Hirelings: African American Workers and Free Labor in Early Maryland

Jennifer Hull Dorsey
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In Hirelings, Jennifer Dorsey recreates the social and economic milieu of Maryland's Eastern Shore at a time when black slavery and black freedom existed side by side. She follows a generation of manumitted African Americans and their freeborn children and grandchildren through the process of inventing new identities, associations, and communities in the early nineteenth century. Free Africans and their descendants had lived in Maryland since the seventeenth century, but before the American Revolution 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 Eastern Shore's economy and society, earning their livings as wage laborers while establishing thriving African American communities.

    As free workers in a slave society, these African Americans 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 the needs of their households, and worshipping in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some moved to the cities, but many others migrated between employers as a strategy for meeting their needs and thwarting employers' control. They demonstrated that independent and free African American communities could thrive on their own terms. In all of these actions the free black workers of the Eastern Shore played a pivotal role in ongoing debates about the merits of a free labor system.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6067-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The waterways of the Delmarva Peninsula have shaped the economic and social development of the Eastern Shore of Maryland from settlement to the present. Beginning in the seventeenth century, English merchants who directed transatlantic trade easily accessed the Delmarva Peninsula and its settlers through the Elk, Sassafras, Chester, Miles, and Nanticoke rivers that flow from Chesapeake Bay. Merchants carried people, credit, manufactured supplies, and news to the peninsular communities. They also transported agricultural produce and lumber products to other destinations within the Atlantic world. Of all the bayside rivers the Choptank is arguably the most important for explaining the history...

  6. 1 Work
    (pp. 21-44)

    In January 1814, John Kennard of Talbot County placed an advertisement in the Eastern Shore General Advertiser that read: “‘Wanted to Hire’: A Negro man who understands the farming business.”¹ Kennard may have intended to hire a slave-for-life or a term slave from a neighboring slaveholder. He may have also considered hiring a manumitted African American. Any Talbot County freedman who saw or heard of the advertisement knew what Kennard wanted from his new hire. The new hire would perform a variety of tasks related to grain production, including harrowing and plowing the soil, cutting the wheat with a cradle...

  7. 2 Migration
    (pp. 45-60)

    Eastern Shore planters shamelessly sold slaves for profit, and then complained bitterly when free African Americans picked up and moved for their own economic gain. As early as 1797 some white residents of Talbot County urged the Maryland legislature to prohibit “manumitted slaves & their descendents to run about from county to county or to leave that in which their Manumitter resided unless to quit the State entirely.”¹ White frustration with black migration waxed and waned through the early nineteenth century, but it was a sentiment that Maryland planters shared with planters in the postemancipation British Caribbean and later the post–...

  8. 3 Family
    (pp. 61-81)

    Slavery broke Elizabeth Jacobs’s family. She was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but while still a child she was separated from her parents and siblings when a slaveholder took her to Chester, Pennsylvania. Her experience was commonplace for slaves in nineteenth-century Maryland. Slaveholders gifted, traded, bequeathed, bought, and sold slaves without regard for family connections. They divided spouses and separated children from their siblings and their parents. As a child and a slave, Elizabeth was powerless to protect herself from this violence. Only after she was manumitted did she have a chance to recover the family that was...

  9. 4 Dependency
    (pp. 82-99)

    In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Maryland legislature introduced a host of new laws designed to fix the place of free African Americans in the existing social and racial hierarchies. It was a haphazard process that reflected little forethought and stands in stark contrast to the gradual emancipation undertaken in Pennsylvania or the British Caribbean. In 1833, when Parliament emancipated nearly one million Anglo-African slaves within the British Empire, it simultaneously adopted apprenticeship laws that required all former slaves to complete a six-year apprenticeship before acquiring freedom. Parliamentarian George Stanley was among many who insisted that any...

  10. 5 Community
    (pp. 100-117)

    In 1817 Robert Goodloe Harper, a former U.S. senator from Maryland, observed that “you can manumit a slave, but you cannot make him a white man.” He offered this judgment as explanation for his support of African colonization. He went on to explain that manumission in Maryland had revealed the true character of the free African American, and it was deficient: “The debasement which was at first compulsory, has now become habitual and voluntary.”¹ Free African Americans, he decided, could not be assimilated. Harper expressed his prejudices privately in a letter to a friend, but free African Americans knew what...

  11. 6 Recession
    (pp. 118-144)

    In 1826 Isaac Maccary was one of the most economically privileged free African Americans on the Eastern Shore. In 1808, when he was fifty-two years old, he acquired from Mary Rakes a small farm of 26.5 acres. Over the next twenty-four years, he and his wife, Memory, made several improvements to their property. They replaced a dilapidated “Negro hut” with a “tenant house,” and they built a dwelling house that tax assessors valued at fifty dollars in 1832. They also kept cattle and hogs, and steadily increased their livestock over time. In 1826 seventy-year-old Isaac decided to retire, and so...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 145-160)

    Just prior to the Civil War, the Methodist minister John Dixon Long offered his opinion on the status of free African Americans in Maryland:

    They have to take the raking fires from three batteries. The slave envies them. The poor white man is jealous of them lest they encroach upon his assumed rights and privileges; and the large slaveholder hates them, as their very presence puts notions of freedom in the minds of his slaves. They are expected to please every body, which is a very difficult matter. They are the scapegoats of southern society. If any crime is committed,...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 161-184)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-202)
  15. Index
    (pp. 203-210)