Antebellum Slavery/Non-Plantation Slave Life



De Facto


Clothing of
Urban Slaves


Douglas Rodriguez

Work, Marriage, Tradition and Diet of Slaves

Although the hard toil on plantations gave some slaves opportunities to acquire specialized skills, especially for male slaves, it required a great deal of supervision on them. The better of opportunities were set aside for those slaves who worked off plantations and farms either as laborers in extractive industries such as mining and lumbering or as artisans in towns or cities. Because cotton growing attracted a large number of whites to small farms, a shortage of white labor troubled nearly all the nonagricultural sectors of the southern economy. As a result, a demand for slaves called for them to drive wagons, work as ship-cargo handlers, man river barges, and to perform several jobs in mining and lumbering. At the time, lumbering employed about sixteen thousand workers, the majority being slaves, to cut trees, haul them to sawmills and fashion them into useful objects such as tables, cupboards, chairs and the like. Black engineers in sawmills fixed and fired steam engines that provided power. In iron-ore ranges and ironworks, slaves were more than laborers, they often supervised less skilled white workers. In addition, just as the booming textile industry labor force in New England was provided by mill girls, slave women and children worked in the South’s infant textile mills.

In the end, most southern blacks enjoyed work in cities that was denied to blacks in northern cities. For the most part, enslaved blacks that worked in factories or in lumbering or in mining were not owned by their employers. Instead, they were hired out by their rural employers to urban employers. But if the conditions of work in factories reduced to a level were slaves grew ill or died, rural slave owners would cut back or simply refuse to provide urban employers with more slaves. This in turn forced white supervisors to keep the conditions of work for slaves off plantations at a considerable level. In the end, it worked out as a cycle to maintain a balance between the amount of slaves in the cities and on plantations. Though it may seem that slaves working in cities enjoyed a number of opportunities for a better life, they were still restricted from many things and bound by and to their owners.

Marriage, for example, came with strings attached which affected slaves who tried to marry and live in the cities. For a slave family, no matter where they resided, a house was never a home. Slave families could scarcely exist in bondage. The law recognized no marriage contract which in turn caused de facto arrangements (A:\Popup1) to be vulnerable of being broken up by any number of events, and for the offspring to become property of the master and not children of the parents. These were but general conditions of slavery. Life in the city only amplified the unhappy consequences that flowed from them. Such a consequence would be if the master moved, one partner would have to go with him. Also, a variety of circumstances could lead to the family being sold. In cities and in some cases, husbands and wives belonged to different families. Because they labored apart and had their meals apart, the bonds of domestic life are few and very weak. The husband was a man who had no authority over anything. The bondage to his master deprived him of the status of breadwinner, his children belonged to his wife’s master and his first responsibility was not to his family, but to his owner. Under such conditions, family ties at best were weak. Male and female slaves found their pleasure and love wherever possible, knowing that attachments would only be temporary. As for the children of such marriages, there could not be an ordinary family life.

In short, although marriage between slaves in the cities was somewhat possible, it had its major drawbacks. Because husbands were bound to their masters, they could not live in their own home and raise a family. Though life in the city provided ample work, it did not provide time for themselves and their loved ones.

Work, clothing  played a role in distinguishing a town slave from a rural slave. Totally the opposite of an urban slave, a rural slave lived in coarse "Negro cloth" and "Negro brogans." These clothes, most likely because of the hard work on a plantation, were mended and remended. The urban slave on the other hand, had much better clothes. Not only did he have better clothing, he had clothing set aside especially for Sundays - which has always been a tradition. To see a city slave in broadcloth suits, blue coats, bright buttons and gold chains was more than what a white might have expected. Many of the city slaves dressed with "foppish extravagance" but in the latest style of fashion. Around the clock, the urban slave was better dressed than his country brother, most likely because of the better living conditions and also because they were domestics. Whites often mistook the improved posture and self-respect of the well-dressed slave as pride in his master. An ill-clad Negro reflected on the care and taste of the master, so a master wanted his domestics to look good, so he can look better. There might have been some pride, but the significance of the clothes was that they carried the Negro (Wade 128), not the "slave." In addition to style of clothing, music and dance helped slaves express their feelings. This, up to today, still remains a tradition. Drawing on their African musical heritage, American slaves made rhythmical hand clapping. Slaves clapped their hands because they were denied the use of any kind of instrument. But as substitutes, they played music and danced to the beat of tin buckets and banjos. No matter what sort of music they played, it tied to bodily movement. Slaves expressed themselves in a dance of African origin. Today, bodily movement used to express feelings to the beat of music still remains as it did back when slavery was still alive.

Despite the tradition of dancing, urban blacks not only dressed much better than those in the countryside, they also ate better. Both the quantity and the quality of food were higher and just as importantly, the diet had greater variety. The town slaves were generally "clothed more expensively, and more daintily fed" (Wade 132). This was expected because many slaves were domestics and ate from their master’s kitchen. But even those who fed elsewhere rather than in their master’s home, fared better than country house servants and certainly better than field hands. Corporate owners, for instance, hired Negroes on the job and bought food in bulk. This allowed for the slaves to eat more efficiently. Also, blacks in chain gangs by law received wholesome food such as meat, bread, rice, meat and vegetables. The varied food given to town slaves was more nutritious which in turn explains why they fared better in health than plantation slaves where food was rarely varied.

Overall, non-plantation slavery, which in simpler terms means the life of slaves in the cities, was more efficient because slaves were given hard non-manual work which reduced the strain of having to use the hands and though most married slaves lived separately, they were housed in better homes. Also, a cleaner way of dressing and much better diet contributed to the fact that urban slaves fared much better than rural slaves. Moreover, music and dancing are two factors brought on by tradition through their African heritage which allowed for slaves to express their feelings. This of course, was something which many rural slave owners did not allow on their plantations. Although some slaves had better living conditions than others, nothing can make up for the extreme hardships they lived through during the 1800s.


Works Cited

Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860.  New York:   Oxford University Press. 1964. 128, 132.

Works Consulted

Boyer, Paul S. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People.   Washington, D.C. :  Heath and Company. 1990.



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