One might say that Baltimore was a northern city in a southern state. That is certainly one of the ideas running through Seth Rockman’s book Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. As Baltimore industrialized, and the harbor became a focus of life and work, both the economy and landscape of the city transformed. The institution of slavery in Maryland changed along with the city. The number of free blacks exceeded the number of slaves in Baltimore. The labor performed by the slave minority shifted from agricultural to industrial. The function and viability of slavery as part of the urban economy were gradually called into question.
In the late 18th century, many Maryland planters converted from tobacco production to food grain production. The new crops required less labor to plant and harvest. At the same time, Baltimore’s convenient location made it an attractive hub for the export of grain from both Pennsylvania and Maryland to Europe. These twin trends resulted in a decreased demand for slave labor in agriculture, and an increased demand for a variety of urban and industrial workers in Baltimore. As a result, both slaves and free blacks to migrated to Baltimore for work.
By the early 19th century, a diverse work force supported the economy in Baltimore. The city’s black population was predominantly free, but there was still a sizable enslaved population. The city was also one of the largest ports for European immigration in the United States from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. The labor force consisted of a combination of these groups. Slave owners often rented their slaves out as laborers to provide a trickle of income. The income from rented slaves enabled the small population of middle class professionals (such as doctors and lawyers) to achieve a measure of gentility (58). In this system, slave owners might rarely see their own enslaved work force, relying instead on others to police the boundaries of slavery and freedom.
It was difficult to maintain slavery in this environment of urban labor. Baltimore’s proximity to Pennsylvania, its large free black population, and the separation between slave and owner in the urban economy all made freedom more accessible to the enslaved population. Baltimore itself could be a destination of freedom. Slaves from the countryside could escape to Baltimore and slip into obscurity within the densely populated free black community. Many fugitive slave ads reported slaves as “going at large” or “living as free” in Baltimore (58).
The changing form of slavery in Baltimore required new devices of control. Delayed manumission became one of those devices. To discourage largely independent enslaved laborers from running away, owners guaranteed their freedom after a set time of service. Many enslaved people accepted these terms, choosing to work towards freedom and remaining with family and an extended community rather than flee alone. However, it was common that the children of a manumitted slave would remain enslaved. Saving money to purchase the freedom of children and other family members placed a tremendous financial hardship on the free black community.
Urban slavery in Baltimore made less economic sense over time. The primary value of slaves in Baltimore, and in the rest of Maryland, was based on the price they might bring on the slave market in the deep south. In other words, as Rockman wrote, “slaves were valuable in Baltimore because they were valuable elsewhere” (235). Slavery would not be otherwise be profitable in Maryland. The meaning and structure of slavery was different in different places, but each unique form of slavery affected the institution as a whole.
Adapted from Critical Summary of Seth Rockman by Michael J. Stone