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HirelingsAfrican American Workers and Free Labor in Early Maryland$

Jennifer Hull Dorsey

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801447785

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801447785.001.0001

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(p.ix) Preface

(p.ix) Preface


Jennifer Hull Dorsey

Cornell University Press

In 1997 historian Wilson J. Moses wished aloud that scholars would find something new to say about nineteenth-century free African Americans. Moses observed in Reviews in American History that the scholarship had become predictable, adding that there are “layers of data in support of theses that are no longer subject to serious dispute.” The field is ready for a revolution, he suggested.1 The exploration in this book into the working lives of manumitted and freeborn African Americans may not revolutionize the field, but it is meant to fill an inexplicable gap in African American studies as well as the history of the early republic. It is a history of free African American laborers, their families, and communities, but it is also an exploration of the relationship between the early republic manumissions and the nascent wage labor system. It is the story of how agricultural employers made slaves into wage laborers and how two generations of African Americans experienced this transition from slavery to wage work.

With a few noteworthy exceptions, most historians have ignored the working lives of those African Americans manumitted in the first (p.x) emancipation, the legislative abolition of slavery in the northern states between 1780 and 1804, concentrating instead on their family relations, religious institutions, social organizations, and political activism.2 It is a curious omission when we consider that histories of other emancipations are so hyperfocused on emancipation as a labor problem. Take histories of the British emancipation (1833) and the U.S. emancipation (1865) as examples.3 Both historiographies are replete with microhistories of how emancipated slaves experienced the transition from slave labor to free labor. They emphasize how former slaves worked within and around plantation systems to create economic, social, and civic niches for themselves.4 They also emphasize the relationships between emancipation, political economy, and the concurrent rise of a free labor ideology. By comparison, histories of the first emancipation have concentrated on the economic impetus for emancipation, but they do not explain what happened next: Where did these former slaves belong in a wage labor system? How did the availability of African American wage laborers alter hiring practices in specific industries? How did the steady increase in wage laborers influence public policy? Finally, how did working for wages alter the lives of African Americans? How did work shape their relationships with employers, family, other free laborers, and enslaved workers?5

As I read through emancipation studies, African American community studies, labor history, and plantation studies, it occurred to me that free African Americans in the early republic shared more common ground with other emancipated people throughout the Atlantic world over the course of the nineteenth century than the existing scholarship allows.6 I realized that early republic emancipators were no less concerned with matters of political economy than subsequent generations. They pursued emancipation with an eye toward implementing a wage labor system, and they expected to manipulate this system to their advantage. The early republic emancipations made slaves into wage-earning manual laborers who joined a fast-growing population of working poor. In this book I focus on one segment of this population: free African American agricultural laborers who worked in the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I explain how African Americans made the transition from slave labor to wage labor. I also consider this transition from the perspective of the slaveholders who made it possible and shaped its process. The story begins with the manumission of hundreds of slaves, and follows this manumitted generation and their freeborn (p.xi) children and grandchildren through the process of inventing new identities, new associations, and new communities over the next half-century.

Free Africans and their descendants had lived in Maryland since the seventeenth century, but in the colonial era they were always few in number and lacking in economic resources or political leverage. By contrast, manumitted and freeborn African Americans in the early republic refashioned the labor system. As free workers in a slave society, they contested the legitimacy of the slave system even while they remained dependent laborers. They limited white planters’ authority over their time and labor by reuniting their families in autonomous households, settling into free black neighborhoods, negotiating labor contracts that suited their own households’ needs, and worshipping in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some moved to the cities, but many others migrated between employers, and migration became a strategy for meeting their needs and thwarting employers’ control. Throughout it all free African Americans informed the early definition of “free labor” in early republic Maryland.

Why the Eastern Shore of Maryland? The choice was strategic. First, the Eastern Shore counties claimed a significantly larger population of free African Americans than other rural counties on the mainland before the Civil War. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the free black population on the Eastern Shore increased by 400 percent while the white population declined steadily. Of course, the free African American population in Baltimore had increased by 3,100 percent in forty years, but Baltimore also attracted a large number of European migrants, and those white migrants maintained a white majority. In 1830 white Baltimoreans outnumbered black Baltimoreans three to one. By comparison, the Eastern Shore of Maryland became a kind of Free Black Belt within the state. Second, the history of wage work on the Eastern Shore is well documented, if not thoroughly explicated. Barbara Jeanne Fields raised awareness of free black agricultural workers on the Eastern Shore and the important but indirect role that they played in the politics of antebellum Maryland in her 1985 book, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century. Fields described the unique “dual labor system” that combined slave and free labor and the lengths to which agriculturalist and industrialist went to preserve it amid heated contests over the vices and virtues of wage labor. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground is a study of political economy, and it has figured prominently in my analysis.

(p.xii) The economic importance of the Eastern Shore to Philadelphia and Baltimore is another reason to look more closely at the free African American workers in this region. Throughout much of the eighteenth century Eastern Shore agriculture fueled the expansion of the milling and shipping industries in Philadelphia, making agricultural workers key players in the growth of the most dynamic economy in early American history. The economic relationship between Philadelphia, Baltimore, and their agricultural hinterlands can be traced to the early eighteenth century, when Eastern Shore planters began growing grains for export, a process detailed by historians Paul G. E. Clemens and Brooke Hunter. Historians have thoroughly explained the consequences of agricultural diversification on the economic development of the Eastern Shore. Jean B. Russo and Lorena Walsh, for example, have explained among other things how diversification altered plantation management and the work routines of slaves. Others have studied how a rising demand for skilled and unskilled labor in Baltimore and Philadelphia industries siphoned skilled labor from the countryside.7

What historians have not considered is how free African American laborers participated in this dynamic economy.8 One premise of this book is that the proximity of the Eastern Shore to the expanding economies of Philadelphia, and later Baltimore, mattered for how free African Americans experienced freedom. They participated actively in a regional exchange of people, ideas, money, and goods that had a pronounced effect both on their own communities and the demographic, economic, and cultural development of the greater Eastern Shore. Equally important, such opportunities for regional exchange and association across state lines encouraged free African Americans in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware to think of themselves as members of a regional community. Perhaps the most obvious example of how this regional exchange worked is in the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Only two years after African American Methodists in Philadelphia and Baltimore broke away from the Methodist Episcopal Church, an AME missionary appeared on the Eastern Shore. Why would the newly organized AME Church spend its limited resources on church-building efforts in the countryside? As we will see, the choice was neither coincidence nor accident but a natural outgrowth of African American migration between the Eastern Shore, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

(p.xiii) Nor were Eastern Shore planters immune to the influence of this regional exchange. In the colonial era several of the most prominent planter families on the Eastern Shore intermarried with the merchant elite of Philadelphia. They maintained estates in both Pennsylvania and Maryland, and they knew experientially the economic benefits of both enslaved and hired labor. These same planters were among the earliest to integrate wage laborers into the agricultural labor force, and although they did not know it, this choice altered the course of history. Specifically, it put Maryland on a different trajectory than Virginia and the rest of the slaveholding South. In the seventeenth century, Maryland and Virginia shared more similarities than differences: they were two Chesapeake colonies with economies underdeveloped by tobacco and slavery and governments beholden to the interests of the slaveholders who monopolized land and slaves. In the eighteenth century Maryland moved away from this heritage, in part because of a profitable alliance between Eastern Shore planters and Philadelphia merchants. Before the American Revolution Maryland gave up growing tobacco for grain, and, more important, it gave up slavery for a more complicated mixed labor system that included slaves and wage laborers. In the 1780s and 1790s Maryland and Virginia slaveholders manumitted slaves at comparable rates, and in both states some white men and women supported efforts to integrate former slaves into community life. However, Virginia contended with major slave revolts in 1800 and 1832, and white Virginians grew overtly hostile to black freedom. As early as 1806 the Virginia legislature instituted laws that mandated the expulsion of manumitted slaves. By comparison, a majority of white Marylanders, and most especially Eastern Shore plantation owners, accepted a wage labor system and could not imagine expelling black workers from it. As a result, the Maryland legislature was less concerned with expelling free African Americans and more concerned with shaping former slaves and their freeborn descendents into a reliable and dependent workforce.

Bringing to light the history of these forgotten workers in rural Maryland required a teasing of information about African American life from a diversity of sources authored primarily by white men. Both the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis and the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore claim sizeable and diverse collections of public and private records from the Eastern Shore. The observations and hiring practices of (p.xiv) Eastern Shore planters Thomas Chamberlain, Richard Tilghman, Robert Lloyd Nichols, and Robert Goldsborough revealed to me the process by which former slaves were integrated as free workers into a plantation economy built on slave labor. Plantation records proved vital for understanding how, when, and where free African American workers fit in with the agricultural economy. Assessment records collected by county governments made it possible to place free African Americans in specific neighborhoods and to compare their property holdings over time. The Census of Negroes (1832) revealed that former slaves formed large households that included multiple generations of free kin. Certificates of Freedom issued by county courts indicated the difference that gender and status (manumitted or freeborn) made in how former slaves experienced freedom. County court minutes also revealed how planters enforced a growing body of discriminatory laws to control their workforce.

With the exception of the introduction, each of the chapters in this book revisits key themes in the history of the early republic from the vantage point of former slaves and freeborn African Americans on the Eastern Shore. The introduction provides historical context for the transition from slave labor to wage labor. It establishes a sense of place and offers a brief history of the society and economy of the Eastern Shore between settlement and the American Revolution. Chapter 1, “Labor,” addresses an important but obvious question: What employment opportunities were available to free African Americans in a slave society? The chapter describes the different types of work opportunities available to former slaves in an agricultural society. This chapter also challenges the standing argument that Maryland developed a “dual labor system” in the early nineteenth century.9 “Dual” implies competition or polarity, but in fact, employers and free African Americans more accurately experienced a labor system that integrated free, slave, and semifree (e.g., apprenticed children and “term slaves”) laborers. “Mixed labor system” better captures the complexity of labor relations between planters and their former slaves in the nineteenth century.

Chapter 2, “Migration,” considers the experience of migrant workers as well as the meaning of migration for African American laborers. Migration contributed to rural African Americans’ sense of belonging to a larger regional community that extended from the Eastern Shore to Philadelphia and Baltimore and beyond. Regional community, constructed through migration, is a theme that writers on the free African American communities (p.xv) of Baltimore and Philadelphia have overlooked. This chapter also considers white employers’ hostility to African American mobility and the steps they took to manage this migration to their advantage. It introduces the argument that this hostility to black mobility provided much of the impetus for the Maryland Black Codes.

Chapter 3, “Family,” examines how the practice of gradual manumission divided African American families between slavery and freedom, strategies for maintaining familial integrity across that divide, and free African Americans’ advancement toward autonomous households. It also examines the African American family as an economic unit. Free family members worked toward the freedom of enslaved family members, manumitted parents cared for their freeborn children, and adult children worked to support the elderly in autonomous households. Even in freedom, family members remained connected to one another by their obligations as spouses, parents, children, and siblings.

Chapter 4, “Dependency,” describes the legal regime created by the Maryland legislature to force free African Americans into wage dependence and how Eastern Shore planters engaged with it to their advantage. It also examines how free African Americans secured the services of the local government to protect their own investments in the Eastern Shore.

Chapter 5, “Community,” centers on the African Methodist Episcopal Church and its meaning for free men and women in rural Maryland. On the Eastern Shore, as elsewhere, the AME Church expressed the values, culture, and experience of a distinct group of free African Americans. It also connected these believers across the Middle Atlantic states, reinforcing their membership in a regional community.

Chapter 6, “Recession,” examines this watershed moment when the lucrative wartime trade in Eastern Shore grains collapsed and ended an era of relative prosperity and stability for rural free African Americans.

I am grateful to the many people who have assisted me in the preparation of this book. Above all, I thank George, Josephine, and Casey for their patience, enthusiasm, good humor, and confidence. I could not have completed this work without them.

I want to recognize the mentorship of Alison Games, who guided and encouraged me at the earliest stage. Alison, Adam Rothman, and T. Stephen Whitman filled the margins of preliminary drafts with thoughtful (p.xvi) comments and advice, and I am indebted to them for what they have taught me about the craft of writing history. Equally meaningful were my conversations with Lois Green Carr, Jean B. Russo, and Lorena S. Walsh, scholars whose work continues to inspire me. I thank Douglas Egerton, Jon Sensbach, Peter H. Wood, and Gregory H. Nobles for gracious feedback on research that I presented at various academic conferences. I also thank Joseph Miller for the opportunity to discuss my work at the 2005 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar “Roots: African Dimensions of the History and Culture of the Americas (through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade).”

I am deeply indebted to Christopher Clark and Paul G. E. Clemens who read the complete manuscript and submitted reports to Cornell University Press. Their careful feedback and helpful suggestions spurred me to rethink my work, to address its weaknesses, and to appreciate its strengths.

Colleagues at Georgetown University, Arizona State University, and Siena College read the manuscript at different stages in its development. In particular, I thank Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, Jon Enriquez, Eduardo Obregón Pagán, Michael J. Socolow, and Michael Stancliff for taking time away from their own projects to read my work and nudge me forward in the writing process.

Fellowships from the Department of History at Georgetown University and a number of summer research grants from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University underwrote much of the research of this book. It is a pleasure to extend my heartfelt appreciation to the knowledgeable and efficient archivists at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Maryland Historical Society, and the Maryland State Archives, who directed me to many of the manuscripts that I needed to write this history.

Finally, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Cornell University Press and with acquisitions editor Michael J. McGandy, who has shepherded me through the publication process.

Please note that I have opted to use modern spellings of all the town names. For example, Ivytown is listed as both Ivytown and Ivory Town in nineteenth-century records; Ivytown is the contemporary spelling.


(1.) Wilson J. Moses, “Black Communities in Antebellum America: Buttressing Held Views” Reviews in American History 25 (1997): 557–63.

(2.) W. Jeffrey Bolster’s Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) is a noteworthy exception, a very creative approach to transatlantic community formation among black seamen. More typical are discrete histories of free African American communities in the tradition of Gary Nash’s pioneering work, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). See, for example: Shane White, Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770–1810 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991); Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790–1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Tommy L. Bogger, Free Blacks in Norfolk Virginia, 1790–1860 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997); Graham Russell Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1664–1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); and Melvin Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

(3.) On the subject of the British emancipation, see: William A. Green, British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830–1865 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976); Sidney Mintz, Caribbean Transformations (Chicago: Aldine, 1975); Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Michael Craton, Empire, Enslavement, and Freedom in the Caribbean (p.162) (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1997); Gad J. Heuman, Between Black and White: Race, Politics, and the Free Coloreds in Jamaica, 1792–1865 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982); and Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(4.) Scholarship that treats American emancipation as a labor problem includes: Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); James D. Schmidt, Free to Work: Labor Law, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, 1815–1880 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998); and Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

(5.) The economic impetus for emancipation has been well explored by Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderland in Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); T. Stephen Whitman in The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); and John Joseph Condon, Jr., in “Manumission, Slavery, and Family in the Post Revolutionary Rural Chesapeake: Anne Arundel County, Maryland, 1781–1831” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2001).

(6.) This book is partly a reaction to a historiography that has been narrowly focused on ideological and political questions about the early republic emancipations. See, for example, Eva Sheppard Wolf, Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006); David Nathaniel Gellman, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777–1827 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006); Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderland, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and numerous articles and dissertations on the manumission process.

(7.) Paul Clemens, The Atlantic Economy and Colonial Maryland’s Eastern Shore: From Tobacco to Grains (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980); Brooke Hunter, “Rage for Grain: Flour Milling in the Mid-Atlantic” (PhD diss., University of Delaware, 2001); Lorena S. Walsh, “Plantation Management in the Chesapeake, 1620–1820” Journal of Economic History 49 (June 1989): 393–406; Lorena S. Walsh, “Slave Life, Slave Society, and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620–1820,” in Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Live in the Americas, ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993): 170–99; Jean B. Russo, “A Model Planter: Edward Lloyd IV of Maryland, 1770–1796” William and Mary Quarterly 49 (January 1992): 62–88; and Christine Daniels, “Alternative Workers in a Slave Economy: Kent County, Maryland, 1675–1810” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1990).

(8.) Studies of agricultural wage work in early Pennsylvania have provided me with important models, in particular the work of Lucy Simler, especially “The Landless Worker: An Index of Economic and Social Change in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1750–1820,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 114 (1990): 163–99; and Carl Douglas Oblinger, “New Freedoms, Old Miseries: The Emergence and Disruption of Black Communities in Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1780–1860” (PhD diss., Lehigh University, 1988).

(9.) Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 63–89. Historian Seth Rockman also takes issue with the “dual labor system” model and applies the term “hybrid-labor system” to describe what I have called a “mixed labor system.” Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).