White Laborers Went on Strike over Slave Workers, May 1847
The Virginia railroad boom of the 1830s provided a growth spurt for iron manufacturing in Richmond. Two iron foundries were established within close proximity in 1837 and they merged into the Tredegar Iron Works in 1838. The panic of 1837 froze railroad construction in Virginia, which forced Tredegar to find a new market for its iron. The owners of Tredegar hired Joseph Reid Anderson as the commercial agent in 1841 and he soon secured the federal government as a customer for Tredegar iron. Anderson was a former army officer who had been working as an assistant state engineer for the construction of the Valley turnpike. The turnpike project introduced Anderson to the Tredegar industrialists and to the use of enslaved labor for industry. Tredegar Iron Works had five slave laborers in 1841, but this number increased to seventy-eight by 1848. Flour mills, textile mills, government-funded projects, tobacco factories, and iron manufacturers used enslaved labor to keep the cost of production low.
As the nineteenth century progressed, industry's reliance on enslaved labor grew, bringing white workers into conflict with slaveholders and the enslave workers who competed for jobs. By 1847, Anderson was also president of the Armory Iron Company and was making moves to use slave laborers for the skilled positions of puddlers, heaters, and rollers. White workers, many of whom were either northern-born or European immigrants, objected because Anderson sought to replace them with slaves in key labor positions. At Tredegar and the Armory mills white puddlers, heaters, and rollers went on strike and Anderson responded by terminating their employment.
Urban industrial slavery provided slave owners with a steady income and manufacturers with a decreased cost of production. Many slave owners retained control over the hiring negotiations with employers, but some allowed their slaves to negotiate their own terms of employment. Negotiating the terms of their employment allowed enslaved people to receive cash payment for overtime work and to secure lodgings away from their employer. These perks created a sense of independence and increased the realization of self-worth among the urban enslaved. The money earned by the enslaved supported the growth of a cohesive community that fought against the oppression of slavery. In 1841, the enslaved and free black members funded the establishment of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond. Enslaved people also used their money to purchase freedom for family and community members, facilitating escapes, assisting the sick and the elderly, burying the dead, and donating to charities for the destitute. Living away from employers and masters also provided the enslaved with a better opportunity to learn to read and write. Anderson was unusual in that he kept strict control over his industrial slaves, not allowing them to live off-site. The independence enjoyed by many urban enslaved people instilled fear among some white Richmond residents, who believed that the urban enslaved had too much liberty, which undermined the institution of slavery.
Up to and during the Civil War, enslaved labor was critical to the southern economy. Richmond experienced population and manufacturing growth between 1800 and 1860 and the system of slavery provided industries with a stable, controllable, and cheap workforce. Financial independence and a strong community network better equipped the urban enslaved population to organize politically and socially once the peculiar institution was dismantled.
1. How did slavery support the economy of the South?
2. What were the differences between slave labor on rural plantations and slave labor in urban industries?
3. In what ways did urban slaves support their communities?
1. Why did Joseph Anderson make the choice to fire his striking white workers and to keep his enslaved workforce? What does this tell us?
2. What other industries in the United States used enslaved labor? Does that legacy affect those industries today?
3. How did the existence of slavery in the South affect the settlement patterns of European immigrants?
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O'Brien, John T. “Factory, Church, and Community: Blacks in Antebellum Richmond.” Journal of Southern History 44, no. 4 (November 1978): 509–536.
Schechter, Patricia A. “Free and Slave Labor in the Old South: The Tredegar Ironworkers' Strike of 1847.” Labor History 35 no. 35 (Spring 1994): 165–186.
Takagi, Midori. "Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction": Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782–1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.