Digital History

17th Century

Slavery in the Colonial North Previous Next
Digital History ID 3583



In colonial America, there was no sharp division between a slave South and a free-labor North. New England was involved in the Atlantic slave trade from the mid-1600s to the 1780s. In the years preceding the American Revolution, slavery could be found in all the American colonies. By the mid-eighteenth century, slaves made up almost 8 percent of the population in Pennsylvania, 40 percent in Virginia, and 70 percent in South Carolina. During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a fifth of Boston's families owned slaves; and in New York City in 1746, slaves performed about a third of the city's manual labor.

In the North, slaves were used in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment, especially in highly productive farming and stock-raising for the West Indian market in southern Rhode Island, Long Island, and New Jersey. Slaves not only served as household servants for an urban elite--cooking, doing laundry, and cleaning stables--they also worked in rural industry, in salt works, iron works, and tanneries. In general, slaves were not segregated into distinct racial ghettoes; instead, they lived in back rooms, lofts, attics, and alley shacks. Many slaves fraternized with lower-class whites. But in the mid-eighteenth century, racial separation increased, as a growing proportion of the white working-class began to express bitter resentment over competition from slave labor. The African American response in the North to increased racial antagonism and discrimination was apparent in a growing consciousness and awareness of Africa and the establishment of separate African churches and benevolent societies.

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