryside and towns of the North, usually from deeply religious, reform-oriented families. William Lloyd Garrison, a Massachusetts printer and editor, published the first issue of The Liberator which was to be the primary vehicle in New England for radical and militant abolitionism and later for woman’s rights. The following year he organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society dedicated to securing the immediate abolition of slavery. In 1838, the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed to unify abolitionists from the West, New York, and New England.

Many Northerners, and indeed many Southerners too, had long believed that colonization—the return of the freed slaves to their ancestral homeland of Africa—would be the solution to the persistent problem of American slavery. Garrison himself had begun as a believer in colonization. But in the early 1830s the most committed opponents of slavery came to reject colonization as unjust, racist, and impractical. (On this score the abolitionists appear to have been completely correct it is hard to imagine today how close to 2 million freed slaves could have been re-settled across the Atlantic, given the resources available.)

Because of their calls for immediate emancipation and an end to racial prejudice, abolitionists were the object of a great deal of criticism, ridicule, and even violence. In the 1830s and 40s, anti-abolitionist and anti-black riots were the most common kinds of mob disorder in American cities. But most of the anti-abolitionist mobs were not made up of young rowdies from lower-class neighborhoods. They were well-organized groups of respectable, middle-class citizens who believed that abolitionism threatened their communities and businesses.

In the early 1830s, becoming an active abolitionist required courage. Many had to face physical danger at the hand of a mob, but many more had to endure the disapproval of family and friends or the ridicule of neighbors. All of them shared a motivating vision of slavery as a moral evil that could not be justified. Most, probably, were moved to action by the same powerful religious commitments that impelled others to support the causes of temperance, Christian missions, and non-violence. Although committed to the cause of freedom for African-Americans, many of the abolitionists were unable to free themselves completely from the racial prejudice so ingrained in American society and receive blacks socially on equal terms.

In the late 1830s and into the 40s, the antislavery ranks grew. The cause of colonization lost supporters, abolitionism became linked with other reform movements, and, as public opinion at the North became less tolerant of slavery and of the South’s tactics in its defense, anti-abolition violence greatly decreased. Antislavery became a safer and more popular cause, and won the support of many people not originally responsive to its claims. But the unity of the early movement was shattered. With growth came disagreement over both strategy and values. By 1840, organized antislavery was split into two main factions. William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters were the radical abolitionists. They insisted that antislavery was a strictly moral and religious movement, a crusade to arouse the conscience of the nation. For them, political action was a threat to the moral purity of the cause. They also favored woman’s rights and believed that women should have a significant role in antislavery work. In opposition to the Garrisonians was a group of more moderate political abolitionists. They also sought immediate emancipation but believed that working through the political system and trying to elect antislavery candidates were the most effective ways to bring it about. They also held more traditional views about the role of women in public life, arguing that “the woman question” frightened off many people who would otherwise support antislavery.

At the 1840 national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society, these disagreements came to a head. When the radical majority at the convention supported the nomination of a woman abolitionist, Abigail Kelley, to serve on the convention’s business committee, the more conservative political abolitionists walked out. They withdrew to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which explicitly excluded women from membership.

The split within the antislavery movement reflected a widening gap between the radicals’ idealism and refusal to compromise, and the moderates’ interest in practical politics and achievable results. But it began with the “woman question,” and antislavery played an important part in the development of the women’s movement, primarily through its impact on individual women who began as abolitionists and then became increasingly active on behalf of woman’s rights.

Women had been involved in the antislavery movement from its beginning. Following the typical patterns of early-nineteenth century social life, they participated primarily as organizers and members of separate female antislavery societies, beginning in Philadelphia (1833), Boston (1833), and New York (1836), spreading to other cities like Providence, RI, and Portland, Maine, and quickly spreading through the countryside. By the late 1830s there were female societies in communities as small as Boylston, Massachusetts, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. These local societies were in most ways like the many thousands of other women’s voluntary organizations that were emerging in Northern communities in the early nineteenth century. They met, prayed, raised funds for state and national activities, and circulated publications and information.

The many hundreds of women who became active supporters of antislavery tended to come from reasonably prosperous families. They were most often the wives and daughters of professional men, merchants, and successful farmers who were likely to have a little time or money to spare. In this way they were similar to the members of most other women’s organizations. Women from the harder-pressed families of small farmers, artisans and laborers rarely had the leisure time to attend meetings or collect signatures on petitions, although there were many hardworking farmwives who managed to sign a petition and find a few cents for the slave.

The most active and engaged female abolitionists began to move outward from their local societies. In 1837, seventy-one delegates from eight states held the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York they issued publications and resolutions, formed executive committees, and launched a campaign to collect one million signatures on antislavery petitions. Since women could not vote, petitioning Congress was their only means of political action. The Executive Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society reminded women in its Second Annual Report (1835) that “the debate in Congress on slavery in the District of Columbia was called forth by petitions signed by 800 ladies of New York. Here is work for all …”

The most active abolitionist women were the principal organizers and energizers of local or statewide action, and the writers who produced children’s books, hymns, and stories with an antislavery message, contributed to antislavery papers, or wrote tracts on the subject. The most unusual of them were the handful of women who spoke publicly for the cause, traveling the countryside as agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society. These women confronted a deeply ingrained tradition—the notion that women did not and should not speak in public. The first women lecturers were Sarah and Angelina Grimké. They began by addressing all-female audiences—itself a violation of custom—but soon went on to speaking before mixed groups of men and women, an even more serious offense. Such “promiscuous assemblies,” as they were called, created controversy wherever the Grimké sisters went. In 1837, the General Association of Massachusetts, which represented the ministers of the state’s dominant Congregational church, issued a statement condemning women “who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.” This attack, and others made against them, spurred the Grimkés to make the equality of women a more important part of their message. They began to write and speak about the condition of woman as well as the condition of the slave—a decision which would soon help to split the abolitionist movement. But for the rest of their career as public speakers, Sarah and Angelina continued to combine the messages of woman’s rights and antislavery.

In the process they helped lay the foundation for the woman’s rights movement which would issue its first manifesto, the famous “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Many of the women who would sign that Declaration and work to secure equality for women were also active abolitionists who believed that woman, like the slave was entitled to equal rights.

Both movements, of course, have had very complicated histories since, full of triumph and disappointment. The abolitionists saw their immediate goals realized through the cataclysmic violence of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment emancipated the slaves and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments gave citizenship and civil rights to freed blacks. But the South’s freedmen were abandoned by the North in the 1870s, and they did not win back their rights for nearly a century until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s ended legal segregation and exclusion from politics. Female abolitionists who were committed to both causes had their hopes painfully shattered when the Fourteenth Amendment enfranchised black men but explicitly denied the vote to women by introducing the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. After its ratification in 1868, women had to wait another fifty years to win the right to vote. Seventy years of political struggle for women’s right to vote finally won passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Many of the issues these two movements grappled with are still with us today. The United States today is a substantially less racially unequal society than it was in the nineteenth century or at the end of the Second World War, but Americans still struggle with the meanings of justice and equality, and how to implement them in society. The status of women in American has changed in complicated ways since the achievement of the vote in 1920, including the emergence of a powerful feminist movement amid much opposition and criticism. Changing attitudes, coupled with other forces of change in the economy and the family have transformed the roles of millions of women at work, at home and in public life. Today, woman occupy positions and enjoy personal freedoms that the early advocates of women’s rights could only dimly imagine, but Americans remain divided over many questions about woman’s role in society.

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Edward W. Clay’s cartoon titled "Grand Celebration Ob De Bobalition Ob African Slabery" (1833) is part of the series Life in Philadelphia and serves as an example of attitudes free blacks faced. Throughout his series, Clay used racist caricatures to mock free blacks style of dress and used “black” dialect to depict them as lesser versions of upper- and middle-class whites. In this print, free blacks dressed in fanciful costumes consume alcohol in celebration of the abolition of slavery in British colonies.

Mother Bethel AME Church

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or “Mother Bethel,” was established in 1794 by Richard Allen. Like many social institutions for blacks in the eighteenth century, Mother Bethel was born from necessity. After experiencing racial discrimination at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, many black leaders took steps to create an independent black church. Mother Bethel, located at 419 S. Sixth Street, became the focal point of the community and was home to over seven hundred congregants in the early decades of the twenty-first century.

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, 1829

In this sketch from 1829, congregants attend a service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. St. Thomas had been established in 1794, with Absalom Jones at the helm. After a racially charged confrontation at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Jones, and other black churchgoers were asked to leave. Like Richard Allen’s Mother Bethel, Absalom Jones’s St. Thomas was created to give blacks a place to worship freely unburdened by race.

Robert Purvis, 1810-1898

Born in 1810, Robert Purvis was an early leader in Philadelphia’s free black community. In 1833, Purvis helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as the Library Company of Colored People in Philadelphia, based on the Library Company of Philadelphia. In 1838, a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that threatened the voting rights of free blacks prompted Purvis to write the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia to address the misconceptions held by the public. Though he was unsuccessful in blocking ratification of the amended constitution, Purvis continued to serve as an activist in the community. In 1837 he brought a Vigilance Committee to Philadelphia, which focused its efforts on aiding escaped slaves and free blacks kidnapped into slavery. Purvis’s home, located at Ninth and Lombard Streets, held a secret room in the basement to help fugitive slaves on their way to freedom.

Robert Bogle, 1774-1837

Robert Bogle, born a slave in 1774, became a successful cook after obtaining his freedom. Bogle provided food for various events such as weddings, meetings, and funerals, effectively inventing the modern concept of catering. Through his successful catering business, Bogle became a fixture in high society and grew close to prominent Philadelphians, such as Nicholas Biddle, financier and president of the Second Bank of the United States. Several free blacks found catering a prosperous career and organized a Guild of Caterers. After Bogle’s death in 1837, Biddle wrote this poem in remembrance of a man known for his taste, style, and culinary abilities.

Absalom Jones, 1746-1818

Absalom Jones, born enslaved in southern Delaware in 1746, was one of the earliest civil rights leaders in black history. After purchasing his freedom at the age of thirty-eight, Jones dedicated his life to developing and promoting the free black community in Philadelphia. While helping to establish important social institutions such as the Free African Society and St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, Jones advocated for black education reform and ran a school for black children in his home. Jones also took a stance on slavery. Following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, the free black community found themselves at higher risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. In 1799, gathered signature on a petition submitted to Congress asking that Congress protect the inalienable rights of free blacks. The petition died in committee.

Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia

In January 1838, the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention altered the wording of Article 3 of the state constitution to restrict voting rights to white men. Abolitionists and free blacks had interpreted the previous language to include all free males and black men had in rural areas. In response to the amendment, activist Robert Purvis penned the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia. Initially delivered as a speech on March 14, 1838, at the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, the text was published as a pamphlet within a month. Purvis used history to explain the injustice of depriving free black men the right to vote, arguing that black slaves and white indentured servants could not vote due to their unfree status, not their skin color. Although disfranchised black men regained voting rights in 1870 with the Fifteenth Amendment, Jim Crow laws hindered black voting rights until 1965.

Related Topics


Connecting Headlines with History


National History Day Resources

A-Z Browse

  • Activism
  • African Americans
  • Agriculture and Horticulture
  • Animals
  • Architecture
  • Art
  • Boundaries
  • Business, Industry, and Labor
  • Children and Youth
  • Cities and Towns
  • Commemorations and Holidays
  • Counties
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Economic Development
  • Education
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Events
  • Food and Drink
  • Geography
  • Government and Politics
  • Health and Medicine
  • Historic Places and Symbols
  • Housing
  • Immigration and Migration
  • Law
  • LGBT
  • Literature
  • Maritime
  • Media
  • Military and War
  • Movies
  • Museums and Libraries
  • Music
  • National History Day Topics
  • Native Americans
  • Performing Arts
  • Planning (Urban and Regional)
  • Popular Culture
  • Religion and Faith Communities
  • Science and Technology
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Streets and Highways
  • Suburbs
  • Tourism
  • Trades
  • Transportation
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • Women

Free Black Communities

In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia and the region surrounding it came to contain free black communities that by most measures were the most vibrant, dynamic, and influential in the United States. Free African Americans relied on each other to confront the persistent power of slavery and white supremacy in Philadelphia and the region. At the same time, many free blacks looked outward and became leaders in the national fight against those same threats.

Free blacks fought the stigma that they were trying to model themselves as inferior versions of their white peers. In the above cartoon drawn by Edward W. Clay in 1833, free blacks are shown in fancy costumes with poor dialect celebrating the abolition of slavery in British colonies. The racist caricatures served as a reminder of the atmosphere free blacks faced. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The emergence of these communities was not, however, a foregone conclusion. In the mid-eighteenth century, despite the fact that Philadelphia had produced some of the earliest protests against slavery in the English-speaking world, slavery remained an important part of the region’s economy. In 1765, of the approximately fifteen hundred black Philadelphians, all but about one hundred were enslaved. In the next few decades, though, this dramatically changed. The causes of this transformation were multiple. Some supporters of the revolutionary cause came to recognize a clear contradiction between their calls for liberty and the practice of slavery. Others, in particular some of Philadelphia’s significant Quaker minority, grew to see slavery as a violation of deeply held religious beliefs. Perhaps most of all, the Revolutionary War presented opportunities seized by African Americans across the region. Many supported the British Army as the most likely agent of emancipation, others supported the patriot cause in hopes of turning the American Revolution into a war for emancipation, and still others took advantage of the chaos of war to escape from their masters’ control. By the end of the American Revolution, Philadelphia contained only four hundred slaves while its free black population had grown to over one thousand.

In the revolutionary era, the governments of many of the states acted to emancipate their remaining slaves. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania led the way, with Pennsylvania instituting a “gradual” abolition law in 1780. The law freed no one immediately, but it stipulated that all enslaved children born after the law’s passage would become free upon their twenty-eighth birthday. In New Jersey, opponents of slavery pushed for similar legislation, although the political power of slaveholders in the eastern part of the state, combined with fears of the social and economic consequences of emancipating New Jersey’s sizable enslaved population, prevented the passage of an abolition bill until 1804. Its implementation also took place gradually children born after July 4, 1804, to enslaved mothers were bound to service for twenty-five years if male and twenty-one years if female.

A Growing Free Black Population

Over time, these abolition laws, combined with the continuation of private manumissions of the Philadelphia region’s remaining slaves, led to the growth of a free black population, but a significant number of free blacks also found their way to Philadelphia from elsewhere. The economic and political power of slavery blocked abolition laws in the upper South. However, a significant number of slaveholders, including some in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, began to manumit some of their slaves in response to ideological critiques of slavery and changing regional economics. Slaves themselves played a crucial role in this process, often negotiating contracts in which they themselves would, over time, purchase their own freedom, while others found opportunities to disappear into the region’s growing free black communities.

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was established in 1794 by Absalom Jones. Jones and other black congregants at St. George’s Methodist Church were asked to leave after refusing to accept segregated seating. Originally located at Fifth and Adelphi Streets, St. Thomas later moved to Lancaster Avenue. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Many newly freed men and women found that their native states, while happy to take advantage of the labor of slaves, did not welcome free blacks. Some required emancipated slaves to leave the state, and others placed increasingly restrictive controls on free black people. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, as many former slaves found their way to Philadelphia—the nearest free city to the slave South—the city’s free black population swelled. In 1780, the year the state passed its abolition law, African Americans (most of them enslaved) made up 3.6 percent of the population of the city. By 1820, the black population had grown to more than 10 percent of Philadelphia’s total population. In the same year, free blacks made up more than 6 percent of the population in Chester County and 7 percent of the population in Delaware County. Free black residents accounted for more than 15 percent of the population in New Castle County, Delaware. In New Jersey, Salem County’s free black population topped 7 percent, while Burlington and Gloucester Counties contained more than 4 percent free African Americans.

One of the great draws of Philadelphia was the lure of economic opportunity. Newly emancipated African Americans from rural areas across the region and beyond saw promise in the burgeoning city. Once there, though, they often found that they were shunted into the lowest paying and least desirable kinds of work. This was compounded by the fact that Philadelphia was also a magnet for European immigration, creating fierce competition for low-wage work. While white workers found employment in the city’s robust industrial sector, free black people were largely excluded from this sort of work and relegated to employment as physical laborers and in the low-status service economy. Many free blacks worked on the city’s docks and aboard the ships that plied the Delaware. There were, however, some black Philadelphians who found a greater measure of economic success. Some were professionals, especially teachers and ministers. Others were entrepreneurs. Among the most celebrated black businessmen was James Forten (1766-1842), whose sailmaking business thrived in Philadelphia’s multiracial waterfront. The most successful black waiters and caterers also were able to capitalize on their expertise and skill in order to establish themselves as an indispensable part of Philadelphia high society. Perhaps the most famous of these was Robert Bogle (1774-1848), celebrated by financier Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844) in a poem, Ode to Bogle.

Limited Opportunities

New Jersey also saw the growth of thriving black communities in this period, including all-black towns such as Tumbuctoo in Burlington County, Gouldtown in Cumberland County, and the Free Haven settlement that evolved into Lawnside in Camden County. Slavery’s end was slower in New Jersey than in Pennsylvania, casting a shadow over the free black population. Free blacks often found themselves working alongside the enslaved in a complex labor market. As was the case in Philadelphia, in New Jersey, newly emancipated African Americans struggled to achieve independence in the face of significant limitations on their economic opportunities. Most of those who farmed did so as tenants, but a significant minority purchased their own farmland. Even so, this land was often economically marginal and whether they lived in cities or in the countryside, Africans Americans found their economic status to be tenuous.

The dramatic growth of the region’s free black population provoked anxiety among many of the region’s white residents. Pennsylvania legislators sought on multiple occasions to stop black migration into their state but were thwarted by the cooperative activism of black and white abolitionists. Free black residents also faced the persistent threat of mob violence, which was often directed at black abolitionists and at evidence of black economic success or social respectability. New Jersey officially denied the vote to black people in 1807. In 1838, the voters of Pennsylvania ratified a new state constitution which explicitly restricted the vote to whites. Black Pennsylvanians had attempted to prevent this action, publishing The Appeal of 40,000 Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, written by black abolitionist Robert Purvis (1810-1898), but were unsuccessful and would not regain the right to vote until 1870.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or “Mother Bethel,” was established in 1794 by former slave, Richard Allen. Located at 419 S. Sixth Street, Mother Bethel is the oldest piece of land purchased and steadily owned by African Americans. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

One of the primary ways that free black people dealt with such economic, social, and political discrimination was through the building of autonomous institutions. One of the first of these was the Free African Society, founded in 1787 by leading black citizens of Philadelphia including pastors Richard Allen (1760-1831) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818). This religious mutual aid society was a means of organizing the efforts of black Philadelphians to promote education, and generally to provide aid to those in need. Allen and Jones would go on to found their own independent black churches, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, only the first of many black congregations in the city and the region. Black Philadelphians also helped to establish institutions that extended beyond the region, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an independent black denomination co-founded by Allen in 1816. Many African Americans joined black fraternal organizations and intellectual clubs, especially in Philadelphia but also in smaller black communities across the region. Black Philadelphians played a leading role in the Black Convention Movement, which brought together black leaders from across the United States to strategize about political issues.

Vigilante Protectors

Perhaps the most urgent goal of free black communities, especially in regions like greater Philadelphia that bordered on slave states, was the protection of black citizens from enslavement, kidnapping, and white violence. Black communities were constantly on the lookout for those who generally claimed to be acting as legal slave catchers but who often were willing to kidnap the legally free as well. African Americans resisted such men with force when necessary, but along with white allies they also banded together to form some the earliest vigilance committees, dedicated to the protection of the black community from such threats. These committees played a crucial role in what would come to be called the Underground Railroad. Philadelphia, with its large black population, was a center for such activity, but across the region fugitive slaves and vulnerable free blacks sought out the protection of black communities and partnership with supportive whites, often Quakers. Free blacks also worked with white abolitionists who could provide essential legal and political expertise, including those who had established the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1775. While many early white abolitionists had seen the removal of free blacks from the United States as a necessary part of their fight against slavery, black abolitionists, especially black Philadelphians, played a crucial role in radicalizing white abolition and in convincing white abolitionists to abandon the colonization movement. Black abolitionists coupled their opposition to slavery with demands for black equality, and they supported white abolitionists who did the same.

Free African Americans made up a significant portion of the population of the greater Philadelphia region during the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Such numbers, though, only tell part of the story. The black community of Philadelphia played a critical role in the history of the city, and black Philadelphians helped to lead the cause of abolition and the fight for black citizenship rights, in the city and beyond.

Andrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Metropolitan Studies at Towson University. He is author of The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Bacon, Margaret Hope. But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2007.

Ball, Erica L. To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Densmore, Christopher. “Aim for a Free State and Settle among Quakers: African-American and Quaker Parallel Communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” Quakers and Abolition, Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014, 120-134.

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Gigantino, James J. The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Newman, Richard. Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

Tomek, Beverly. Pennsylvania Hall: A Legal Lynching in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Winch, Julie. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Wood, Nicholas. “‘A Sacrifice on the Altar of Slavery’: Doughface Politics and Black Disenfranchisement in Pennsylvania, 1837–1838,” Journal of the Early Republic 31 (Spring 2011): 75–106.


Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University, Samuel L. Paley Library, 1210 Polett Walk, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Institute for Colored Youth, Historical Marker, 915 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia.

James Forten, Historical Marker, 336 Lombard Street, Philadelphia.

Richard Allen Museum, Mother Bethel AME Church, 419 S. Sixth Street, Philadelphia.

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, Historical Marker, Fifth Street south of St. James Place, Philadelphia.

A Religious Cause and a Revolution

Most of the early white abolitionists were Quakers or other religious dissenters. They were Christians, but few belonged to established churches. Most were looked upon as outsiders, eccentric, even radical in their day. The Quakers, somber and severe in their wide-brimmed, high-crowned black hats, couldn’t have been more different in appearance and conduct from the gaudily dressed, pleasure-loving sugar planters.

By the 1760s, some Pennsylvania Quakers were already anti-slavery advocates in the colonies. Quakers embraced the principle that the “Inner Light” of God’s revelation shone on everyone, European and African, free and enslaved.

Meanwhile, many American colonials were becoming increasingly angry with the heavy-handed representatives of the British crown. Americans began to speak of the “slavery” of British rule, calling for fellow colonists to fight for individual freedom and natural rights—what we now call human rights—themes that later became central to the Declaration of Independence.

There were contradictions and complexities, of course, within American revolutionary ideals. One principle dear to colonial rebels was that every person held certain natural rights—such as “liberty” and “equality”—that could not be ignored or taken away. According to that principle, it was against nature itself to degrade human beings into chattel property, abolitionists argued. Therefore slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the ideals of the American rebellion.

British abolitionists heard these arguments against slavery and took heart. Slaves in the American colonies heard them, too. In 1775, a South Carolina slave had the “audacity,” according to his master, to say that “he will be free, that he will serve no Man, and that he will be conquered or governed by no Man.”

Slaveholders, however, argued that their own natural rights allowed—even encouraged—them to keep slaves as property. That is, a slaveholder’s freedom was contingent upon his ability to hold Africans in bondage. To many slaveholders, the ideals of the American Revolution were bound up with the manacle and whip.

Over the next century, different ideas about what freedom really meant would widen into an unbridgeable gulf in America between southern slaveholders and those who opposed slavery, leading to the Civil War.

Freedom Seekers

Running away was another form of resistance. Most freedom seekers only managed to find freedom for a short time. They might hide in a nearby forest or visit a relative or spouse on another plantation. They did so to escape a harsh punishment that had been threatened, to obtain relief from a heavy workload, or just to escape life in bondage.

Others were able to run away and escape permanently. Some escaped and hid, forming Maroon communities in nearby forests and swamps. When northern states began to abolish enslavement after the Revolutionary War, the North came to symbolize freedom for many enslaved people, who spread the word that following the North Star could lead to freedom.

Sometimes, these instructions were even spread musically, hidden in the words of spirituals. For instance, the spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" made reference to the Big Dipper and the North Star and was likely used to guide freedom seekers north to Canada.

Black soldiers were initially unwelcome in the Civil War

The story of how 180,000 Black Americans got to the battlefield isn't so straightforward. At the beginning of the Civil War, there was a federal law banning Black people from enlisting in the Army dating all the way back to 1792. Abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass pushed President Lincoln to reconsider the ways Black Americans could contribute, telling Lincoln, "We are ready and would go," according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation. A far cry from the free North we might have pictured, many white Americans still held racist beliefs about Black people being mentally inferior and thought they could never train as soldiers.

President Lincoln's reluctance to integrate the Union Army stemmed from the fear that doing so would cause border states, like Missouri, to also secede. Douglass saw Black participation in the Union not as a strategy but as a pathway. "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States," Douglass explained, per the Library of Congress.

History of Racism in America

The history of racism in America starts with the sugar plantations. When Europeans developed large sugar plantations in America, Europeans started eating more and more sugar. The demand for sugar in Europe skyrocketed. But extracting sugar was labor-intensive, and not many paid workers wanted to spend their days under a hot sun in malaria-infested fields. They demanded a high payment.

But increasing worker wages meant increasing the cost of sugar, which would have made it too expensive for most Europeans. So the plantation owners got rid of payment altogether and exchanged contract laborers for slaves. This made sugar cheaper, and it also made it a profitable business to have a share in. In the 18th century, investments in the slave trade could yield 6% per year.

The Atlantic slave trade wasn’t necessarily the result of racism. People who owned plantations and Europeans who bought stock lived far from the plantations and never thought much about the slaves. It was the money in their pockets that kept the slave trade going, igniting the history of discrimination in the U.S.

How Hierarchies Are Formed

The history of racism in the United States depends on hierarchies. Imagined societies are generally propped up by three elements: a historical accident, the fear of pollution, and the vicious cycle of discrimination.

Historical Accident: The roots of prejudicial hierarchies often lie in a random occurrence in history rather than biological differences.

Fear of Pollution: Humans are biologically programmed to feel repulsed by people and animals that might carry disease. This is a survival instinct. But although the fear is biologically-based, its historical manipulation and exploitation is based in fiction. If you want to ostracize a group (such as Jews, gays, blacks, or women), tell your society that they’re polluted and could contaminate you if you interact with them.

Vicious Cycle of Discrimination: Once a random historical event that benefits one group and discriminates against another occurs, that hierarchy is perpetuated by the people who benefit from it. This reinforces the prejudices used to justify the system. These prejudices, in turn, help maintain the system, and the cycle continues.

Let’s look at how these three elements perpetuate discrimination in the history of racism in America.

In historical slave societies, what jobs were left over for poor free laborers? - History

The sugar revolutions were both cause and consequence of the demographic revolution. Sugar production required a greater labor supply than was available through the importation of European servants and irregularly supplied African slaves. At first the Dutch supplied the slaves, as well as the credit, capital, technological expertise, and marketing arrangements. After the restoration of the English monarch following the Commonwealth (1642-60), the King and other members of the royal family invested in the Company of Royal Adventurers, chartered in 1663, to pursue of the lucrative African slave trade. That company was succeeded by the Royal Africa Company in 1672, but the supply still failed to meet the demand, and all types of private traders entered the transatlantic commerce.

Between 1518 and 1870, the transatlantic slave trade supplied the greatest proportion of the Caribbean population. As sugarcane cultivation increased and spread from island to island--and to the neighboring mainland as well--more Africans were brought to replace those who died rapidly and easily under the rigorous demands of labor on the plantations, in the sugar factories, and in the mines. Acquiring and transporting Africans to the New World became a big and extremely lucrative business. From a modest trickle in the early sixteenth century, the trade increased to an annual import rate of about 2,000 in 1600, 13,000 in 1700, and 55,000 in 1810. Between 1811 and 1870, about 32,000 slaves per year were imported. As with all trade, the operation fluctuated widely, affected by regular market factors of supply and demand as well as the irregular and often unexpected interruptions of international war.

The eighteenth century represented the apogee of the system, and before the century had ended, the signs of its demise were clear. About 60 percent of all the Africans who arrived as slaves in the New World came between 1700 and 1810, the time period during which Jamaica, Barbados, and the Leeward Islands peaked as sugar producers. Antislavery societies sprang up in Britain and France, using the secular, rationalist arguments of the Enlightenment--the intellectual movement centered in France in the eighteenth century- -to challenge the moral and legal basis for slavery. A significant moral victory was achieved when the British Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, ruled in 1772 that slavery was illegal in Britain, thereby freeing about 15,000 slaves who had accompanied their masters there--and abruptly terminating the practice of black slaves ostentatiously escorting their masters about the kingdom. In the British Parliament, antislavery voices grew stronger until eventually a bill to abolish the slave trade passed both houses in 1807. The British, being the major carriers of slaves and having abolished the trade themselves, energetically set about discouraging other states from continuing. The abolition of the slave trade was a blow from which the slave system in the Caribbean could not recover.

Before the slave trade ended, the Caribbean had taken approximately 47 percent of the 10 million African slaves brought to the Americas. Of this number, about 17 percent came to the British Caribbean. Although the white populations maintained their superior social positions, they became a numerical minority in all the islands. In the early nineteenth century, fewer than 5 percent of the total population of Jamaica, Grenada, Nevis, St. Vincent, and Tobago was white, fewer than 10 percent of the population of Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and the Virgin Islands. Only in the Bahamas, Barbados, and Trinidad was more than 10 percent of the total population white. By sharp contrast, Trinidad was the only colony in the British Caribbean to have fewer than 80 percent of its population enslaved. Sugar and slavery gave to the region a predominantly African population.

This demographic revolution had important social consequences. Rather than being a relatively homogeneous ethnic group divided into categories based on economic criteria, Caribbean society had complex overlapping divisions of class and caste. The three basic divisions were free white persons, free nonwhite persons, and slaves.

Whites were divided along status lines based on wealth. In the British colonies these were called "principal whites" and "poor whites." In reality they formed three ranks. At the top, forming an elite, were families who owned slaves and successful plantations. Some of their names became important in the history of one or more islands, names such as Guy, Modyford, Drax, Sutton, Price, Bannington, Needham, Tharp, and Beckford in Jamaica Drax, Hallet, Littleton, Codrington, and Middleton in Barbados and Warner, Winthrop, Pinney, and Jeaffreson in the Leeward Islands. Next in rank came the merchants, officials, and such professionals as doctors and clergymen, who were just a shade below the big planters.

At the bottom of the white ranks came the so-called "poor whites," often given such pejorative names as "red legs" in Barbados, or "walking buckras" in Jamaica. This group included small independent farmers, servants, day laborers, and all the service individuals from policemen to smiths, as well as the various hangers-on required by the curious "Deficiency Laws." These were laws designed to retain a minimum number of whites on each plantation to safeguard against slave revolts. A Jamaica law of 1703 stipulated that there must be one white person for each ten slaves up to the first twenty slaves and one for each twenty slaves thereafter as well as one white person for the first sixty head of cattle and one for each one hundred head after the first sixty head. The law was modified in 1720, raising the ratios and lowering the fines for noncompliance, but the planters seemed more prepared to pay the fines for noncompliance than to recruit and maintain white servants, so the law degenerated to another simple revenue measure for the state. This was true throughout the British islands during the eighteenth century.

Regardless of rank, skin color gave each person of European descent a privileged position within plantation society. The importance of race and color was a significant variation from the norms of typical European society and accentuated the divergence between the society "at home" and that overseas.

Each slave society in the colonies had an intermediate group, called the "free persons of color," an ambiguous position. Governor Francis Seaforth of Barbados colorfully expressed this dilemma in 1802: "There is, however, a third description of people from whom I am more suspicious of evil than from either the whites or the slaves: these are the Black and Colored people who are not slaves, and yet whom I cannot bring myself to call free. I think unappropriated people would be a more proper denomination for them, for though not the property of other individuals they do not enjoy the shadow of any civil right." This group originated in the miscegenation of European masters and their African slaves. By the nineteenth century, the group could be divided into blacks who had gained their freedom or were the descendants of slaves, and the mixed, or mulatto, descendants of the associations between Europeans and non-Europeans. By the time of the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, the heterogeneous free nonwhite population represented about 10 percent of the population of Jamaica, 12 percent of the population of Barbados, and about 20 percent of the population of Trinidad. A number of these free nonwhites had been free for generations, if not centuries, and had carved a niche in the local societies as successful merchants, planters, professionals, and slave owners.

Throughout the British Caribbean the free nonwhites manifested a number of common traits. They were predominantly female, largely urban, and clearly differentiated from the slaves both by law and by custom. Although adult females outnumbered males, the free nonwhite population tended to be the most sexually balanced overall and was the only group that consistently reproduced itself in the British colonies during the era of the slave trade. Moreover, with the exception of Trinidad, where, as Bridget Brereton indicates, just as many free nonwhites lived in the rural parishes as in the towns of Port of Spain, San Fernando, and St. Joseph, the free nonwhites were strongly urban. After 1809, about 61 percent of all the free nonwhites in Barbados lived in the parish of St. Michael in the capital city, Bridgetown. More free nonwhites lived in Kingston, Jamaica, than in all the other parishes combined.

The free nonwhite population faced competition from both ends of the spectrum. At the lower end of the economic scale they had to compete with jobbing slaves, who were often working arduously to get enough money to purchase their freedom and so join the free group. At the upper end they competed with the artisan, commercial, and semi-skilled service sector of the lower orders of whites. The whites often used their political power--or in some cases their access to political power in Britain--to circumscribe the free nonwhites as much as possible. Laws distinguishing comportment, dress, and residence, denying nonwhites the right to practice certain professions, or limiting the material legacy of individual free nonwhites were common throughout the Caribbean. But at the time of the abolition of slavery, nonwhites were aggressively challenging the political hegemony of the whites, and their successes were very important in the subsequent development of British Caribbean society.

Watch the video: 24H - Πώς ψάχνουμε δουλειές εν μέσω κρίσης (January 2022).