With the urban environment so different to plantation slavery, Lowcountry port cities differed in many ways for enslaved women – from housing and labor tasks to freedom of movement and social circles within which to worship and educate. In other ways, enslaved women’s city lives also reflected their rural counterparts. They remained forced laborers who held no citizenship status, little ability to gain freedom, and subjected to physical and sexual violence. However, urban enslaved women came into contact with a wider variety of people, and they were therefore exposed to a broader set of ideas.
Living arrangements varied for bonded urban women. Many lived in slave quarters on the property of slaveholders, which often connected to the house of their enslavers. Others were assigned to live more autonomous lives in neighborhoods where they lived alongside poorer people of color, for example in the Yamacraw district of Savannah and the Charleston Neck. In Charleston, certain streets and alleys were dedicated to housing enslaved people living temporarily or permanently in the city. In all cases, though, the enslaved lived in much closer proximity to a much larger white population than those residing on Lowcountry plantations.
The work accomplished by urban enslaved women and men, many of whom were skilled laborers, required them to move around the city without direct supervision. For slaveholders and city officials, then, urban slavery proved more complicated to monitor than in rural areas. In an effort to maintain control of the enslaved population, policymakers established and refined "slave codes" through local ordinances over the course of the nineteenth century. These dictated where enslaved people were allowed to travel, the places they could visit, who they could socialize with, and the work they could and could not perform. In Charleston the badge system formed an important part of the slave codes. While slave badges were used in other Southern cities, no other city regulated and utilized a slave badge system to the same extent as Charleston. All enslaved people hired out were required by law to wear badges or tags, denoting their status to others. These badges also symbolized slaveholder and state control over Black bodies outside of rural plantations.
Enslaved women in cities performed a wide variety of working roles. They frequently used to sell the goods of slaveholders, which required a wearing a badge in Charleston. These badges were originally stamped “Huckster” and later “Fruitierer.” Walking along the street, women carried baskets atop their heads filled with vegetables, fruit, cakes, and many other goods Charlestonians purchased. They also sold seafood, including shrimp, fish, and crabs. A small number of “Fisher” badges were also reserved for women in Charleston who participated in catching seafood. Slaveholders chose one of several ways to distribute the money enslaved women made through sales. They might take all of the money, split it between themselves and enslaved women, split it between themselves and other enslavers, or occasionally give all the money entirely to enslaved women. At least occasionally women enslaved in cities kept some of the money resulting from their labor, though it is unclear how common this was.
Enslavers in the city additionally exploited women's bodies for profit. On plantations, enslaved women were forced to bear children for labor to increase the economic prosperity of slaveholders. In the city, men forced enslaved women into more commercial forms of prostitution for the sexual pleasure of men and to increase slaveholders’ profits through reproduction.
Enslaved women trained in specialized and skilled labor used their needlecrafting, basket-making, and culinary skills (which had African roots) to produce high-quality and highly demanded goods. In Charleston, Black women’s most valuable skill was in the needlecraft trades – among them seamstress, dressmaker, tailoresses, and mantua makers. Women also labored as nurses, cooks, washerwomen and cleaners. They held these positions in boarding-houses, hotels, inns, and taverns (sometimes known as "grog shops"). They also worked in the homes of slaveholding families as the personal servants of white men and women and as childcare for infants and children.
In both Charleston and Savannah, many slaveholders hired out their enslaved women to others, moving them around the city or between their plantation and the city. Some work in cities was seasonal, on different schedule from busy times of the year on plantations. In Charleston and Savannah, work often revolved around the winter "social season" of white elites from January to March, with the quieter time in the hot, humid summer months where many of Charleston’s white elites left for cooler locations. Hiring out hence conveys something of slavery’s more flexible forms within an urban context. Some slaveowners permitted women to travel to cities to where they sold fruits and vegetables grown on their patches of land or goods they made through crafting, although slaveholders tried to relegate such travel to the domain of men. Enslaved women played important roles in city markets as sellers and buyers, although this work, writes historian Betty Wood, was gendered. Women tended to sell garden produce and dairy good, while men sold meat. Moreover, most of those who bought produce at markets were women, including those enslaved.
Like those enslaved on plantations, women in urban areas chose to use their small amount of free time to worship and socialize in church. Religious worship on a Sunday provided those enslaved in cities with hope, self-respect, and a sense of moral and spiritual uplift. Savannah in particular, had a strong tradition of Black Baptist churches with both enslaved and free Black members. Charleston had a few but important churches established specifically by and for Black Charlestonians, and Black Baptist Churches were also popular in surrounding rural areas as well. Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church had the second largest membership in the country, and it included both free and enslaved members. Many enslaved families in Charleston, though, attended church together in white churches and enslaved women and men also married in white churches. Black churches provided the heart of community life, although men, not women, formed the core religious leadership. After church on a Sunday, enslaved women also found time to promenade in their best clothes or visit family members.
The urban environment altered women’s relationships with each other. The dispersion of people did not provide urban women the same opportunities for gendered solidarity as field women on plantations who worked in large, segregated groups. Many free women of color who had formerly been enslaved retained ties to those who had freed them. Enslaved women attempted to acquire their freedom in a multitude of ways, sometimes through relationships with wealthy Black white men. However, these options decreased over time and paths towards manumission became harder over the course of the antebellum era when states clamped down on manumissions laws. At other times, free Black husbands attempted to buy their enslaved wives (or vice-versa) so they could live with them in a form of "nominal slavery" where they essentially lived as free, but remained under legal bondage. Ellen Campbell described how her life changed when her slaveholders hired her out to a woman who ran a boarding house, a new and unfamiliar experience for her:
"When I wus fifteen my old Missus gib me to Miss Eva – you know she de one marry Colonel Jones. My young missus was fixin’ to git married, but she couldn’t on account de war, so she brought me to town and rented me out to a lady runnin’ a boarding house. De rent wus paid to my missus. One day I wus takin’ a tray from de out-door kitchen to de house when I stumbled and dropped it. De food spill all over de ground. De lady go so mad she picked up a butcher knife and cop me in de haid. I went runnin’ till I come to de place where my white folks live. Miss Eva took me and wash de blood out mah head and put medicine on it, and she wrote a note to de lady and she say, 'Ellen is my slave, give to me by my mother. I wouldn’t had dis happen to her no more dan to me. She won’t come back dere not more.'”
Ellen Campbell, interview with Federal Writers' Project, Georgia, circa 1936
Overall then, many enslaved women’s work in cities was less monotonous than on plantations. They also often lived more independent lives with increased geographical mobility than plantation slaves. When their labor required them to move about the city or walk the streets to sell goods, they came into contact with many different people. Urban women’s labor was generally less physically demanding than field work. And more so than those on plantations, those enslaved in an urban environment had a better chance of making and keeping money. While the violence of slavery affected all enslaved people, urban slavery had different characteristics to that on plantations.