Atlanta’s population in 1850 was around 2,500 people, of which 493 were slaves. Unlike the southern part of the state where large landowners utilized slave labor to tend and harvest crops, the bulk of Atlanta’s slave population was utilized for domestic labor, carpentry and blacksmithing. Unlike their southern counterparts, many of Atlanta’s enslaved peoples lived apart from their owners, which provided them with a small measure of independence. Slaves were able to acquire income of their own by selling cakes, fruits, vegetables and other consumables as street peddlers.
White slave owners were able to augment their incomes by “hiring out” their slaves to those in need of additional labor and, as a result, slaves, mostly male, were able to acquire new skills. It was a win-win situation. The slave holder appropriated a portion of the hired-out slave’s wages. Slave owners discovered that having a slave with newly acquired skills could save them money as that slave could make repairs for which the owner would have otherwise needed to pay. Finally, having a slave with skills would put extra money in the owner’s pocket when that slave was put on the auction block. The benefit to the slave was the ability to earn income. Some enslaved people were actually able to purchase their freedom with the money they made working as hired-out labor.
The relative independence given to some slaves, however, was a cause for concern among Atlanta’s white population and, in the decade leading up to the Civil War, the City would pass regulations in an attempt to curtail freedom of movement…regulations that, by-and-large, were mostly ignored as we see in this week’s Stories of Atlanta.