Period of African American Literature: Slavery and Freedom

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Last updated: April 29, 2019

Douglass’s influential career in the anti-slavery movement and postwar politics owed much to his early education in the possibilities and limitations for African-American freedom taught to him by Baltimore’s black community in the antebellum eraBaltimore introduced a young, enslaved Frederick Douglass to the ambiguities of freedom for African Americans in the antebellum United States. Douglass lived in Baltimore intermittently from his arrival in the city in 1826 at the age of eight until he escaped from slavery twelve years later.

Reflecting the ambiguities of black life in antebellum Baltimore, Douglass could assert that “a city slave is almost a free man compared with a slave on the plantation” and lament that while in Baltimore “I often found myself regretting my own existence and wishing myself dead” (Narrative 50, 56). Douglass’s contradictory impressions of his adolescence as a slave in Baltimore, impressions of comparative liberty and abject despair, reflected the larger paradox of African-American life in the city that claimed America’s largest black population at the time of the Civil War. Situated on the border of slavery and freedom, Baltimore created space for African Americans to develop dynamic institutions that proved vital to their post-emancipation history. Yet these institutions developed under severe restrictions on the freedom of non-slave African Americans that white Baltimoreans devised to replace the increasingly impractical bonds of slavery. Black agency amid the constraints and opportunities of an urban slave society provided Douglass with his first classroom in the limits of freedom for nineteenth-century African Americans.Between 1790 and 1860, the institution of slavery declined in Baltimore but the boundaries of African-American freedom narrowed considerably.

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When free blacks posed little threat to white privilege, as in the 1790s, whites imposed relatively few limitations on them. But as the free black population grew so did racial competition for jobs and social power. Whites responded to the dynamism of free African Americans by circumscribing their liberty. Douglass lived in Baltimore when free African Americans made substantial economic gains and expanded an already powerful network of black institutions. By the time of the Civil War whites rolled back many of the gains of the 1830s and pushed free blacks to the edge of slavery.

Douglass first witnessed white racism towards free blacks during this tightening of Baltimore’s restrictions on non-slave African Americans that coincided with slavery’s demise.Baltimore grew from a small village of under 500 in 1750 to a major port with 13,503 in 1790. Slave numbers rose along with the city’s total population, but slavery never served as the dominant source of labor nor did slave ownership generate great fortunes in Baltimore.

Trading opportunities in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars created most of the wealth in early national Baltimore. When compared with regions like southern Maryland in which slaves comprised one third of the total population and coastal South Carolina where slaves were in the majority, Baltimore’s early national ratio of fewer than one slave to every ten free people seems small. Barbara Jeanne Fields found that over time slaves declined in the city’s economy and population while free African Americans grew in importance.In the 1790s, Baltimore’s slaves outnumbered free African Americans, and slaves mattered more to white employers than did free black labor.

Slavery combined with white artisanal labor to stratify the labor force according to race and skill. In an 1810 occupational survey of the city’s white men, over half of those listed held jobs in craft production (Browne 58). These skilled white craftsmen buttressed their power with slave labor. Wealthier craftsmen, who comprised 28% of Baltimore slave holders in 1800, paid the high initial investment in slaves and profited if product demand remained steady for goods made by unpaid slaves (Steffen 38). This division of industrial labor between slaves and artisans established a rigid hierarchy within the work force that precluded violent competition for jobs and reduced the need for elaborate constraints on non-slave African Americans.In craft production, master craftsmen controlled apprentices who gave up personal autonomy to learn a skill. While the status of white apprentices was the envy of slaves, both craft production and slavery relied on personal authority and modes of labor discipline outside of wages.

Pride in craft knowledge and the promotion system that led from apprenticeship to wage-earning journeyman and later self-employed master craftsman mitigated work-place tensions within the craft system.This divided labor market operated via a widely recognized legal and caste system, i.e. slavery that explicitly linked racial and class status. The combination of artisan production and slavery privileged white craftsmen at the expense of slave labor. Enough artisans followed the traditional route towards self-employment to reduce fears that unskilled wage laborers and slaves threatened craft workers’ livelihoods. Furthermore, few white workers wanted jobs, or legal status, that African-American slaves held, and many slave-owning craftsmen opposed removal of slaves from trades also pursued by white labor. In later years free white and black workers violently competed for semi-skilled jobs, but early national Baltimore’s economy prevented this violence by rigidly segmenting the labor market between craft workers and slaves.

Partly because most African Americans in early national Baltimore were slaves, the city’s few free blacks enjoyed relatively more independence in the 1790s than they would in the 1830s or 1850s. In 1790, free blacks represented 20% of Baltimore African Americans and only 2% of all city residents. White Baltimoreans did not recognize this comparatively small group as a threat to slavery or white privilege, and consequently afforded non-slave African Americans measures of autonomy unthinkable to whites forty years later.Examples of free African-American achievement abounded in 1790s Baltimore. The city hosted free black artists like Joshua Johnson and engineer and almanac author Benjamin Banneker. The inter-racial Maryland Society for the Abolition of Slavery operated in the 1790s under the leadership of white Quaker merchant Elisha Tyson. The Society sued on behalf of free blacks wrongfully enslaved and campaigned for emancipation. Although unpopular with slave owners, the Society succeeded in founding a school for blacks, the African Academy, in 1797.

Free black Marylanders had the right to vote until 1808, and in 1792 Thomas Brown, a free African American living in Baltimore, ran as a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates (Graham 23).Free blacks received encouragement from evangelical Protestants. White Methodists and Quakers had been the strongest opponents of slavery in late-eighteenth-century Maryland. The 1780 Baltimore Conference of American Methodists resolved that slavery was “contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion” (Wesley 41). As part of the American Revolution’s spread of liberty, evangelical sects promoted emancipation in the North and Upper South in the late 1700s.

In 1784, the Methodist Society ordered all slave-owning congregants to manumit their bondsmen in one year or face expulsion. Methodist slave owners freed thousands of slaves in late eighteenth-century Maryland. Evangelicalism’s anti-slavery message and its circumvention of learned clergy, church ritual, and hierarchical organization attracted African-American worshippers (Frey 245-251).

But within Methodism whites maintained some of the larger society’s norms of racial subordination. Baltimore’s white Methodists ordained few black ministers, insisted that blacks wait until all whites had received communion before taking the sacrament, and segregated black worshippers in upper-level galleries (Gardner, “Free Blacks” 51). In 1785, the Methodist Society reversed itself and allowed slave owners to remain in the church. Although individual ministers continued to uphold antislavery tenets, by 1800 the emancipatory promise of the Revolution had faded from evangelicalism.

In the late 1780s some Baltimore black Methodists began holding separate prayer meetings from whites. Declaring in 1797 that “in view of the many inconveniences arising from the problem of white and colored people assembling in public,” these dissidents formalized their break with whites by founding the Bethel Church on Saratoga Street in order to “procure of ourselves a separate place in which to assemble” (Wesley 129). Bethel later affiliated with Richard Allen’s African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816 and became the leading black church in Baltimore (Graham 72). Another group of African-American dissenters remained within the white Methodist fold, but formed their own congregation at the Sharp Street M.E.

Church in 1802. Sharp Street sometimes used white ministers, but maintained a black board of directors, and drew its congregants exclusively from the African-American community (Gardner, “Free Blacks” 55).The experience of black evangelicals in early national Baltimore illustrated a larger process at work for the city’s African Americans. In the early national era most Baltimore blacks were slaves living under the rigid discipline of white masters. Consequently, whites interested in maintaining racial hierarchy paid little attention to the comparatively small free black community, and believed that it did not immediately threaten white privilege based on slavery. Anti-slavery evangelicals organized publicly in Baltimore and free African Americans claimed many of the liberties enjoyed by whites. But racism existed even within inter-racial, anti-slavery organizations like the Methodists, and it helped persuade African Americans that autonomous institutions could better guard their interests than ones influenced by white leaders. As slavery declined in significance in the city’s economy, laws and customs aimed at restricting the liberty of free blacks increased.

The pressure of racial proscription convinced Baltimore’s growing free African-American community that autonomous organizations provided the best means for advancement.When Douglass arrived in Baltimore, the city was undergoing a profound social and economic transformation from a small port that serviced Maryland tobacco and wheat farmers to a much larger industrial and commercial center tied to international markets. This change, which paralleled the development of northern ports like New York and Philadelphia, created demand for thousands of temporary workers to move cargoes on city docks, assemble products in newly built factories, and tend to the homes of the prosperous. Baltimore’s hierarchy of industrial employment grounded in craft production and slavery fell apart between 1820 and 1860 because free blacks and European immigrants flooded the city’s labor market and large-scale factories eclipsed artisan production in craft workshops.

Baltimore grew to 212,000 people in 1860, making it America’s third largest city. After 1810, the slave population declined while the number of European immigrants and free African Americans dramatically increased. In 1860, Baltimore was 62% native-born white, 25% foreign born, and 13% African American. As workers these new residents possessed neither craft knowledge nor the legal status of slaves. They met factory owners’ growing demand for unskilled workers, and, in a larger context, helped re-make the working class in mid-nineteenth-century cities.

From 1830-60, factories employing semi-skilled and unskilled wage laborers replaced craft workshops as the dominant form of manufacturing in Baltimore. In 1833, craft workshops with under ten employees made 70% of Baltimore’s manufactured goods (Muller 165). By 1860, factory owners had superseded craftsmen as the major Baltimore producers. That year over half of the industrial work force toiled in factories with 50 or more employees, and industries averaging more than 49 workers per shop comprised the four most valuable producers of manufactured goods in Baltimore (Muller 170; Dept. of Commerce 220-222). This growth in large-scale manufacturing coincided with a decline in the total number of producers, many of them craftsmen (Garonzik 75). In the 1850s, Baltimore artisans still supplied local consumers, but factory owners strengthened their hold on industry and displaced many self-employed craftsmen in the process.

Slavery existed on the margins of this economy. In the 1830s free African Americans outnumbered slaves by a ratio of five to one, and fewer and fewer slaves found work in manufacturing jobs critical to the economic growth of the period. In the late antebellum era women made up 75% of Baltimore slaves and worked mainly as domestic servants. Some free domestic servants accumulated money and improved their standing. Anna Murray, a free-born domestic and Douglass’s wife, used her wages to finance Douglass’s escape from Baltimore. But many servants lived like Serena Johnson, a slave domestic separated from her parents at age six and brought to Baltimore to serve as the maid and children’s playmate of a prosperous white merchant family. Most jobs held by male slaves had been replaced by free labor by 1850 (Towers, “Serena Johnson” 334).Douglass found work in 1830s Baltimore as a hired slave, an anomalous position that epitomized the ambiguous status of slaves in a city reliant on mobile wage laborers to perform most tasks.

Douglass returned to Baltimore in 1836 following a critical three-year period in which he fought back against the brutal slave-breaker Edward Covey and plotted an escape from William Freeland’s farm. His master, Thomas Auld, arranged for Douglass to return to the home of Auld’s brother Hugh and learn a trade as a slave apprentice. Like many urban masters Thomas Auld held out the promise of manumission to Douglass at a later date (Douglass’s 25th birthday in this case) if he would give his wages to Auld until that date. The Aulds hoped to realize profits from their slave and give Douglass an incentive to work hard and obey orders (McFeely 59). By requiring slaves to work for wages for a third party and transfer their earnings to their masters, slave hiring fit the needs of urban slave owners, like widows and retirees, who had no profitable work of their own for their slaves. Margaret Burgwell, a Baltimore widow, supported herself in the late 1850s by hiring out her five slaves to work as servants for $25 to $100 a year. Burgwell averaged $338 annually through this system.

By expropriating the value of her slaves’ labor, Burgwell supported herself, and employers obtained servants for under $0.35 per day.Urban practices like slave hiring opened cracks in the discipline of slavery that educated Douglass in the possibilities of freedom and the injustice of slavery.

In 1838, Hugh Auld relied on Douglass to seek out employers and negotiate payment terms on his own. Like Douglass, many hired slaves resided apart from their masters and lived like free blacks in almost all respects. This increased autonomy made the remaining controls of slavery appear even more unjust. Commenting on his daily wage of $1.

50, Douglass stated “I contracted for it, worked for it, earned it, collected it; it was paid to me, and it was rightfully my own” (My Bondage 319). Made more aware of slavery’s theft of labor value because he weekly gave his earnings to Auld, Douglass found that the comparative liberties of urban slavery made the institution’s injustice more glaring.

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