The patterns of urban slavery in North American and pre-Civil War US cities reveal the ways in which individual men and women, as well as businesses, institutions, and governmental bodies employed slave labor and readily adapted the system of slavery to their economic needs and desires. Colonial cities east and west of the Mississippi River founded initially as military forts, trading posts, and maritime ports, relied on African and Native American slave labor from their beginnings. The importance of slave labor increased in Anglo-American East Coast urban settings in the 18th century as the number of enslaved Africans increased in these colonies, particularly in response to the growth of the tobacco, wheat, and rice industries in the southern colonies. The focus on African slavery led most Anglo-American colonies to outlaw the enslavement of Native Americans, and urban slavery on the East Coast became associated almost solely with people of African descent. In addition, these cities became central nodes in the circum-Atlantic transportation and sale of enslaved people, slave-produced goods, and provisions for slave colonies whose economies centered on plantation goods. West of the Mississippi, urban enslavement of Native Americans, Mexicans, and even a few Europeans continued through the 19th century.
As the thirteen British colonies transitioned to the United States during and after the Revolutionary War, three different directions emerged regarding the status of slavery, which would affect the status of slavery and people of African descent in cities. The gradual emancipation of enslaved people in states north of Delaware led to the creation of the so-called free states, with large numbers of free blacks moving into cities to take full advantage of freedom and the possibility of creating family and community. Although antebellum northern cities were located within areas where legalized slavery ended, these cities retained economic and political ties to southern slavery. At the same time, the radical antislavery movement developed in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Thus, Northern cities were the site of political conflicts between pro- and antislavery forces. In the Chesapeake, as the tobacco economy declined, slave owners manumitted enslaved blacks for whom they did not have enough work, creating large groups of free blacks in cities. But these states began to participate heavily in the domestic slave trade, with important businesses located in cities. And in the Deep South, the recommitment to slavery following the Louisiana Purchase and the emergence of the cotton economy led to the creation of a string of wealthy port cities critical to the transportation of slaves and goods. These cities were situated in local economic geographies that connected rural plantations to urban settings and in national and international economies of exchange of raw and finished goods that fueled industries throughout the Atlantic world. The vast majority of enslaved people employed in the antebellum South worked on rural farms, but slave labor was a key part of the labor force in southern cities. Only after the Civil War did slavery and cities become separate in the minds of Americans, as postwar whites north and south created a mythical South in which romanticized antebellum cotton plantations became the primary symbol of American slavery, regardless of the long history of slavery that preceded their existence.