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date: 26 February 2021

Slavery in North American Citiesfree

  • Leslie HarrisLeslie HarrisNorthwestern University


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.

Establishing Urban Slavery in Colonial North America

In the United States, the prevalence historically and culturally of rural plantation slavery has obscured our knowledge of the practice of slavery in urban areas. But throughout human history slavery has been infinitely adaptable. As Europeans established North American trading and military posts and marine ports in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was little question that slave labor would be involved. By the time Europeans began establishing settlements in colonial North America, they had used slave labor in all parts of the economy in the Americas for more than a century: Both Native American and African slave labor was employed in European colonies throughout the Caribbean and Latin and South America, fueling the wealth of early capitalism through the production of sugar and the harvesting and exportation of raw materials from gold and silver to lumber. Indeed, European exploration of North America before the establishment of settlements was often conducted with racially and status-mixed crews of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans; Africans and Native Americans might be free, enslaved, or indentured laborers, while Europeans were either indentured or free laborers. Once European colonists decided to establish a settlement, the creation of a labor force was both opportunistic and rooted in their own experiences and needs. The variations in the composition of their labor forces initially grew out of their various relationships with Native Americans: whether Natives and Europeans were at war with each other; Europeans were building on native enslavement practices; or Europeans did not have the ability to enslave native peoples or, eventually, had easier access to African slaves. British settlers in 16th- and 17th-century Virginia and New England initially relied on Native American free, indentured, and enslaved labor alongside European indentured and free labor. Before 1700, native labor was the dominant nonwhite labor force. Although the English went back and forth in terms of whether to enslave Native Americans, warfare ultimately led to decades of bound labor for native people, even if not for life, in the 17th century.1

Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent British settlement in North America, was also where the first bound African settlers (as opposed to transitory explorers or free settlers of African descent) arrived, in 1619. Although it remains unclear if these “20 and odd” people of African descent eventually gained freedom or were enslaved for life, Jamestown’s function as a port city through which enslaved Africans arrived forecast the fate of most Atlantic port cities as portals between the international slave trade and the rural and urban slave labor markets. Significant numbers of Africans and Native Americans experienced port cities from Boston to Savannah as part of the Atlantic trade in slaves. From the 17th century and even as slavery became strongly associated with people of African descent in the 18th century, Native Americans were exported as slaves through northern and southern port cities to the Caribbean as punishment for crimes or as prisoners of war. In one instance, New Englanders exported at least five hundred Native American prisoners in the aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675–1676) into slavery in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Indian Oceans, creating what historian Margaret Newell has termed the “second Native diaspora.”2 New Amsterdam, New York, and Providence and Newport in Rhode Island all vied to be the leading northern slave ports for the international African slave trade. The Rhode Island ports bested New York City by the mid-18th century, but New York’s efforts left it with the largest urban population of African-descended slaves in the northern colonies. Laws and practices of what became 18th- and 19th-century slavery developed throughout North America, in urban as well as rural settlements. Boston is believed to be the first place where an owner attempted to force enslaved people to have children for profit, in 1638, the same year the first slave ship is recorded to have arrived there. In addition, the first known law of slavery in British North America was enacted in Massachusetts in 1641, in response to the enslavement of large numbers of Native Americans during the Pequot War.3

Early European settlers in New Amsterdam, which was owned and administered by the Dutch West India Company, waited more than a year for the arrival of enslaved African laborers, in 1626, to build permanent homes and the larger infrastructure of the colony. The first eleven slaves of African descent at New Amsterdam, all men, were owned by the Dutch West India Company, which was heavily involved in providing slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean, and thus had ready access to African slaves. Dutch settlers in 17th-century New Amsterdam were less likely to use enslaved Native American labor than other parts of North America, although they were just as likely to engage in brutal warfare against them.4 Although rural slavery in the Chesapeake came to dominate the North American slave experience of the 18th century by sheer numbers, in the 17th century urban slavery in the northern colonies—New Amsterdam, Boston, and Philadelphia—outweighed southern urban and rural locations, which developed much more slowly. Charleston emerged as a leading slave trading port in the southern part of the North American British colonies.

West of the Atlantic coastal colonies, French and Spanish patterns of settlement and interactions with native peoples led to different patterns of enslavement. French settlers in 18th-century Detroit and New Orleans collaborated with free Native Americans for the purposes of trade and combined Native and African bound labor with European indentured and free labor. At Fort Detroit, established by the French in 1701 and awarded to the British by the treaty ending the Seven Years’ War in 1760, enslavement of Native Americans built upon existing patterns of conflict among native nations and the need to develop fur trading relationships and utilize specific skills for processing the fur into garments, as well as the greater expense of importing African slaves. Europeans called enslaved native peoples “Panis,” a perversion of Pawnees, a western Native American nation. Most enslaved natives were from western locales, although they were not necessarily all members of the Pawnee nation. The number of enslaved Africans increased only slightly after British rule was established and small numbers of British settlers moved from New York to Detroit, bringing African slaves with them.5

The labor roles of enslaved Native American and African people in early colonial settlements varied only slightly. Europeans in most colonial cities relied on slave labor for the establishment of infrastructure; farming for subsistence and, eventually, the provisioning of southern and Caribbean slave societies; production of trade goods; and domestic labor. In Detroit, French settlers collaborated with their native trading partners, such as the Huron and Ottawa, to enslave other native peoples, especially women. Male French settlers took native women as concubines, but as important as the enslaved women’s sexual labor was their ability to process the furs which were the backbone of the early economy, a skill the women brought with them.6 In French New Orleans, founded in 1718, the lack of a clear economic need for laborers or strong commitment by the French government meant that retaining Natives or Africans in slavery was difficult through much of the 18th century. French settlers relied on enslaved Native Americans and Africans for basic survival, such as growing food, ahead of any commercial needs, which were not well-developed in the colony.

European colonial men regularly developed intimate sexual relationships with enslaved Native and African women in the 17th century. Coerced sexual relationships for the purposes of assimilating prisoners of war and expanding households was a common practice in the aftermath of war and in societies that utilized slave labor, including Native American and African societies. Incorporation into these societies could result in a change in status. In 17th-century North America, the children of unions between Europeans and enslaved Natives and Africans did not necessarily remain enslaved, as laws of hereditary slavery were not in place in North America at the time. But neither were these concubines, as they were often called, nor their children considered the equal of those in white communities. There were few formal marriages with slave owners; religious leaders and government elites were conflicted about the status of these relationships, particularly but not only when they were not formalized in churches. Sermons and laws encouraged whites, particularly white men, not to engage in relationships with nonwhite women, but these practices were rarely halted.7 By the 18th century the status of native people and African people diverged in British North America, as laws limiting enslavement to people of African descent spread to most Anglo-American colonies. Proof of Native ancestry became evidence of freedom in court cases to determine status, even as the children of enslaved women of African descent were compelled to remain in life-long, hereditary slavery.

The focus on African slaves led to a decline in the enslavement of Native Americans east of the Mississippi by the early 19th century. But west of the Mississippi, slavery among native people and the enslavement of native people by Euro-Americans continued into the early 20th century and until after the Civil War, respectively. A large portion of the enslavement of Native Americans was driven by wars and trade among native nations. Many European settlements were built on or near native towns and settlements as a way to support their own economic and political plans, but they were not able to completely harness Native slave trading to their own economic advantage. Native slave trading networks spread across the Southwest—indeed, across the continent—in ways that European settlers only dimly apprehended, even as they sometimes benefited from that trade. This was particularly true in Spanish Florida and the Spanish Southwest.8 In northern Mexico, the Spanish created silver mines in which enslaved Native Americans labored from the 16th through the 18th centuries. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Europeans were not involved in native slavery in the region for twelve years, until the arrival of the Comanches, Utes, and Navajos, who forced the Spanish to return to slave labor for the remainder of the 18th century. In the 19th century, the movement of Anglo-Americans west to create a variety of economic and political forms accelerated some forms of native slavery as they bought slaves from native allies. Mormons in Utah and missionaries throughout the southwest once again claimed slavery as a way to civilize natives, while cattle ranchers and other agriculturalists in California utilized their labor. Native peoples themselves saw an opportunity to create greater wealth through slave-based and other trading relationships with Europeans. Not until the early 20th century was slavery largely eradicated from the areas west of the Mississippi.9

Although Europeans were unable to control the Native American trade in slaves, they did control the trade in African-descended slaves in North America. The Dutch in New Amsterdam and the British in New York attempted to make the island port the center of the North American slave trade. This goal grew in urgency as the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland) developed the tobacco industry in the late-17th century and increased demand for African slaves. Laws passed there that limited slavery to Africans spread throughout the English colonies, gradually halting enslavement of Native Americans. Only two areas in North America attempted to avoid the enslavement of Africans before the Revolutionary War: the Georgia colony and Fort Mose in Spanish Florida. But in neither case was the exclusion of slavery a wholesale rejection of the system. James Oglethorpe hoped his colony would rehabilitate the poor of England through agricultural labor. However, he had gained his wealth in part through his leadership in the Royal African Company, which traded slaves captured on the West African coast; and he used enslaved people to build the infrastructure of Savannah, the Georgia colony’s first settlement. Fort Mose was protected by the Spanish only as a way to undermine the British in North America, specifically in South Carolina: the town was part of a Spanish territory to which enslaved people could flee to live in freedom. Although fugitives created freedom there, the Spanish only (and unsuccessfully) outlawed the enslavement of Native Americans in their territories, not people of African descent.10

By the early 18th century, the port cities of Providence and Newport had vaulted the colony of Rhode Island to the leading slave trading locale in North America. The DeWolf family of Providence became the wealthiest slave-trading family in what became the continental United States. Charleston, South Carolina, was the leading southern port for enslaved people arriving from Africa. But even those towns and cities that did not achieve the slave trading success of the Rhode Island ports and Charleston were still influenced by slavery. Port cities up and down the East Coast welcomed slave ships from Africa and the Caribbean, and built and outfitted ships for the slave trade. They also functioned as the ports through which supplies created in urban and rural settings, such as wheat flour, butter, and other food items, were shipped to slave societies in North America, the Caribbean, and South America and received slave-produced goods from those areas in return. Slavery, slave-produced goods, and goods produced to support slave economies were central to pre-Revolutionary War urban economies.11

Slavery and Colonial Urban Culture

Colonial urban communities east of the Mississippi were relatively small, multicultural, hierarchical societies, within which enslaved people, who were on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy, had highly variable access to improving their status and autonomy. The population of most colonial settlements and towns until well into the 18th century numbered from the hundreds to the low thousands. In addition, urban slave owners typically held small numbers of enslaved people, definitely fewer than ten and most often fewer than five. Enslaved Africans and Natives were often outnumbered by European-Americans in urban settings. These demographic factors meant that enslaved urban populations frequently assimilated to European cultural norms through the 17th century and for much of the 18th century. In the 17th century, Atlantic Creoles, as historian Ira Berlin terms them, came to eastern North American cities with knowledge of European ways gained in communities off the coast of Africa, in the Atlantic World as sailors, or in Caribbean slave communities.12 Enslaved Native Americans in the east also held knowledge of European culture, albeit more likely gained within or alongside North American European settlements. The status and possibilities for movement out of bondage for enslaved people depended on the cultural capital they brought to these settlements over the course of the colonial era, as well as the degree to which Europeans relied on slave labor.

In the early years of establishing urban communities, European settlers valued enslaved laborers who could bridge cultures as well as provide labor. Over time, however, cultural knowledge did not lead to higher status or freedom for enslaved people. At Fort Detroit, French settlers bought or traded enslaved Natives from nations with which they were aligned as a way to solidify diplomatic relations, as well as to access knowledgeable labor. Initially male settlers may have married native women of higher status in native communities as a way to gain knowledge and improve the potential of trading relationships. These practices were similar to those of native enslavers, who expanded their communities by incorporating women and children acquired in war. But eventually French male settlers sought native women for less formal sexual relationships that did not result in status beyond slavery for the women involved. Whether as wives or as concubines, and from the perspective of both Natives and Europeans, these women were at a lower social level than their husbands or than wives of the same nation, although their children might rise to a higher level. Similar practices held in New Orleans, although for most of the 18th century economically and militarily New Orleans was far less successful for the French than Detroit.13

In 17th-century East Coast cities participating in Native American and African slave trades, similar patterns prevailed. The small populations in colonial settlements meant that even enslaved Africans who arrived with little or no experience with European or Native cultures often quickly learned European and native ways, depending on the makeup of the community. Labor forces in 17th-century cities included enslaved people of African and Native descent, indentured Europeans, and those who owned slaves and held the indenture contracts. These mixed labor forces worked to clear the land, build the infrastructure of the forts, ports, and towns that eventually grew into the cities we think of today, and provide military assistance. The mix of people in any city depended on the local dynamics at play. Because of their small numbers, critical role in the survival of European settlements, and knowledge and negotiating acumen, enslaved Africans gained freedom in larger numbers than would be true in the 18th and 19th centuries. In New Amsterdam in 1644, the first eleven male slaves who arrived at the settlement negotiated “half-freedom” for themselves and their wives amid the colony’s war against the Lenape people, Kieft’s War, a time when their military support was particularly needed. Similarly, “Antonio, A Negro,” who was sold into the Virginia colony via Jamestown, gained his freedom through meritorious military service and the patronage of his owners, the Bennett family, who allowed him to work for wages and ultimately helped him, his wife, and their children to gain freedom.14

By the early 18th century, the East Coast slave communities in cities were embedded in British colonies. In New Amsterdam on the eve of British takeover in 1664, the total population was about 1,575, including three hundred enslaved and seventy-five free blacks, the largest population of urban slaves in British North America. Between two hundred and three hundred enslaved blacks lived in Boston by 1700, amid a total population of about seven thousand. Philadelphia, founded in 1682, grew to a population of two thousand by 1700. The first slave ship arrived in Philadelphia in 1684; by 1710, enslaved Africans accounted for 20 percent of the city’s population. In the Chesapeake, most enslaved people spent only a short time in ports or trading posts before being sent to plantation sites, a pattern that accelerated with the development of the tobacco economy in the late-17th century. “Administrative centers” such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Williamsburg, Virginia, developed into towns with the growth of planter wealth, followed by urban homes and businesses that encouraged the employment of slave labor. Norfolk (incorporated 1736) and Alexandria (1749), Virginia, and especially Baltimore, Maryland (1729), developed in response to the mid-18th century grain market, which replaced tobacco as a commercial crop. The less-demanding labor needs of grain agriculture and processing, as opposed to tobacco, provided a space for the development of slave artisans, employed first on plantations and then in cities, where the need for skilled labor grew faster than could be satisfied by white artisans. Enslaved women and men in all cities worked in a variety of domestic, market, and port jobs. Only the Georgia colony, founded in 1732, made any pretense at surviving without slave labor, but pretense it was. Savannah was built with slave labor brought in from South Carolina; and by the time the colony lifted the ban on slavery in 1751, an estimated four hundred slaves had labored in the city and surrounding countryside, illegally brought in by colonists.15 By the time of the Revolutionary War, slave labor was a central component of most East Coast cities.

Turning Point: The Revolutionary War and Urban Slavery

The Revolutionary War disrupted patterns of slavery in the soon-to-be independent colonies north of Delaware. With the enactment of gradual emancipation between 1777 (Vermont) and 1804 (New Jersey), northern cities became sites of struggle between pro- and antislavery political factions down to the Civil War, embodied most dramatically through race riots against the abolitionist movement and the recapture of fugitive slaves, as well as the establishment of antislavery organizations and pro- and antislavery newspapers. In the area south of Delaware, where slavery continued, urban slavery largely experienced an expansion of 18th-century patterns. Cities in the antebellum South deepened their reliance on the slave trade and slave-produced goods as foundational to their economic success. The experience of urban slaveholding and being enslaved in cities retained forms developed in the 18th century: small holdings by slave owners, relative autonomy for enslaved people, and higher numbers of skilled slaves. As urban households expanded, enslaved women outnumbered enslaved men, perhaps because women’s domestic labor was more highly prized in cities, and because enslaved men’s field labor was more highly prized in rural areas.

Postrevolutionary War Expansion of Urban Slavery

The compromises in the US Constitution that facilitated the continuation of slavery in the southern states, and the development of the cotton economy in the early 19th century fed the development of urban areas and thus urban slavery in the southern states. On the East Coast, Atlantic port cities from Baltimore to Savannah expanded on colonial economic and geographic footprints to service the expansion of the antebellum plantation economy. The differing roles the cities played in the plantation economy shaped the nature of slavery within them. Baltimore, at the center of the flailing Chesapeake tobacco plantation economy, developed a large free black community between the end of the Revolutionary War and the rise of the cotton economy. The possibility for ending slavery in the South was strongest in Maryland and Virginia after the Revolutionary War, but the rebound of slave-based agriculture to the south and west, and the closure of the international slave trade in 1807 provided a new market for the Chesapeake: the sale of excess slave labor. Over the course of the antebellum period, between 875,000 and one million enslaved men, women, and children moved south and west into the expanding plantation geography of the United States. Although some accompanied their owners who were in search of new arable land, 60 to 70 percent were sold through the domestic slave trade. Chesapeake port cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Alexandria, Richmond, and Norfolk, Virginia, served as locations from which enslaved people were sent overland or shipped by sea. Southern ports from Charleston and Savannah all the way to New Orleans, and interior cities such as Montgomery, Alabama; Natchez, Mississippi; St. Louis, Missouri; and Louisville, Kentucky, served as locations to which slave owners traveled from near and far to purchase slaves, and locations from which slave traders put together coffles, groups of slaves who would be marched to and through rural areas during the slave trading seasons.16

Thus, as tobacco-based plantation agriculture declined in the Chesapeake region, the booming cotton economy to the south and west, rice along the lower Atlantic, sugar in Louisiana, and new regions of tobacco agriculture as well as hemp and other goods in Kentucky and Tennessee provided a ready market for enslaved people between 1820 and 1860. By the 1820s and down through the Civil War, slave traders established multicity businesses, situated to make the most of interior routes through the heart of plantation agriculture and coastal routes to New Orleans, the largest slave trading port in the South, and to smaller coastal cities as well. Austin Woolfolk began his slave trading company in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1820s but soon opened offices in Baltimore and Easton, Maryland, and in New Orleans. Isaac Franklin and John Armfield sold slaves out of Tennessee and North Carolina before meeting in the 1820s and going into business together. By the mid-1830s, Franklin & Armfield was one of the largest slavetrading businesses in the South, with offices in Alexandria, Virginia; Natchez, Mississippi; and New Orleans, as well as agents in smaller towns in Virginia and Maryland. By the 1830s, urban slave trading businesses were an essential part of the domestic slave trade. The larger interregional businesses owned storefronts and slave holding pens in southern commercial districts; smaller itinerant traders rented spaces to sell their product. All used the infrastructure of large and small cities—newspapers, banks, courts, hotels, ports, and roads—to support their businesses. The domestic slave trade in southern cities remains part of the historical iconography of antebellum slavery, particularly as exposed by radical antislavery activists, from the auction block to the slave pen.17

The domestic slave trade was only one element of the reality of slavery in southern cities. In the south, most whites assumed that manual labor was primarily the purview of enslaved people; white people were assumed to be looking to own slaves, not labor as they did. Thus, slave labor was often a central component of the skilled and unskilled labor force in cities. At any given time, enslaved people performing labor in cities could be residents of those cities, or laborers accompanying owners and goods from rural hinterlands for either a few hours or days, or for weeks and months. In either case, the nature of urban slavery gave enslaved people greater day-to-day autonomy and mobility, depending on the kinds of labor they performed.

Southern cities were central economic, political, and legal nodes connected to rural areas by waterways and roads, and connecting plantations to the wider world, mostly for the sale of raw goods and the purchase of finished goods and often slave labor. Towns and cities were also the sites of legal and financial expertise necessary to slaveholders and plantation businesses—courts and lawyers to draw up and adjudicate wills, deal with contested sales, collect debts, and oversee bankruptcy claims. Banks and merchants were necessary to ordinary commerce of all kinds. Many southern cities served as centers of the trade in slaves and slave-produced goods for their region or state—New Orleans, Baltimore, Savannah, Charleston, and Memphis, for example. Wealthier slave owners might own homes in both the city and the country, avoiding disease seasons in both places, participating in urban, state or national politics, and making economic and social connections. Enslaved men, women and children, particularly those who engaged in domestic labor, circulated between rural and urban homes as their owners dictated. The sex ratio among enslaved populations in the vast majority of cities was imbalanced, with many more women than men, perhaps due to the use of enslaved women for domestic work in homes. But men also circulated between rural and urban areas, working as draymen hauling goods, on the waterways that connected rural and urban areas, loading and unloading goods on the docks and in warehouses, and as skilled workers and in factories. Richmond was the most industrial city of the antebellum South and employed the most slaves in industrial labor. But enslaved men and women throughout the South worked in various nonagricultural industries in cities. In Savannah, enslaved men were responsible for making the bricks that lined the city streets and composed numerous dwellings and municipal, religious, and business buildings within and outside the city. Throughout the South, enslaved men and women processed raw agricultural goods—tobacco, cotton, hemp rope—for shipment. Enslaved boatmen knew the waterways better than many whites.

Urban Slave Housing

Households, except for the wealthiest, usually owned slaves in small numbers, a pattern continued from the colonial period. Most of these slaves were used in domestic labor, with a substantial number also used in the businesses of their owners. Wealthier households held larger numbers of enslaved people as domestics, and also hired them out to other households and to businesses, with the employer often responsible for housing and feeding the hired slaves for the term of the contract. The relatively small spaces for households of whites and enslaved blacks compared to rural farms and plantations meant that enslaved people who lived with their owners and employers were more often in close quarters with whites: across the yards in rooms over the stables, in the stables themselves alongside livestock, or in the kitchens, attics, or basements of the main houses. Although large percentages of southern urban populations owned slaves, those who did not own slaves, as well as those in need of additional labor, created a market for hired slaves. For owners, hiring out was another way to make money from enslaved people, especially when they could not fully employ them in their own homes or businesses. Some enslaved people negotiated their own contracts and kept part of their earnings, but most owners themselves, or agents hired for the purpose, negotiated the terms of hiring out contracts, which might last from a few days to years. Hired-out slaves might live independently in mixed neighborhoods of free blacks and slaves or live with their employers or owners. Slave owners relied on the society’s agreement on the need to control enslaved people to balance the need for a degree of autonomy in the labor force. The numbers of enslaved people in cities who were owned by businesses rather than by individuals increased over the course of the antebellum period.18

The necessary autonomy of enslaved people in urban areas was balanced by the policing infrastructure on the local, state, and ultimately the national level. Although at first glance such autonomy might seem to modern viewers to provide an opportunity for escape, in fact whites in the antebellum south were more often slave owners or aspiring owners, and thus were rarely antislavery. Whites were required to and rewarded for policing enslaved people and preventing runaways. South Carolina’s Colored Seamen’s Acts of 1822 prevented black sailors from coming ashore after the Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston. Blacks were required by law to wear metal tags identifying their status or to carry passes written by their owners that indicated the specific nature of their work. These are the most well-known examples from the web of laws throughout the South that demonstrated the desire of whites to control blacks, and make sure that free blacks did not disturb or confuse the status of enslaved blacks. The punishment of urban enslaved people in the antebellum South differed from that of the plantation. On isolated plantations and farms owners and overseers could brutally whip and otherwise physically punish enslaved people in front of slave communities but out of sight and hearing of white family members and neighbors. But the close quarters of relatively small antebellum cities made such displays of power difficult, and as the radical abolitionists increased their criticism of the brutality of slave masters, owners also sought to hide their brutality. Owners used municipal prisons to lock up recalcitrant slaves; police arrested and imprisoned enslaved people out after curfew or who committed other violations of the law, and then notified their owners. Punishments included whipping by professional whippers, pillorying, work gangs, and work houses. Charleston was known for its treadmill. Slave owners supported such punishments as long as their property was returned to them able to continue work and hopefully chastened against future crimes.19

Urban Areas and the Politics of Slavery and Antislavery

Nationally, the question of returning fugitive slaves to the South was an active one that most often inflamed northern cities. During the gradual emancipation era (1777 through the 1820s), as manumission societies made the end of slavery possible by lobbying for laws and constitutional amendments state by state, manumission societies were concerned that those subject to being freed by the laws were not sold south into slavery. But as the vast majority of northern blacks gained freedom from slavery by 1830, that concern transformed into a new constellation of issues. The expansion of free black communities in cities across the northeast and into the old northwest inspired fear among whites who worried that they would have to compete for jobs with former slaves. Southern slaves also attempted to escape north, pursued by their owners or agents hired by their owners to be returned south. As the gradual emancipation movement wound down and the radical abolition movement began arguing for the immediate end to slavery and the racial equality of people of African descent, northern city streets bore witness to scenes of anti-abolition and anti–slave-catcher activities, from resistance to violent riots as well as race riots against black communities—and sometimes all three. In Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1829, a three-day riot by whites who feared the free black population increase (no doubt fed in part by fugitive blacks fleeing upper-south slavery) that had occurred there drove two thousand blacks out of the city to Canada. In the 1830s and 1840s, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as smaller cities such as Alton, Illinois, and Rochester, New York, witnessed antiblack and antiabolitionist riots.

On the other end of the spectrum, as fugitives from slavery sought freedom, even temporarily, in northern cities, southerners and their agents seeking the return of their property roamed the streets, sometimes seizing free blacks in return for rewards or to sell them in southern slave markets. High-profile court cases as well as struggles with whites suspected of being slave catchers inspired mob actions to rescue fugitives from slavery in northern cities down to the Civil War. Less dramatically, antislavery activists assisted fugitives from slavery after they arrived in cities, providing legal assistance, hiding places, information on jobs, or assistance in going to a safer destination out of reach of slave catchers. In 1835, David Ruggles founded the New York Vigilance Committee, which combined the legal acumen of antislavery lawyers with the street smarts of working-class African Americans. Vigilance Committees soon emerged in other cities as a uniquely urban form of the Underground Railroad.20

Resistance to Slavery

Cities provided enslaved people with unique opportunities to resist and rebel against bondage. Towns and cities were good places to make a strike for freedom, with the significant number of enslaved people located in a relatively small geographic area, concentration of governmental power, and easily accessible transportation. But these same characteristics also made it easier for individuals or groups of slave owners to bring governmental structures to bear on smaller acts of resistance, such as the capture of runaways, and larger forms of rebellion.

In the founding years of most colonial cities in North America, the ability to maintain control over a slave population, whether Native American or African in composition, depended on the degree to which the population developed relationships with neighboring Native American nations. This was most dramatically true in New Orleans, where the relative lack of a colonial governmental infrastructure and harsh living conditions led enslaved Natives and Africans to leave the city for maroon communities on the outskirts of the city that at times aligned with and utilized resources from both European and native settlements; or to join fully with local native nations, a transition that could be eased by providing valuable information about the European settlers’ plans. More typical were individual African slaves leaving European settlements to join native settlements, as occurred up and down the East Coast. In doing so, Africans ran the risk of being re-enslaved by Native Americans. In addition, native nations might have their own diplomatic needs and could return runaway African or native slaves to Europeans if they were trying to build or maintain their own safety from incursion or economic ties. Notably, the first eleven male slaves who negotiated “half-freedom” in New Amsterdam in 1644 did so in part because the colony relied on their military labor against the Lenape peoples, another indicator of the ways in which the mix of race, nation, and status within colonies and cities provided opportunities that were neither linear nor predictable.21

Enslaved people sometimes rose up on their own against their enslavers. In 1712, a newly arrived group of African slaves in New York set fires to outbuilding belonging to one of their owners. When the townspeople came to put out the fire, the slaves set upon them, hoping to inspire all the enslaved people in the town to rise up and either take control of the city or flee to the hinterlands to form a separate community. As with many such actions, other enslaved people failed to join. Several conspirators were killed at the scene and others were put on trial, with some executed and others sent to the Caribbean as punishment. In 1680, a more successful effort to end slavery occurred in the Pueblo rebellion in the Southwest. The widespread enslavement of native peoples to work in the mines at Parral led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Nations located in a range of pueblos, or towns, across northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico—Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Cochiti, Pueblo, and many others—rose up over two days in August to destroy the Spanish presence among them, killing 20 percent of the Spanish population and destroying all signs of Christianity and Spanish influence. The final goal was to capture Santa Fe, the capital of the Spanish empire in the region, and demand the return of the enslaved native people held by the Spanish. After almost two weeks of being surrounded by Native American soldiers, the Spanish governor and about one thousand settlers fled south out of the city and out of New Mexico. For twelve years, Europeans were not involved in native slavery in the region.22

In both the colonial and the antebellum era, slave resistance could involve collaboration between enslaved and free people. This was true of New York’s 1741 slave plot, in which a uniquely urban mix of sailors, laborers, and enslaved people gathered in the city’s taverns and fomented revolution, and the 1822 Denmark Vesey revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey, a formerly enslaved sailor who purchased his freedom with his prize money from a lottery, gathered members of Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and others in the city and its rural hinterlands to plan a rebellion. Both of these rebellions were ultimately unsuccessful.23

Cities also provided opportunities for other forms of resistance. Enslaved people frequently flouted the web of laws designed to control them. They drank and socialized with free people, went out after curfew, gathered for funerals and for religious gatherings without permission, fenced and bartered stolen goods. In addition, cities were usually established on waterways or with major thoroughfares that could provide transportation out of slavery, as was the case most famously with Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’s ship voyages from Baltimore and through Philadelphia, respectively, to New York; or William and Ellen Craft’s and William “Box” Brown’s voyages in disguise by train from Savannah and Richmond, respectively.24

To the Civil War

North and South, black populations enslaved and free declined after 1850. Although some scholars have seen the decline in southern urban slave populations as indicative of a decline in the importance of slavery more generally, the fact that both enslaved and free black populations declined at the same time should perhaps push us to a different set of conclusions. Free black populations appear to have declined in the urban North in response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which strengthened the ability of southerners to retrieve black fugitives by setting up special courts to adjudicate an individual’s slave status and paying a higher bounty to the judge if he determined that a black person was a slave who should be returned south. In response, many blacks fled the cities for rural areas and a significant number left the United States for Canada, Europe, Liberia, or Haiti. With southern slave populations, it is possible that the continued expansion of the nation westward led slave owners to increase their commitment to agriculture, and thus move their enslaved property to more rural locales. This move of slave labor from urban to rural areas may have been further supported by the increase in European migrants who came south after the 1840s. Although European immigration into the South never matched northern numbers, a significant number of Irish and Germans came into New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and other southern urban areas.25

Discussion of the Literature

The importance of African-descended slave labor on pre-Civil War rural plantations to the history, culture, and economy of the United States has limited the exploration of the enslavement of Native American and African-descended people in urban areas in North America. The extraordinary impact of the US Civil War further reinforced the focus on antebellum southern plantation slavery and on people of African descent. Before and during the antebellum era, white laborers in cities argued that enslaved laborers were unsuited to skilled work in urban areas. Slave owners also expressed concerns in the press that cities were uniquely threatening to the institution. The first histories of slavery that whites wrote after the Civil War and in the early twentieth century largely aligned with the romantic vision of the rural plantation south that ruled the time. To emphasize or acknowledge the importance of southern cities and urban slavery would have called into question the view that enslaved laborers, much less black men and women, were able to hold skilled jobs. Additionally, as southern blacks began leaving the rural south for better pay in northern industrial cities, such arguments about slavery aligned with attempts to by southern employers to limit their mobility. But research into the history of American slavery from the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st benefits from chronological and geographical comparisons and reveals a more complex understanding of the adaptability of slavery to any number of conditions.26

Much of the literature on urban slavery is concerned with individual cities; indeed, there is no synthetic work that examines colonial-era cities and slavery as a group. The only two books that have attempted to examine antebellum cities and slavery as a group are Richard Wade’s Slavery in the Cities, 1820–1860 (1964), which is still very useful, although some of his arguments have been challenged by Claudia Goldin’s Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820–1860: A Quantitative History (1976). Wade’s encyclopedic work brings together the most complete account of urban slavery in the antebellum south, using archival, municipal, census, and print sources to understand the “urban perimeter” of cities, the laws that grew up in cities to control enslaved labor, the varieties of labor enslaved people performed in cities, fears and realities around slave resistance and rebellion, and the late-antebellum decline in slave populations in cities. Wade’s argument that urban slavery was in decline by the start of the Civil War was challenged by Goldin, an economic historian, who saw that prices and demand for urban slaves continued unabated even as the population of urban slaves dropped. Although primarily focused on free blacks, Leonard P. Curry’s The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream (1981) is indispensable for understanding the relationships between enslaved and free black people in cities. It contains detailed quantitative work on enslaved and free black people in cities north and south in terms of employment, property ownership, and other factors.27

Individual cities with the most extensive historiographical trails include, in order, New Amsterdam/New York, New Orleans, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah. Smaller cities such as Mobile, Natchez, Memphis, and St. Louis could withstand more investigation, although there are some recent works, particularly from legal scholars.28

The status of places like Boston and Philadelphia in the iconography of freedom in the United States has meant that the history of slavery in those cities has been less clearly delineated. At the same time, Philadelphia’s role as the home to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson during their presidencies has refocused attention on the role of slaves brought North by southerners. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught (2017), about Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s enslaved woman who fled Philadelphia in 1796, and Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), which examines in part the experiences of Jefferson’s enslaved retinue in Philadelphia, as well as the interpretive work on the President’s House in Philadelphia all complicate our understanding of how slavery functioned in northern locales even after emancipation was enacted there.29 Historians of New England have also begun to dig deeper into slavery in Boston, Providence, Newport, and other locales in the colonial period, although many books are more concerned with “New England,” than with individual cities. Two exceptions to the “New England” trend are Jared Ross Hardesty’s Unfreedom, on 18th-century Boston, and Cristy Clark-Pujara’s Dark Work, which is a good example of how a book focused on a state can also provide deep analysis of the unique contributions of urban areas within that geographic framework.30 To be clear, colony- and statewide studies are needed as well, so this critique is not meant to denigrate these works, but rather to identify areas of future research.

The area most lacking in the history of urban slavery is an understanding of how the enslavement of Native Americans, by both native peoples and by Europeans, differed in urban areas, the rise and fall of such practices, and their meaning for urban slavery after the revolutionary era. This reflects the segregation within histories of North American and US slavery of Native and African enslavement, with a few significant exceptions. The two leading historians on this topic are Tiya Miles and Daniel Usner. Miles’s recent book Dawn of Detroit is a model for how to construct such histories for urban areas. Daniel Usner’s work on Native American slavery in New Orleans, American Indians in Early New Orleans, promises to reset our understanding of urban enslavement of native peoples in the South, east of the Mississippi. In terms of urban slavery, there is practically no discussion of the presence of urban enslaved native peoples. Unfortunately, this reinforces the idea that North American slavery is only inclusive of people of African descent and continues the erasure of Native American histories. Yet many works point to ways that Native American histories can be incorporated into urban histories of slavery. Historians must work a little harder at integrating these threads.31

Primary Sources

Research on colonial-era urban slavery has made great use of runaway slave ads, ads for slave trades, court cases, the development of laws regulating slavery, and shipping records. In both the colonial and the antebellum eras, using the records of families could also be fruitful. Letters, financial records, and of course wills, estate records, and taxation records could all provide a sense of the ways in which African and native slave labor was used, the experiences of both enslaved people and their enslavers, and perhaps people’s ideas about the system of slavery as it developed in North America. In addition, colonial records could be mined for information about slavery in the colonies. Metropolitan governments sometimes or often adjudicated cases involving enslaved people in the colonies or slave trading in the Atlantic world. These records have been underutilized by colonial-era historians, given how important slave trading was to these cities and to the establishment of slavery in North America, even in areas where slaves were not used for agricultural labor.

Records for the 19th century are much richer, including newspapers, abolitionists’ accounts, family papers, financial records of all kinds, governmental and legal records, court cases, census records, wills, and estate and taxation records. Slave narratives, including antebellum, postbellum, and Works Progress Administration narratives, not to mention letters and other interviews from the antebellum period, can provide additional insight into urban slavery from the perspective of enslaved people. In both the pre- and postrevolutionary eras, attention to the built environment is an underutilized method of understanding the ways in which urban slavery was structured and experienced. Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg’s edited collection Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America (2017) does a great job of introducing the possibilities for such methodologies.32


My thanks to Dawn Peterson, Timothy Gilfoyle, the anonymous reviewer, and the editors at Oxford University Press for their suggestions and assistance with this article. Errors of fact and interpretation remain my own.

Further Reading

  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998.
  • Brownell, Blaine A., and David R. Goldfield, eds. The City in Southern History: The Growth of Urban Civilization in the South. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.
  • Clark-Pujara, Christy. Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
  • Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Dantas, Mariana L. R. Black Townsmen: Urban Slavery and Freedom in the Eighteenth-Century Americas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Ellis, Clifton, and Rebecca Ginsburg, eds. Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017.
  • Goldin, Claudia. Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820–1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • Powers, Bernard. Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822–1885. Little Rock: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
  • Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782–1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
  • Tyler-McGraw, Marie, and Gregg D. Kimball. In Bondage and Freedom: Antebellum Black Life in Richmond, Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.


  • 1. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975), esp. chaps. 4 and 5; Margaret Newell, “Introduction,” in Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); and Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Norton, 2016), chaps. 1–3.

  • 2. Newell, Brethren by Nature, 159–188.

  • 3. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998), 29; Alden T. Vaughn, “Blacks in Virginia: A Note on the First Decade,” William and Mary Quarterly 29 (1972): 469–478; Engel Sluiter, “New Light on the ‘20 and Odd Negroes’ Arriving in Virginia, August 1619,” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 395–398; Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 28; Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (New York: New York University Press, 2016); Newell, Brethren by Nature, 49–54; Warren, New England Bound, 7–8; and Warren, “‘The Cause of Her Grief’: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” Journal of American History 93 (March 2007): 1031–1049.

  • 4. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, 12–15; Christopher Moore, “A World of Possibilities: Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam,” chap. 1 in Slavery in New York, ed. Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (New York: The New Press, 2005); Thelma Wills Foote, “‘To better people their land, and to bring the country to produce more abundantly’: territory, trade, conquest, and the project of colony building on Manhattan Island under Dutch rule, 1624–1664,” chap. 1 in Black and White Manhattan: The History of Racial Formation in Colonial New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

  • 5. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in Eighteenth Century Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 3, 15; and Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (New York: The New Press, 2017), 21–64.

  • 6. Miles, The Dawn of Detroit, 21–64

  • 7. Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana, 3, 15; Miles, Dawn of Detroit, 21–64; Newell, Brethren by Nature, esp. chap. 3; and Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 17–51, 61–66.

  • 8. Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 10–12, 98–99; and Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), 134–135, 196–219.

  • 9. This paragraph is largely based on Reséndez, The Other Slavery, chaps. 4 through epilogue. See also Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

  • 10. Walter J. Fraser, Jr., “James Edward Oglethorpe and the Georgia Plan,” in Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, ed. Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 22–23; Jane Landers, “Gracia Real De Santa Teresa De Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,” American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (1990): 9–30; and Spanish and antislavery, see Reséndez, The Other Slavery, 125–148.

  • 11. Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work, “Introduction” and chap. 1, “The Business of Slavery and the Making of Race,” 1–40; Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 144–145; Warren, New England Bound, 36–47, 52–58; Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, 18–19, 26–30; and Gary Nash, “Slaves and Slaveowners in Colonial Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly 30 (1973): 223–256.

  • 12. Ira Berlin, “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Development of African-American Society in Mainland North America,” William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 2 (April 1995): 251–288; Many Thousands Gone, part 1: “Societies with Slaves: The Charter Generations,” 15–92.

  • 13. Miles, Dawn of Detroit, 16, 43–50; and Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, 17–51.

  • 14. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, 20–26; Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, part 1; Antonio/Anthony Johnson, 29–34.

  • 15. Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 134–136; James A. McMillin, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade Comes to Georgia,” chap. 1 in Slavery and Freedom in Savannah, ed. Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 21–41.

  • 16. Ira Berlin, “Migration Generations,” chap. 4 in Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

  • 17. The best and most complete work on the domestic slave trade is Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); for a full exploration of the historiography of the domestic slave trade and the author’s conclusions regarding the numerical estimates of those sold, see Appendix A; for cities as sites for the domestic slave trade, see chap. 4, “‘CASH FOR NEGROES’: Slave Traders and the Market Revolution in the South”; on Woolfolk, Franklin, and Armfield, see 98–104; on the development of urban slave trading, see 104–106; on antislavery activists and slave trading, see chap. 6, “Outside Looking In: The Domestic Slave Trade and the Abolitionist Attack on Slavery.” See also Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); and Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  • 18. Richard C. Wade, “Bondsmen and Hirelings,” chap. 2 in Slavery in the Cities, 1820–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); on businesses owning slaves, 22–23; Susan Eva O’Donovan, “At the Intersection of Cotton and Commerce: Antebellum Savannah and Its Slaves,” chap. 3, and Harris and Berry, “Slave Life In Savannah: Geographies of Autonomy and Control,” chap. 5, in Slavery and Freedom in Savannah. See also Robert S. Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

  • 19. Richard C. Wade, “The Lash and the Law,” chap. 7 in Slavery in the Cities; and Harris and Berry, “Slave Life in Savannah.”

  • 20. On riots against free blacks and antislavery activists, see Leonard Richards, “Gentlemen of Property and Standing”: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Paul Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763–1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 162–170; Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 273–279; Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, chap. 6; and Nikki M. Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802–1868 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004), chap. 3. On actions against slave catchers, see Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, chap. 6; Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); H. Robert Baker, The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006); Graham Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015). General histories of the antislavery and radical abolitionist movements are numerous, but the most comprehensive is Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

  • 21. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, 22–26; and Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana.

  • 22. Kenneth Scott, “The Slave Insurrection in New York in 1712,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 45 (1961): 43–74; and Reséndez, The Other Slavery, chap. 6.

  • 23. Thomas J. Davis, A Rumor of Revolt: The “Great Negro Plot” in Colonial New York (New York: The Free Press, 1985); Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan (New York: Knopf, 2005); and Douglas Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey (Madison, WI: Madison House, 1999).

  • 24. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written By Himself (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston: Published for the Author, 1861); Richard Stearns, Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide, Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself, with Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery (Boston: Brown and Stearns, 1849); and William Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft From Slavery (London: William Tweedie, 1860).

  • 25. Wade, Slavery in the Cities, “Introduction” and chap. 9, argues that the decline in slave populations in southern cities indicated the “disarray” of urban slavery. This view was challenged by Claudia Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820–1860: A Quantitative History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

  • 26. Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South, outlines the ways in which these ideas permeated the historical literature. See especially “Preface” and “Introduction.”

  • 27. Wade, Slavery in the Cities, “Introduction” and chap. 9; Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South; and Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

  • 28. In addition to works already cited in this article, see: for New York: Edgar McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1966); Shane White, Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770–1810 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991); Graham Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery; Harris and Berlin, Slavery in New York; Jill Lepore, New York Burning; for New Orleans: Thomas N. Ingersoll, Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans: The First Slave Society in the Deep South, 1718–1819 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999); Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846–1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003); for Baltimore: T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790–1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Mariana L. R. Dantas, Black Townsmen: Urban Slavery and Freedom in the Eighteenth-Century Americas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); for St. Louis: Dale Edwyna Smith, African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763–1865: Slavery, Freedom and the West (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Co., 2017); Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017); for Natchez: Ariela Gross, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Kimberly Welch, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); I have limited this list to late-20th-century books, and for the most part to books that not only cover slavery predominantly, but also take the city as a unit of analysis. There are books on colonies and/or states that may have a substantial amount of material on cities within them, but there is not always an analysis of the distinctiveness of the urban environment. This is particularly true for the colonial era. In addition, a thorough reading of the journal and edited volume literature would no doubt turn up a wealth of information.

  • 29. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: Ona Judge, the Washingtons, and Their Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017); and Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: Norton, 2008). On Philadelphia’s President’s House, see Gary B. Nash, “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, ed. James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 35–36; and The President’s House website.

  • 30. Clark-Pujara, Dark Work; and Jared Ross Hardesty, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

  • 31. The two leading historians on this topic are Tiya Miles and Daniel Usner. Miles’s recent book Dawn of Detroit is a model for how to construct such histories for urban areas. Daniel Usner’s book on Native American slavery in New Orleans, American Indians in Early New Orleans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018) resets our understanding of urban enslavement of Native peoples in the South, east of the Mississippi. In addition, the work of many of the historians cited throughout this article (Reséndez, Newell, Midlo Hall, Spear, Calloway, and Hämäläinen) provide models and material to bring a more holistic view of North American slavery.

  • 32. Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg, eds., Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017).