Neglected Gems: Richard Wade and Lisa Tolbert

By Richard Harris

Richard Wade. 1964. Slavery in the Cities. The South, 1820-1860. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lisa Tolbert. 2017. Henry, a slave, v. State of Tennessee. The public and private space of slaves in a small town. In Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg, eds., Slavery in the City. Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, pp.140-152.

If urban historians have neglected the ways cities have shaped the economy of cities, they have compensated by telling us a lot about their social dynamics. For Americanists, the slave experience and its legacy has always been a major concern, but even here the specific impact of the urban environment, and urban size, has not always been well-appreciated.

2871168In that context, some readers will wonder about the suggestion that Richard Wade, one of the towering early figures in the field and a founder of the Urban History Association, has been neglected. Doubtless, students of slavery, in particular, read him still. But that is not a subject that most urban historians seem to be thinking about these days, as our interests have shifted increasingly to the twentieth century, and in many cases into the postwar period.

Admittedly, I am largely ignorant of the history of slavery, did not read Wade’s book until July of 2019, and do not presume to judge how well his account has stood the test of time. But that doesn’t matter: it is above all his question that deserves attention. Wade asks how an institution and a people defined by the plantation were able to adapt to the urban setting. The last chapter of Slavery in Cities is an eloquent summary of the challenges that that institution, which is to say the white slave owners, faced. When work was done, slaves gathered in homes, churches, and grog shops, where “the worlds of bondage and freedom overlapped.” Trouble! Wade quotes a Southerner: “The city is no place for niggers. They get strange notions in their heads, and grow discontented.” Or, as Frederick Douglass put it, “slavery dislikes a dense population.” The city has often been described as a place of freedom, where minorities and new ways of living can thrive. Wade in effect argues that, albeit in a very particular way, the history of slavery illuminates that claim.

4978And then, in ‘Henry, a slave, v. the State of Tennessee’, Lisa Tolbert has recently added a wonderful element of nuance to that story. As striving urbanists, looking to get our work published, we look to big cities. Disproportionately, internationally, we study London, New York, Paris, and maybe Cairo; Americanists add Chicago, Los Angeles, and sometimes Boston and Atlanta to that list. Wade himself concentrated on the larger Southern cities, which admittedly in the era of slavery were modest in size by modern standards. But Tolbert takes us to Franklin, Tennessee (pop. 1500), where she uses court records to reconstruct the experience of one black man, Henry. Her narrative makes it clear that, in towns such as Franklin, free blacks were few and far between; slaves lived dispersed, among their masters. They had access to streets for leisure, and this offered a novel element of freedom from supervision. But, because everyone knew everyone, “white residents, whether they actually owned slaves or not, were authorized to exert substantial power over slave residents.” Tolbert’s article complements Wade’s interpretation. Urban influences depend, in part, on population size; they fall on a continuum, and not into binary categories. In the process, her piece underlines the importance of considering the smaller and mundane sorts of places, the Middletowns, that so many urban residents call home.

harrisPast president of the UHA (2017-18), Richard Harris teaches urban geography at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He has written several accounts of Toronto’s suburban development, notably Unplanned Suburbs. Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900-1950. (Baltimore, 1996).

Featured Image: “United States Slave Trade, 1830.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

5 thoughts on “Neglected Gems: Richard Wade and Lisa Tolbert

  1. Thanks to Richard Harris for calling attention to Richard Wade’s Slavery in the Cities, contrasting it to Lisa Tolbert’s fine work and then raising the question– how did slavery in the cities differ from slavery in towns? There is room for research here. After Wade—his book was published sixty years ago– few scholars other than Claudia Goldin challenged his thesis or attempted to synthesize local histories to explain how the city and towns undermined slavery. (This gap in the literature is discussed in Leslie M. Harris, “Slavery in American Cities,” Encyclopedia of American Urban History, 2019)
    Wade, my thesis advisor at the University of Chicago, loved cities and perhaps Chicago most of all. He saw the city¬¬¬¬, even when it was aflame in the sixties and seventies, as the great force behind civilization. He held to the old saying, ¬“city air makes you free.” Hence for Wade, cities (unlike plantations) made possible the fraternization between slaves and freemen that undermined slavery. And in Wade’s Urban Frontier, it is the squabbling, dynamic and competitive city people in the river towns, not Frederick Jackson Turner’s isolated frontiersmen, who forge the cooperative and institutional culture of democracy.
    Very sharp and witty, Wade was the antithesis of the stuffy, self-important professor. That he would sometimes cut class to devoting himself in trying to elect Adlai Stevenson, JFK, RFK or George McGovern made him all the more appealing. Here was a guy who did not hesitate, especially at election time, to break free from the Ivory Tower. Whatever Wade’s liberal credentials in national politics, in Chicago he was not above defending Mayor Richard Daley in the assault on Grant Park demonstrators during the ’68 Democratic National Convention. And at Daley’s behest, he served as a commissioner on the troubled Chicago Housing Authority.
    At the University of Chicago and later, at the CUNY Graduate Center, Wade attracted a generation of graduate students who went on to distinguished careers; none however was as important as Kenneth Jackson. Where few read Wade today, Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (after 35 years) remains indispensible. Jackson acknowledges that Wade coined the term “ crabgrass frontier… [and that Wade] … knows how important his ideas and example have been to me…” Indeed Crabgrass Frontier, structured along the lines of Wade’s classes, essentially tells the story of how the compact walking city with the coming of horse drawn omnibus, steam and electric powered vehicles and finally the car, expands inexorably into the hinterland.
    In Wade’s Urban Frontier, (1959) Slavery in the Cities (1964) and Chicago: Growth of The Metropolis (1969) the city is the dynamo, triumphantly powering economic, civic and cultural progress. In contrast, Crabgrass is anything but triumphal. The air-conditioned inward looking suburb of single-family homes is bland, white and privileged. What remains after a century of auto-powered dispersion is the once vital city– now sadly depleted. For the contemporary scholar, troubled by inequities between city and suburb, it is tragedy not triumph that commands attention.


  2. One characteristic of Richard Wade’s research was his willingness to go big, pursuing the urban frontier and urban slavery across multiple cities and spending summer after summer in poorly air conditioned libraries and city hall basements where reluctant clerks hauled out dusty city council minutes. His wide view allowed him to frame interpretations that may need updating but remain provocative even as the norm has shifted to single-city studies. And, of course, that’s the same sort of breadth that made Ken Jackson’s first book on the KKK in the cities so influential.


  3. Carl Abbott makes a good point. Can you imagine going before your advisor to propose a thesis –The Urban Frontier– which would include the study (1790-1840) of Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis and which would attack the Turner thesis? Ha! You might end up studying one city including an obligatory “theoretical” discussion. And how long would it take you complete it? JW


  4. Richard Wade’s Slavery in the Cities is still essential reading. I don’t agree that cities inherently undermine slavery–antebellum cities were too essential to the slave economy, and cities throughout the Atlantic World and throughout history adapted to slavery. Slave rebellions in cities may have been easier to put down because of the concentration of weapons, whites, and militia, military or police. And no doubt the US army would have stepped in to put down any rebellion; and runaways chipped away at the system but weren’t enough, alone, to bring it down. I think Wade took the word of his newspaper sources too literally there. But the book, as mentioned above, still collects the best accounts of small and large cities; demonstrates many interesting quantitiative facts about these populations that we still need to think about; and brings together so much material. It is part of a generation of books that did these sweeping overviews–two others are of course Ira Berlin’s Slaves Without Masters; and Leonard Curry’s The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850. I return to these books again and again for what they reveal quantitatively and qualitatively about black life in the antebellum U.S.


    1. Leslie Harris makes an excellent point, one which I should have been thinking about. To generalize: you can’t judge the significance of a city, or a group of cities, by concentrating on those places alone. Sure, as Wade argued, those urban centres were challenging environments for the slave masters. But, in terms of the trade on which slave plantations depended, they were indispensable.

      How might we weigh one against the other? Aren’t we talking apples and oranges? I suppose the course of history provides one type of answer, but I don’t know enough about that history to try to sketch it.


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