Seminar Director Phil Schwarz with Charles Dew

Industrial Slavery
Charles Dew

"These people survived, and they survived with heroic dignity."

    Dr. Charles Dew of Williams College spoke about an individual slave who happened to be an industrial worker. There was no economic occupation in the South that slaves were not  involved in.  Many of them were involved in highly skilled occupations. About 5% of the 4 million slaves on the eve of the Civil War were industrial workers.  At the height of the Civil War, 1,000 slaves were employed by Joseph Anderson of  Tredegar iron works.  They were the backbone of the munition making of the Confederate army.  Many were hired from owners at about 10-20% of market value for a year's work.  Employer fed, clothed and cared for "hired bonds."  The degree to which master this  followed contract varied from situation to situation.

This much is simple about slavery, it was evil absolutely evil.  There is nothing more sinister than the holding of human beings in bondage.   The day to day life of industrial slavery is complex.  Industrial slaves had some leverage because of their skills - the master's power on one side and a slave's skills on the other.

    Industrial slaves worked under a task system.  The work a good average worker could do in a day.  The intent is to set it to be completed and encourage them to do "overwork" to earn money.  An "allowance" might be paid to highly skilled laborers, such as collier who made the charcoal.

    These things need to be understood to make sense of the seeming contradictions of the story he told.

     Charles had found a letter in a Wisconsin archive from William Weaver, the owner of Buffalo Forge and its slave force of about seven. The letter was written by his clerk in 1855 asking whether a slave of his named Sam Williams could draw his money from a savings bank.   Charles wondered why a slave had a bank account, and began to research that question at Buffalo Forge, VA where the letter was sent.  He found that both Sam and his wife had a savings account that drew interest.

    Sam had come into slavery at the age of 17 and began to accumulate his savings by overwork.  In 1840 he begins industrial slavery and increases his overwork and money earned from it. Perhaps he married and was trying to acquire funds, but the amount of money he earned was five fold more than previous earnings.
He did marry Nancy Jefferson that year according to the one of the surviving Freedmen's Bureau Record Books.

    Dr. Dew used primary sources to tell the story of Sam Williams, much the way that Turk McCleskey used them to tell the story of  Edward Tarr

    In doing so, he humanized the seemingly dispassionate ledger entries and sources to paint a picture of Black Americans living their lives as best they could under slavery.