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.
In 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.
And 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.
Past 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.