Growth of Slavery
The state’s first settlers planted the seed of slavery in Tennessee, and the state’s westward expansion cemented the institution. In 1791 there were 3,400 blacks in Tennessee—about 10 percent of the general population. By 1810, blacks were more than 20 percent of Tennessee’s people. The invention of the cotton gin and subsequent rise of King Cotton after the turn of the 19th century also caused a rapid expansion of slavery.
Slavery was most important in West Tennessee; eastern Tennessee, with its mountainous landscape and small farms, had the fewest slaves. In Middle Tennessee the slave population was concentrated in the central basin, in the counties of Davidson, Maury, Rutherford, and Williamson. By 1860, 40 percent of the state’s slave population was in West Tennessee, with the greatest concentration in Shelby, Fayette, and Haywood Counties, where cotton was grown on plantations somewhat similar to those of the Deep South.
From 1790, when the state was founded, until 1831 Tennessee’s slave code was relatively lenient. The law recognized a slave as both a chattel and a person, and slaves were entitled to expect protection against the elements and other people. Owners could free their slaves for any reason, and many did, causing growth in Tennessee’s free black population in the first half of the 1800s. These free blacks concentrated in eastern and Middle Tennessee and particularly the cities of Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville, where they worked as laborers and artisans.
There were vocal opponents to slavery in Tennessee, especially in the eastern part of the state. The first newspaper in the United States devoted to emancipation was established in 1819 in Jonesboro by Elihu Embree. Charles Osborne, a Quaker minister, preached against slavery shortly after the turn of the century in Tennessee. Emancipationists formed societies in counties including Washington, Sullivan, Blount, Grainger, and Cocke. Many of these early abolitionists opposed slavery on religious grounds, arguing that it was incompatible with the spirit of Christianity.
These abolitionists often argued for the gradual end of slavery, and sometimes advocated for the removal of freed slaves to Africa.
There was no single slave experience for Tennessee’s slaves. On the farm, a slave’s experience depended on the size of the farm and type of crops that were grown. The number of slaves on the farm also influenced the slave experience.
Most Tennessee slaves lived on small- or medium-sized farms. The 1860 census showed that only one person in the state owned more than 300 slaves, and 47 owned more than 100. More than 75 percent of all slave-owners had fewer than 10 slaves. Work assignments varied, but almost all slaves were expected to contribute to their own subsistence by keeping a vegetable garden. Slaves with special skills in areas like carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, or weaving were hired out.
Urban slaves were domestics, coachmen, housepainters, laundresses, and midwives. In cities, many families owned just one or two slaves, and it was common for slaves to be hired out to others in order to provide a source of income for the slave-owner. It became customary in some cities for a market day on New Year’s Day, where slaves and employers bargained for slave labor over the coming year.
Slaves sought to overcome their circumstances by building close-knit communities. These communities acted as surrogate families for slaves whose own spouse, parents, siblings, and children were often sold, causing lifelong separation.
Religion also served as a survival mechanism for Tennessee’s slaves. Methodist and Baptist churches opened their doors to slaves, providing a space were slaves could be together. The musical tradition that resulted is today’s gospel music. Religion also provided a vehicle for some slaves to learn how to read and write.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition