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Urban Slavery vs. Rural Slavery





Urban Slavery vs. Rural Slavery

Development of slavery in the urban areas was slower than in the rural areas. The urban north was more focused on building industries, and it did not need as many slaves as the rural areas did. Slaves in the urban areas worked in more humane though tough conditions than those in the rural areas did. Most of the slaves in the northern urban areas were women, who were employed as domestic help. They would cook, clean, take care of the home, and look after the children. There were a few men, most of whom worked in shipyards. They were employed as cooks on the ships, cargo loaders, or in warehouses. Some of them worked in ship construction.[1]

The urban slave roles were different from those in the rural areas, where the slaves had to toil on the fields from morning to evening, and whose work was more involving and tiring. The slaves in the rural north engaged in agrarian activities and they would plant, clear fields, raise livestock, and perform other agricultural activities. They worked in small farms, unlike the slaves in the southern regions, who worked in plantations. They often worked under harsher conditions than the slaves in the urban areas did. Work for the slaves in the northern urban areas was varied. Some of the slaves in the northern urban areas were able to perform highly skilled tasks. Some of the slaves in the urban areas were able to work on their own, and they managed to obtain their freedom. [2]

Urban households did not employ as many slaves as the rural households did. They did not need many slaves since the amount of work to be done was not as much. The slaves lived in small communities, where they were able to form their own distinct culture. They bonded and formed social networks. Many of the slaves found ways to congregate, and they would often congregate in taverns or African burial grounds. Slaves in the urban areas, whether free or not, would find ways to meet and interact with each other. The rural slaves lacked the anonymity that many urban slaves had. This anonymity enabled the urban slaves to have more freedom, and they were able to meet freely.[3]

Most of the white people complained about the disorderly conduct of the black slaves in the urban areas. Black slaves met on Sundays, when they were able to sing together. This helped them maintain the culture they had already established. There were numerous attempts, especially from the whites to break up such gatherings, but these attempts were unsuccessful.[4] One of the cultures that the slaves were able to maintain was the burial ceremonies. The white people forbid the idea of burying slaves in their graveyards, and this encouraged the slaves to identify their own burial grounds. The slaves would bury one of their own using their own rituals and customs. They developed and defined their own culture of dress, song, music, and funeral procession. The burial grounds were not only a place for conducting funerals, but it also gave the slaves an opportunity to meet.[5]

The variety of jobs available for the urban slaves made them distinct from the slaves in the rural north. Most of the slaves in the rural areas worked on farms while the slaves in urban areas had diversified interests. In addition, the slaves in the urban areas had anonymity, which made them distinct from the slaves in the rural areas. This anonymity provided them the freedom that they needed to interact with each other, and progress their culture. Many slaves in the rural areas lacked such opportunities.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998

Hornsby, Alton. A Companion to African American History. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

[1] Alton Hornsby, A Companion to African American History (Hoboken: 2008), 155

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