Slaves, Poor Whites, and the Underground Economy of the Rural Carolinas

By Forret, Jeff | The Journal of Southern History, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Slaves, Poor Whites, and the Underground Economy of the Rural Carolinas


Forret, Jeff, The Journal of Southern History


HISTORIANS HAVE PAID A GREAT DEAL OF ATTENTION OVER THE PAST TWO decades to the so-called slave, internal, or informal economy, studying slaves' independent activities as producers and consumers. In the rice-growing Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, where the task system predominated, slaves who rapidly completed their day's assigned labor had the opportunity to use their free time toward the end of the day as they saw fit, within certain constraints that their masters imposed. Many slaves diligently worked their own garden plots, raised and sold their own crops, and tended horses and livestock. As records of the Southern Claims Commission make clear, some slaves amassed impressive amounts of property. Outside the Lowcountry, various forces circumscribed slaves' ability to produce for themselves, market their goods, and accumulate wealth. Limited availability of land in the piedmont and in the upcountry precluded masters from supplying slaves with personal provision grounds. Moreover, slaveholders in those regions tended to organize their slave labor forces according to the gang system. Under the gang system, slaves labored under close supervision from sunup to sundown, leaving them time to work for themselves only at night and on Sundays. Across the South, however, internal economies proliferated. Slaves sometimes earned payments in money, perhaps for performing additional chores on the plantation or extra work in industry. Armed with the money and commodities they earned from or through the largesse of their masters, slaves were no strangers to the antebellum marketplace. (1)

Running parallel to slaves' economic activities sanctioned by the master were those that lacked such authorization. Several historians have recognized that an illicit, underground slave economy--rooted largely in theft and consequently anathema to slaveholders--flourished throughout the antebellum South. Slaves' surreptitious dealings often brought them into contact not only with other bondpeople and with free blacks but also with "unscrupulous" whites who ignored racial distinctions and eagerly traded with slaves without the masters' consent. (2) But while scholars acknowledge the existence of this interracial, underground trade, they have devoted surprisingly little energy to its study. Timothy J. Lockley has uncovered evidence of a thriving clandestine network of exchange between slaves and white shopkeepers in the city of Savannah, but the preponderance of southerners lived not in urban but in rural areas. (3) It must have been much more difficult for slaves to sustain systems of underground trade with whites in the countryside. In the rural South the white population was more isolated and scattered across a wide geographical area. Small, close-knit communities in which everyone knew one another and closely watched their neighbors supplanted the anonymity of the bustling city. Furthermore, the relatively few foreigners who settled in the South--and who were among the whites most likely to collaborate and trade clandestinely with slaves--tended to congregate in the region's urban centers. (4)

This study calls attention to the underground economy of the rural South through an investigation of slaves' unlawful trade with poor whites in the antebellum Carolinas. Lockley's work has examined the economic exchanges between slaves and a broad and diverse group of non-elite white shopkeepers, but the involvement of such merchants notwithstanding, there existed an inverse relationship between a white person's wealth and his or her likelihood of engaging in the unlawful trade with slaves. The whites with whom slaves traded most frequently were the poor-white farmers, laborers, and other marginal members of white society who composed between 30 and 50 percent of the southern white population, depending on the locality. (5) This study explores in depth the important place that these poor whites occupied within slaves' underground trading networks and argues that while anxious slaveholders found such economic cooperation inimical to a society stratified on the basis of race, the calculated, rational nature of slave-poor white exchange blunted its potentially subversive character. …

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