Free Black Laborers

Free black laborers were members of Hampton’s workforce long before the end of slavery. Some worked at Hampton as part of an effort to purchase freedom for spouses, children, and other family members still in slavery. Some were formerly enslaved persons freed byGovernor Charles Ridgely in 1829 or thereafter who returned to work for pay. Others were members of the larger community, working to survive. Finally, black artisans were hired for specific skilled work by the Ridgelys.

Living Historian demonstrates the 19th century corn harvesting techniques
Living Historian demonstrates the 19th century technique for harvesting corn.

NPS/Tim Ervin

Before 1829, Governor Ridgely began hiring seasonal workers, free blacks, and a mixed labor force that could be easily dismissed or not paid during the lean economic decade of the 1820s. A list of wages paid to free “negroes” between 1825 and 1829 shows that the Governor turned more and more towards hiring seasonal labor, which was far cheaper than maintaining his large and increasingly costly enslaved labor force. As a seasonal and temporary labor force, these free blacks harvested and cradled grains, raked the grounds, bound and mowed the raw wheat, sowed new seeds, and threshed grains. Ridgely paid most of these workers by the job, often with items from his store, including food, whiskey, tools, shoes, and gunpowder.

After Governor Ridgely’s death in 1829, the next owner of Hampton, John Ridgely, purchased 61 enslaved persons and developed a mixed economy and a labor system composed of free blacks, enslaved persons, and white laborers and artisans. Many of those who worked as hired hands on the Hampton estate were former enslaved laborers, freed but still tied to the land and the people of Hampton. Those who had been enslaved by Governor Ridgely but later were paid laborers for his son John include Ellick Williams, Abram Horner, Charles Hazard, Stephen Cromwell, Jake Weeks, and Hampton dairymaid Milly Sherdan/Sheredine and her husband.

modern day image of the dairy
The dairy is where the milk was stored and kept cold after laborers milked the cows.

NPS/Tim Ervin

In all, more than 60 free African Americans earned wages at Hampton between 1829 and 1870. Along with work in the fields, account books and ledgers tell us that these free black laborers slaughtered and salted hogs, cut wood, milked cows, gardened, washed clothes, and acted as house servants.

As in the previous generation, the Ridgelys paid their laborers, both black and white, with a mixed system of money and goods from the estate. When paid with wages, African American and white laborers earned similar pay, as the account books show that all laborers, white and black, earned 4 cents per bushel of threshed rye, 45 cents per cord of cut wood, and 50 cents per day of butchering hogs. African American laborers were often alphabetized in the index of the ledger book with an “N,” for “Negro,” while white laborers were indexed by their last names.

Across the state, increased levels of manumission and the decline of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century meant that the number of free black workers was on the rise. In 1830, there were 52,938 free blacks in Maryland, but, on the eve of the Civil War, there were 83,942. By 1850, Maryland’s free black population was nearly as large as its enslaved population, which created a unique balance between slavery and freedom for blacks that no other slave state experienced.

Last updated: June 25, 2020

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