In “Fifty-Four Days Work of Two Negroes,” J Elliot Russo debunks the assumption that slaves were only used in plantation economies by analyzing enslaved labor in Somerset County, Maryland. Most of the Chesapeake region was filled with tobacco plantations. However, the geography of Somerset was not suited for growing tobacco profitably, thus it had a diverse economy based in lumber, meat, ships, and more. Russo uses judicial, tax, probate, and land records to explore the various types of slave labor in Somerset County. He argues that more scholars should study slavery in regions with atypical economies to help broaden our understanding of the experience of slavery and its economic reach.
Russo takes the title of his essay from a court case involving Comfort Jenckinson from Accomack County, Virginia, and Heber Whittingham from Somerset County, Maryland. Jenckinson claimed that Whittingham owed him a debt that could be paid by “54 days work of two negroes” (pg. 467). As this example demonstrates, slave owners could lend out enslaved people as a way to pay debts, even across county and state lines. This story reminds us that black people’s migrations during slavery were not always made as daring escapes to the north. Sometimes, slaves were sent South –temporarily or permanently.
Adapted from Critical Readings by Sidrah Shayiq