A Number of Valuable Slaves:
Life as an Enslaved People
The beginning of lifelong servitude or slavery in Virginia is very hard to trace. Although many of the laws restricting African Virginians were passed in the 1660s, slavery did not become codified in Virginia law until 1705. By 1830 in the United States, slavery was located primarily in the South. Slaves toiled on small farms, large plantations, inside homes, and in industrial settings. The traditional image of southern slavery is that of the large plantation, but, in fact, most Virginia slaveholders held only a few enslaved people.
In 1860, Virginia had the nation’s highest population of enslaved African Americans, nearly 500,000. As the nineteenth century progressed, industry’s reliance on enslaved labor grew, bringing white workers into conflict with slaveholders and the enslaved workers who competed for jobs. Urban industrial slavery provided slave owners with a steady income and manufacturers with a decreased cost of production.
As enslaved people, African Americans strove to create meaningful family and community relationships as well as a distinctly African American culture, though religion, music, education, and other social customs. They were thwarted, however, by severe restrictions and the ever-present fear of being sold away from their family, friends, and home.