African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

Work of Enslaved Men in the Chesapeake

Demonstration tobacco plot in historic area at Booker T. Washington NHM, NPS.

Tobacco cultivation was a labor-intensive crop cycle from January and February when enslaved men cleared new fields or old beds for planting through April when they built hills to receive plants. By 1750, most planters expected an enslaved adult to make about 350 hills a day, each taking less than 2 minutes to build. An increase in runaways accompanied the intensity of the labor. More enslaved Virginians ran away in April than in any other month. Transplanting, weeding, and replanting kept the Africans busy through early summer. There was no down time, if not weeding or replanting, slaves were kept in “endless labour,” according to one traveler, removing tobacco caterpillars, removing ground leaves, emerging buds and leaves that grew in the juncture of large tobacco leaves and stems. The crop cycle continued through tobacco harvest and curing in September. Harvest began in August and lasted through September. Enslaved men worked long hours curing and packing of tobacco (Morgan 1998:166–168).

Organizing into communal labor groups was culturally familiar to Africans. An enslaved man was usually responsible for one or more work groups as a foreman or overseer of a quarter. As early as 1704, a York County planter referred to four of his quarters by the name of the Africans who oversaw their operations: Dubblerun, Nero, Debb, and Jacko quarters. When there were not enough Africans with longevity in Virginia, or native-born enslaved men, Carter selected newly arrived Africans as foremen including two-named Ebo George, another called King Tom and a fourth named George. By the 1730s, there were 43 foremen on Carter's forty-eight quarters. Cubit, a Calvert slave had charge of his own quarter in 1734 (Walsh 1997:86; Yentsch 1994:172).

The 1760s found planters slowly mechanizing tobacco production making it less labor intensive. At the same time, the African American population was increasing “naturally.” Even though many farmers introduced crop diversification taking up the “slack” in required field labor, as a consequence of mechanization and a larger labor pool, more enslaved men became cartmen, plowmen, mowers and other semi-skilled laborers (Kulikoff 1986:408).

Even in the middle of the 17th century some planters, according to A Perfect Description of Virginia (1649) engaged Africans in artisan work:

“‘Worthy captaine matthews, and old Planter of above thiry years standing…he sowes yearly store of hemp and flax, and causes it to be spun; he keeps Weavers and hath a Tan-house, cause leather to be dressed, hath eight Shoemakers employed in their trade, hath forty Negro servants, brings them up to trades in his house…(A Perfect description 1649:15 as cited in Jernegan 1920:227–228).’”

The first enslaved artisan in Maryland was a mulatto carpenter at Oxon Hill Plantation in 1705 owned by the Addisons. Seventy years later, there were four carpenters, one joiner, one shoemaker and a tailor listed among the “negroes” in the probate inventory of Addison’s great grand-son, Thomas Addison Esquire, owner of Oxon Hill plantation (Kulikoff 1986:397; Addison, 1775, Gunston Probate Inventory Database). Changes in labor organization and structure brought with them increasing opportunities for African American men to develop artisan skills. African American sawyers cut and planned lumber. Enslaved men became carpenters and masons, building houses for themselves and their masters. They were coopers who made and repaired barrels to store and ship commodities. Tom was “bred by Major Gaines in keeping horses and riding races, but is now a good sawyer.”…read one advertisement for a runaway.

Unlike field hands, artisans often worked in groups that included numerous whites. African American stevedores, watermen, and ironworkers were most likely to labor with whites. Working conditions were relatively equal for the two groups. Although whites were paid more wages the more important development was payment of enslaved men for their labor. The most skilled African American artisans worked independently in positions of authority like Abraham and Bill, who in the 1760s, helped manage the Snowden iron furnace in Anne Arundel (Kulikoff 1986:413). African American men gained more than money from these experiences, they developed a sense of cultural, social and personal autonomy. They gained familiarity with the English customs and life style that came from close association. They developed communication networks that allowed for rapid dissemination of information like news of the Haitian Revolution in 1793. From these experiences, in the early years of the new republic, would come an African American populace, many free and others seeking freedom. In the section on Counter-cultural resistance at the end of Southern Colonies, read more about how enslaved men and women manifested resistance to enslavement.

All of the 18th century building, commerce and drive toward self-sufficiency in the colonies intensified in the period leading up to the Revolutionary War and beyond. Perhaps one of the most pressing needs at this time was for iron and some of the most skilled ironworkers were Africans and African Americans.