Urban Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana
Enslaved people in Louisiana’s cities were engaged in virtually every labor role, from domestic service to dentistry.
Today, most Americans associate slavery with plantations. Yet during the antebellum era, slavery was practiced everywhere in the South, including cities. Urban enslaved people represented between 5 and 10 percent of the overall enslaved population in the United States. Compared to their rural counterparts, they encountered starkly different working conditions, living standards, and mechanisms of racial control.
In Louisiana, urban slavery was virtually synonymous with New Orleans, home to more than twenty-three thousand enslaved people by 1840 (nearly one-fourth of the city’s overall population). Throughout most of the antebellum period, New Orleans was also the Deep South’s largest and wealthiest city, the second most active immigration port-of-entry in the United States, and the fourth busiest commercial port in the entire world. Beyond New Orleans, Louisiana was overwhelming rural. Only three other communities boasted more than five thousand inhabitants in 1860: Baton Rouge, Jefferson City, and Algiers (the latter two cities were annexed by New Orleans in 1870).
Although antebellum slavery was predominantly a rural institution, cities played essential roles within the broader plantation economy. Cities were linchpins of the domestic slave trade: during the antebellum era, an estimated 135,000 people were bought and sold in New Orleans’s slave market, which was the nation’s largest. Cities were also where the cash crops produced by enslaved people on plantations were repackaged, sold, and moved onto vessels for transport to domestic and overseas markets. Cities were vital financial centers where banks loaned money for the purchase of plantations and peoples: indeed, so much frenetic financing occurred in New Orleans that from 1835 to 1842, the city’s banking capital exceeded that of New York City. Although many may think of plantation slavery as antithetical to cities, cities and slave plantations were economically intertwined and codependent.
Most urban enslaved people were “domestic slaves,” assigned to labor within the households of their enslavers. These enslaved people performed innumerable tasks for their enslavers: cleaning their homes, tending their gardens, purchasing their groceries, preparing and serving their meals, washing and mending their clothes, and rearing their children. Middle-class and wealthy white people saw service work as demeaning, because that labor was so closely associated with the enslaved, and only the poorest households did not hold at least one enslaved domestic worker. Enslaved domestics were so ubiquitous in New Orleans that it was rare to see any white people in the city’s marketplaces, according to one resident, because “almost the whole of the purchasing and selling of edible articles for domestic consumption” was performed by enslaved people. Domestic labor was disproportionately assigned to women, resulting in skewing sex ratios within cities: in antebellum New Orleans, nearly two-thirds of all enslaved people were women.
Enslaved men typically performed heavy menial labor about town, particularly as dockworkers and construction workers. New Orleans’s antebellum economy was dominated by the city’s port, and many enslaved men worked the docks by loading and unloading cargo, stocking warehouses, and repairing ships in drydock. Often, these enslaved dockhands worked alongside foreign-born immigrants, native-born white people, and free men of color. Enslaved men also crewed urban construction sites: they paved streets, dug sewers, laid pipe, and built levees and wharves. In New Orleans and Baton Rouge, essential public infrastructure was primarily built by chain gangs of imprisoned enslaved people taken from the cities’ slave jails.
Cities were also home to enslaved skilled artisans such as carpenters, weavers, plasterers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, tailors, and bricklayers. Highly valued by their enslavers and their communities, these skilled workers usually enjoyed privileges and levels of autonomy unavailable to most other enslaved people. Typically, they were subjected to less daily supervision and physical violence. Often, they were able to collect some spending money, either by performing their trade after hours, or because their enslaver permitted them to keep a portion of the wages that they earned.
Factories and businesses also employed enslaved people: indeed, most of the largest slaveholders in antebellum New Orleans were corporations. The New Orleans Levee Steam Cotton Press, where cotton was compacted into bales for shipping, claimed ownership of 104 people in 1850. The D’Aquin Brothers’ Bakery held forty-seven enslaved bakers, confectioners, and pastry chefs. The New Orleans Gas Light Company, which operated the city’s gas lines and streetlamps, claimed thirty-five enslaved technicians, repairmen, and lamplighters.
There were even a handful of enslaved skilled professionals in New Orleans. At least one enslaved dentist, Charles Johnson, lived in the city and drew enough business that a group of frustrated white dentists petitioned for his arrest in 1860. An out-of-town visitor to one New Orleans bookstore was surprised to find that the “principal clerk” was an enslaved man who “knew all the current literature.” In short, urban enslaved people were engaged in virtually every employment and industry.
Whereas rural enslaved people tended to live in cabins apart from the main house, most urban enslaved people lived in close proximity to their owners. Due to the risk of fire, antebellum townhouses usually had freestanding kitchens, detached from the main residences, and apartments for enslaved people were often located on the second story of this rear structure. Space was always at a premium in cities, and many urban enslaved people were also crammed into attics, closets, foyers, stables, and hallways. A guest at one prominent New Orleans hotel complained that the waiters, who were all enslaved, “had no beds” and slept “like dogs, in the passages of the house.”
Urban architecture evolved in response to slavery’s demands. Townhouses tended to be flanked with unusually high walls designed to curtail contact between domestic enslaved workers and the outside world. Southern cities also tended to have relatively few alleyways, to limit the number of spaces where enslaved people could congregate without surveillance.
Slave Hiring-Out and Self-Hiring
The hiring-out system, though not unique to urban areas, was widely practiced in cities, and had considerable impact upon the contours of urban slave life. Under this system, slaveholders with more enslaved people than they could profitably employ within their own businesses and homes could rent their surplus enslaved workers to short-handed employers. The practice allowed urban slaveholders to maximize their profits by constantly reallocating their labor supply, according to fluctuating demand.
The hiring-out system greatly alarmed slaveholders and city leaders, who feared that it undermined racial control by weakening the relationship between enslaved people and their enslavers. Every slaveholding city tried regulating the practice by requiring that slaveholders register their enslaved hirelings with the city government and furnish them with special brass badges to be worn at all times. New Orleans went one step further by establishing special government-regulated “depots” along the levee for employers to obtain duly registered hirelings. In practice, New Orleans and Baton Rouge slaveholders habitually ignored these cumbersome regulations.
Lawmakers were even more alarmed by the practice of “self-hiring.” Under this arrangement, enslaved people obtained their owner’s permission to negotiate their own wages and to rent their own housing, living and working in near-total autonomy on the condition that they periodically return—weekly, monthly, or even as rarely as semi-annually—to deliver a portion of their earnings to their owner. Technically, slave self-hiring was illegal, though the laws prohibiting it were inconsistently enforced. Proslavery critics of the practice railed that self-hired slaves were “virtually free,” and “a great social evil.” They enjoyed “a species of quasi freedom,” decried the New Orleans Daily Picayune: they were a “mongrel class of the black population…. neither free nor bondmen.”
On very rare occasion, hired-out and self-hired enslaved people were able to save enough money to purchase their freedom. For example, Louisiana’s first Black lieutenant governor, Oscar James Dunn, became free when his father, an enslaved carpenter, purchased freedom for himself and for his family. The resulting growth of Louisiana’s free Black population alarmed state lawmakers, who repeatedly drafted legislation aimed at curbing slave manumission. Manumission was severely restricted after 1830 and outlawed altogether in 1857.
Social and Cultural Life in Cities
Cities also provided access to social and cultural activities, particularly on Sundays, traditionally designated as a day of rest for enslaved people. One Sunday visitor to New Orleans described witnessing “vast numbers” of enslaved “men, women and children assembled together on the levee, drumming, fifing, and dancing, in large rings.” Another visitor described a similar Sunday assemblage: “a crowd of 5 or 600 persons… formed into circular groups” within a public square to dance, sing, and chant. By facilitating the exchange of West African, European, and Native American traditions, these assemblies laid vital groundwork for the development of Voudou, Second Lines, Mardi Gras Indians, and jazz. In 1817, New Orleans’s government passed an ordinance banning slave assemblies, except in places and times designated by the mayor, giving rise to weekly (and officially sanctioned and police supervised) assemblies in Congo Square.
Many businesses catered to enslaved people. One New Orleans newspaper, The Daily Crescent, complained that the churches, restaurants, barbershops, saloons, and ice cream shops that served the enslaved were so crowded on Sundays that it was difficult for “the white passer-by” to “elbow” through the crowds standing outside. Selling alcohol to enslaved people was illegal, but many taverns did so anyway: “Not a street nor corner can be passed,” complained the New Orleans Bee, “without encountering these magazines of degradation.”
Urban Surveillance and Enslaved Resistance
Urban enslaved people accessed resources and freedoms rarely available to their rural counterparts. They lived and worked alongside immigrants, poor white people, and free Black people, which promoted the exchange of information and antislavery thought. “[I] would rather live in New Orleans than any other place in the world,” remarked one Louisiana fieldhand, explaining that life was “gayer” there and had more “society.” For their part, Louisiana slaveholders perceived that cities undermined racial control. “The atmosphere of the city is too life-giving, and creates thought,” one New Orleans visitor remarked. “The city, with its intelligence and enterprise, is a dangerous place for the slave. He acquires knowledge of human rights, by working with others who receive wages when he receives none.”
Rural enslaved people fled into cities continuously. Some found work while disappearing into urban anonymity, while others tried to escape the South entirely by sneaking aboard outgoing ships. Advertisements for these urban fugitives, printed daily in New Orleans’s newspapers, offer fleeting glimpses into these rebellious lives. A runaway slave advertisement for Turner warned that he was “concealed in the city,” would “no doubt alter his name,” and might trying board a steamboat by posing as a ship’s waiter or cook. Lidia’s enslaver believed that she was “harbored by some one in the city,” and “will very likely try to get on some boat.”
To pursue these urban fugitives and counteract the freedoms that urban enslaved people enjoyed, southern municipal governments invested in elaborate policing systems. Tellingly, the nation’s first municipal police departments were created in slaveholding cities: New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah each had fulltime, publicly funded police forces by 1806 (in contrast, New York City wouldn’t create a fulltime police force until 1845). In many respects, New Orleans’s antebellum police force resembled modern police: they carried weapons, wore blue uniforms, performed street arrests, and patrolled the city night and day.
Slaveholding cities instituted elaborate slave pass and slave curfew systems. In New Orleans and Baton Rouge, any enslaved person found outdoors without a signed pass, or found outdoors after dark, was liable to be arrested, whipped by the police, and jailed until their owner reclaimed them. Every Louisiana urban area also constructed a designated penal space for enslaved people. New Orleans’s slave prison was massive: by 1840, there were usually some two to three hundred incarcerated enslaved people within the city on any given day (significantly larger than the population of Louisiana’s state penitentiary).
Yet for every new police procedure, urban enslaved people developed new strategies for evading municipal law enforcement. They dodged police while sneaking into taverns and illicit gatherings. They forged slave passes to circumvent pass and curfew regulations. On occasion, enslaved people even got friends or family out of prison by paying poor white people to impersonate their owners.
Rates of urban slaveholding declined precipitously in the late antebellum period, due in part to rising immigration rates and the growing availability of low-cost immigrant labor. From a peak population of 23,448 enslaved people in 1840, New Orleans’s enslaved population had declined to 13,385 by 1860. By the outbreak of the Civil War, immigrant wageworkers had largely replaced enslaved people in many of New Orleans’s menial and service industries. Slaveholders, it would seem, were all too happy to relocate enslaved people to the countryside, thereby avoiding the many contradictions and challenges to their rule that urban slavery engendered.