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

By Zaborney, John J. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

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


Zaborney, John J., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


"Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction": Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865. By MIDORI TAKAGI. Carter G. Woodson Institute Series in Black Studies. REGINALD BUTLER, Series Editor. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. xi, 187 pp. $37.50.

THis book examines slavery in Richmond, Virginia, from the Revolution through the institution's final destruction in 1865. Midori Takagi's fascinating study traces the evolution of Richmond's industrial economy and the slave system to which it was linked and highlights the many ways in which Richmond slavery differed radically from slavery in Virginia's rural, agricultural areas. On the question of slavery's compatibility with an urban milieu, Takagi maintains that "slavery in Richmond did work" and that "Richmond was a slave city." Takagi therefore disagrees with Richard C. Wade and Barbara Jeanne Fields, who argue that slavery and cities were fundamentally incompatible. Yet as an institution, Takagi finds, Richmond slavery exhibited weaknesses not found outside the city, and the primary emphasis of the book is how Richmond's "problem-filled slave system ... increased slave residents' ability to resist slave owner control" (p. 4).

In Richmond, slavery became important for industrialization in the late eighteenth century. Virginia's successful employment of hired slaves in industry during the Revolution set a precedent for their peacetime use afterward by city industries, including tobacco and flour processing and iron production. "By 1840 slavery had become an important, if not vital, too] to continue the city's industrial development" (p. 35).

Slavery's success in Richmond, however, rested on practices that enabled the institution to function in an urban setting, including hiring out, living apart, and giving cash incentives to slaves. Many Richmond industrialists preferred to hire slaves (rather than purchase them) in order to cope with market fluctuations. Employers who lacked space to house hired slaves on their property found it advantageous to allow the workers to find their own accommodations elsewhere in the city-that is, to live apart from their employer. Most industrial hired slaves were men (most slave women in Richmond were house servants) who frequently had incentive cash in their pockets, discretion in housing selection, and opportunities to visit friends, drink, and gamble unsupervised. …

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