Author: Douglas Sanford


Hiring Out of the Enslaved

While less well-known than other facets of institutional slavery, hiring out of the enslaved was a common and long-standing arrangement throughout the nearly 250-year existence of race-based slavery in Virginia. Enslavers commonly hired out enslaved individuals for a set fee and time period. This allowed enslavers the flexibility to allot enslaved labor to a wide variety of tasks, which contributed to slavery’s viability. It also fit with Virginia’s increasingly diversified economy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, being adaptable to rural and urban settings as well as commercial and industrial sectors. All ranks of white society engaged in hiring enslaved people, including many who could not afford to purchase enslaved laborers. On a yearly basis, hiring out affected thousands of enslaved men, women, and children, who were separated from their families and communities and who had to endure and adapt to new living and working conditions. For many enslaved African Americans in Virginia, being hired out was a more common experience than being sold, and one that could occur at multiple points in their lives, causing repeated disruption.


Housing for the Enslaved in Virginia

Slave housing in Virginia varied widely depending on the context: whether it was rural or urban, whether it was on an elite plantation or a small farm, and even whether it was located close to or far from the enslaver’s main house. Many of the first Africans who came to Virginia lived in barracks-style housing and other, less-than-permanent accommodations. As the enslaved population grew, however, houses were designed and constructed specifically for Black laborers and, in particular, those living in family units. Most slave quarters were constructed of wood, and many were log and earthfast structures with no foundations. Those located closest to elite plantation houses were generally better built, with wooden frames and masonry chimneys and foundations. Separate one or two-room structures, designed to accommodate one- or two-family units, were the most popular house type, although many enslaved laborers slept where they worked—in kitchens, laundries, and stables. Enslaved laborers who were hired out in cities sometimes resided in separate “shanty towns.” Few intact slave quarters exist in the twenty-first century—likely fewer than 300—and most of those are relatively large and well-built.