The Basics of Hiring Out
Enslaved people were hired out in a range of contexts. Enslaved women and girls were hired out to perform domestic tasks in white households, including cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Enslaved men and boys were hired to work in artisan trades, in industries such as mining, and in manufacturing. Both enslaved men and women labored in agricultural tasks as hired hands. While some arrangements were informal and short-term, most consisted of year-long contracts deemed legal notes or bonds of transaction. The hiring term typically encompassed the fifty weeks between January 1, often referred to as “hiring day,” and Christmas. The cost of the contract typically represented about 10 to 20 percent of an enslaved person’s value, or enough to cover the yearly tax payments on the individual, although that could vary. Enslaved individuals of any age could be hired out, from children to elderly adults in their seventies and eighties, but employers tended to hire younger enslaved people. They paid higher prices for prime-age adults—men and women between the ages of sixteen and forty years—and for enslaved males with artisan skills.
Employers were contractually required to provide customary, which was a year’s supply of apparel, shoes, and stockings befitting enslaved workers, as well as food and . They also were expected to maintain the health of enslaved workers and not abuse or excessively punish them, but it is clear from court records that enslavers regularly brought damage suits against hirers, accusing them of negligent care or harsh treatment such as excessive whippings or beatings. For instance, Thomas Chrystie threatened in 1811 to sue Philip Croxton for his cruelty to an enslaved man named Bob who had been leased to him. According to an account in John J. Zaborney’s Slaves for Hire (2012), Bob had been “been beaten about the Head, arms, & Hands with Sticks or billets of Wood” and “whipt with a … Cow Hide, so as to leave Upwards of one Hundred cuts on his back & belly.” In another case in the late 1830s, George Gunnell hired out an enslaved man named George to Samuel Coleman. Coleman failed to provide George with adequate clothing despite making him work outside in the winter, and he ended up “very badly frost bitten,” according to Gunnell.
The hiring out of enslaved laborers increased substantially between 1750 and 1825 because of Virginia’s growing African American population, which through natural increase had reached a self-reproducing stage, and because of the shift away from a tobacco-centered economy and toward one more focused on wheat and diversified agriculture, which required less labor. Planters, farmers, and other whites with excess enslaved workers found a ready and profitable market in hiring out the enslaved. By the nineteenth century, the slave-hiring market had reached a point that it could support a distinct class of hiring agents and brokerage firms that handled private, commercial, and public contracts. By the antebellum period, hiring out was pervasive enough that contracts became increasingly formulaic, leading to the production of preprinted, standardized notes with blanks for the parties’ names and the payment amount.
The growth of commercial manufacturing in cities at the time also provided a market for excess enslaved labor. For example, as Richmond became the state’s center for tobacco production, the city’s tobacco manufacturers increasingly drew on hired enslaved males to supply the labor necessary for the large-scale production of chewing tobacco, snuff, and cigars. By 1860, the city had at least fifty-six tobacco factories and 3,400 workers, most of whom were enslaved; two-thirds of these were hired. Hired enslaved laborers also worked in commercial stores, while road, canal, and railroad companies hired enslaved men to construct Virginia’s expanding transportation networks.
Hiring Out and Virginia’s White Society
The primary motive for hiring out enslaved workers was to generate income, whether for individual households, businesses, institutions, or the estates belonging to widows and orphans. Hiring out enabled enslavers to put surplus enslaved labor to use and gain consistent profit, while reducing costs for supplying the enslaved with food, clothing, and housing. Some enslavers hired out less-productive enslaved workers, namely the elderly, children, and adult females with infants. In many instances, enslaved women with young children were auctioned off to the lowest bidder, and some owners even paid employers to take on these enslaved people to avoid annual costs of food, clothing, and shelter or leased them for the cost of their upkeep only. Other enslavers hired out their more-resistant and less-manageable enslaved individuals as a form of punishment, purposely separating them from their families and friends. Hiring out was also a way to have enslaved individuals trained in the trades or in particular, agricultural, industrial, or commercial skills, which made them more valuable in the future.
Hiring the enslaved allowed employers to obtain affordable labor to promote their household’s or business’s economic production. In addition to individual households, businesses and institutions such as churches, prisons, hospitals, and schools participated in hiring out. Hiring enslaved labor also allowed whites who could not afford to purchase their own enslaved workers to increase their standing in society by taking the appearance of being an enslaver. As historian Keith C. Barton has noted, many middling whites hired enslaved Black women to perform labor-intensive tasks such as cooking, laundry, tending fires, and cleaning in keeping with Victorian cultural values in which a middle-class husband was expected to relieve his wife of household drudgery so she could focus on managing the domestic sphere and raising children. In cities, enslaved girls and women constituted the majority of hires, with most working as cooks, laundresses, and domestics. Historian James M. Campbell estimated that in 1860 about 1,500 enslaved, hired women worked as domestics in Richmond.
According to real estate and personal estate values in the 1860 U.S. Census, the overwhelming majority of employers who hired the enslaved were lower and middle class. In rural areas, such as Warren County in the northern Shenandoah Valley and Surry County on the southern side of the James River, small farmers were the most likely to hire enslaved help. This was followed by those working in the trades and in commercial and public positions in county seats, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, small-scale merchants, and government clerks. Most often they hired just one enslaved person and rarely more than three. These farmers, widows, and shopkeepers typically hired more affordable enslaved workers, namely older adults, mothers with young children, and children. For instance, in Surry County, a small-holding farmer named John A. Wright hired three enslaved people: a twenty-eight-year-old woman and two children, ages one and five. Employers expected children as young as five or six to contribute labor through small tasks, such as tending fires and small livestock or assisting enslaved adults. Enslaved children were hired out with the expectation that they would learn the tasks and skills necessary for future adult work through a type of compulsory apprenticeship. At about age twelve, enslaved children were considered capable of adult-level work and by age sixteen they were expected to work as full adults.
Those who hired bigger numbers of enslaved workers and those in more expensive categories, such as prime-age males and enslaved craftsmen, tended to be those who already owned enslaved people and hired additional labor. These were individuals who farmed at a larger scale of land and livestock ownership, with some at the plantation level, as well as wealthier merchants who were often diversified entrepreneurs combining farming, commerce, and real estate speculation. For instance, John J. Deal, a wealthy farmer-merchant in Surry County who enslaved fourteen people, hired nineteen enslaved males, ages sixteen to sixty years, according to the 1860 Census.
In Virginia’s urban areas, such as the city of Fredericksburg and Ward 2 in Richmond, hiring out typically involved between one to three enslaved people per household or business, most commonly enslaved women as domestic help. While industry and manufacturing comprised only about 5 percent of these cities’ occupations, these businesses hired enslaved workers on a significantly larger scale. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Company, for example, hired twenty-nine enslaved men, ages twenty to fifty, in 1860. That same year, James Thomas Jr., one of the leaders of Richmond’s tobacco industry, hired twenty-one enslaved males, ranging in age from twelve to fifty-three years old, to work alongside the thirty enslaved males he owned.
Female employers were more common in Virginia’s towns and cities, typically using hired enslaved labor within their businesses as commercial domestics and boarding-house keepers and in clothing-related occupations such as seamstresses, laundresses, dressmakers, and milliners. In Richmond, for example, Margaret Everitt hired a ten-year-old enslaved boy in 1860 to help with her dressmaking business.
Overall, hiring out expanded slavery to many additional white households, increasing the acceptance of enslaved labor by non-slave-owning whites. By having more white citizens invested in slavery, hiring out helped reduce class differences within the broader white society and likely created more support for the institution. By the antebellum period, hiring the enslaved was a labor practice critical to Virginia’s economy and to many white households and institutions.
The Hiring Experience for Enslaved African Americans
Each year before the end of legal slavery in Virginia, thousands of enslaved Blacks faced forced separation from their families and uncertain circumstances within the households and businesses of the white employers who hired them. The pace of hires and constantly rotating employers made it difficult for the enslaved workers to maintain a sense of community and strained family ties, separating spouses from one another and children from their parents. For instance, Briery Church in the Keysville area of Prince Edward County purchased enslaved workers expressly for the purpose of hiring them out to provide the church with a regular income to hire a minister. By 1781, Briery Church owned fifteen enslaved individuals whom it hired out. In Slaves for Hire, Zaborney provides the example of a forty-year-old enslaved woman named Jincy, who was hired out by Briery Church every year between 1840 and 1847. At first, her three children were hired with her, with the church even paying employers to take her and her children on, given their less productive status. But when her son Frank was about nine years old in 1843, he was hired to a different employer for $15, separating him from his family, and two years later to yet another employer, because he could now earn the church the sum of $27 per year. Some of the church members who were themselves enslavers argued that yearly hiring was a particularly pernicious form of slavery because it removed the enslaved from the oversight of enslavers who had a stake in their health and well-being, and they sought, unsuccessfully, to end the practice.
Hired enslaved laborers encountered a variety of living arrangements. Many resided within the employer’s house, whether in a small spare room, an attic or garret, or a basement. In urban areas, they often resided in mixed-use housing, such as kitchen quarters and other back buildings on narrow town lots. On farms and plantations, enslaved hires lived in existing cabins and quarters or mixed-use buildings like kitchens, laundries, stables, and carriage houses. Some leased enslaved workers also “lived out”; that is, they obtained housing away from their employer in boarding houses or cheap shanties in African American neighborhoods. In the urban tobacco, iron, and milling industries, companies often allotted enslaved workers weekly funds for food and lodging rather than invest in worker quarters. Other enslaved laborers used the bonuses that companies paid them for exceeding daily or weekly quotas to rent their own housing.
Elizabeth Keckly, Celebrated Seamstress and Dressmaker
Hiring out, especially in urban areas, could provide opportunities for the enslaved to earn additional income, make connections within the free Black and white communities, and envision possibilities for freedom. In Virginia’s towns and cities, enslaved hires could be found living and working on nearly every street, in stores and artisan shops, and at hotels, train stations, and along waterfronts. Elizabeth Keckly, a formerly enslaved Black seamstress who found great success in Washington, D.C., as a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln and other prominent women, used the connections she made as a hired-out seamstress to finance the purchase of her freedom. Enslaved men and women could also gain some autonomy by engaging in self-hire, in which they marketed their skills to potential employers and negotiated with their enslavers as to weekly or monthly payments through their wages. Most self-hire occurred with skilled urban enslaved tradesmen: masons, wagon and cart drivers, blacksmiths, cobblers, and carpenters. Self-hired slaves arranged their own housing and meals, could interact the larger community, and attend African American churches. They had more opportunities to become literate, and their greater mobility led to more developed knowledge of the local and regional landscape. Consequently, this contributed to the increased likelihood that self-hired enslaved workers would attempt to emancipate themselves. At the same time, their freedom was limited by a number of factors. They had to make regular payments to their enslavers or lose their position; they were supervised by white employers and public authorities; and they were restricted by laws meant to limit their movement and autonomy.
The experience of John M. Washington, an enslaved person in Fredericksburg who emancipated himself during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and later wrote a narrative of his life, illustrates how the enslaved could use their employment to their advantage. Washington was born in May 1838 and lived in six different households during his twenty-four years of enslavement. His mother, Sarah, a seamstress and laundress, was often hired out and away from him, including to an employer in Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley. Washington was hired out to employers in Fredericksburg beginning at age twenty. In 1859, he drove his employer’s horses and tended his livestock and garden. During 1860, Washington was hired out to the Alexander and Gibbs tobacco factory. As the (1861-1865) began in 1861, Washington was hired out to a saloonkeeper in Richmond. At Christmas of that year, he returned to Fredericksburg, where he was employed as a steward and barkeeper at a hotel called the Shakespeare House. He took advantage of this setting to gain intelligence on the movement of and Union troops in the area. In April 1862, joined by a cousin and a free Black acquaintance, Washington escaped across the Rappahannock River to Union forces in Falmouth.
White society’s concern about the unsupervised activities of hired enslaved persons in urban areas—including their interactions with free Blacks and their access to money, alcohol, and gambling—resulted in enactment of anto prohibit self-hire by enslaved Blacks. This was partially to limit the autonomy of hired enslaved workers and partially to protect white laborers and artisans from competition. This law, and others like it, was not regularly enforced, however, due to the monetary advantages of hiring out for owners, employers, and some enslaved men and women. Until the , hiring out remained an attractive practice for white enslavers and employers alike.