"Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction": Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865

By O'brien, John T. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2000 | Go to article overview

"Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction": Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865


O'brien, John T., The Journal of Southern History


"Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction": Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865. By Midori Takagi. Carter G. Woodson Institute Series in Black Studies. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Pp. xii, 187. $37.50, ISBN 0-8139-1834-0.)

Urban slavery was in decline in the mid-nineteenth century. While plantation slavery boomed, city slave populations were plummeting. Some scholars hold that the clash of slavery's authoritarian requirements with the city's disorderly, anonymous character caused the decline. However beguiling, that view has trouble accounting for Richmond's slave past. Alone among the South's ten largest cities, her slave community more than held its ground, nearly doubling between 1830 and 1860 (table, p. 78). Richmond's singular experience with slavery is the subject of Midori Takagi's fascinating study. Slavery was clearly flourishing there during the 1850s although urban industrial conditions, Takagi argues, threatened "the integrity of the system" by increasing "slave residents' ability to resist slave owner control" (p. 4).

Richmond's industrial economy set her apart from most cities in Dixie. Crucial to the antebellum history of black Richmond was the harnessing of slavery to profitable, expanding businesses like tobacco manufacture. The first of six chapters examines the role played by state-sponsored enterprises in the late-eighteenth century in demonstrating the utility of employing slaves in public works and war industries. Private employers subsequently experimented with different employee mixes and management styles. By 1840 slaves could be found in most workshops, clustering in transportation, flour milling, and iron making and dominating tobacco manufacture, Richmond's largest industry (pp. 11-14). Chapters two and four examine working and living conditions from 1800 to 1840 and from 1840 to 1860. Chapters three and five explore the social history of Richmond slaves for the same periods. …

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