From the slaves’ point of view, slavery in the different regions of the South could be “worse” in some respects and “better” in others. Slaves in the rice fields, for example, endured harsh working conditions but enjoyed more independence than other rural slaves because of the task system of labor and the absence of a large resident white population. Skilled urban craftsmen also enjoyed considerable autonomy. Most city slaves were servants, cooks, and other domestic laborers. But owners sometimes allowed those with craft skills to “hire their own time.” This meant that they could make work arrangements individually with employers, with most of the wages going to the slave’s owner. Many urban slaves even lived on their own. But slaveholders increasingly became convinced that, as one wrote, the growing independence of skilled urban slaves “exerts a most injurious influence upon the relation of master and servant.” For this reason, many owners in the 1850s sold city slaves to the countryside and sought replacements among skilled white labor.

During his time in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass “sought my own employment, made my own contracts, and collected my own earnings.” Compared to conditions on the plantation, he concluded, “I was really well off.” Douglass hastened to add, however, that his favored treatment in no way lessened his desire for freedom—“it was slavery, not its mere incidents, that I hated.”

A female slave drying cotton on a plantation in the South Carolina Sea Islands, 1862. Slave men, women, and children all worked in the cotton fields.

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