Enslaved and Free People of Color at the University, 1821-1828
For the fall 2015 semester, fellow President’s Commission member Maurie McInnis and I team taught a first year seminar that focused on the early history of the University. Each semester, we have had the students do work in the special collections library—they have examined student autograph books, student letter collections, and even original Jefferson drawings regarding the design of the University. This past fall, we put students in teams and had them examine the Proctor’s Daybook recording daily financial transactions during the construction of the University. This book, at first glance simply a crude accounting ledger with Arthur S. Brockenbrough’s hastily scrawled financial notes in it, actually reveals quite a bit about how the University procured both skilled and unskilled labor and how the enslaved contributed mightily to the construction of UVA.
The students were assigned about twenty pages each of the daybook—their job was to photograph and transcribe anything they thought might relate to slavery and the enslaved. From that initial list, each group of students was able to identify a number of people who hired enslaved people to the University during construction. Better yet, some of these entries clearly named the enslaved people hired, the duration of their hire, the cost of the hire, and even at times identified the kind of work they would be performing. Some entries sketch out how the University then paid for clothing and blankets for the enslaved people it had hired.
For instance, in 1821, the University hired enslaved laborer Zachariah from Luther M. George and tasked Zachariah with digging the entire foundation for Hotel A. On September 27, 1822, the University hired “2 hands” from J[ohn] H. Wood [of Albemarle County] at the rate of forty cents per day. Enslaved laborers were hired from owners who lived in several counties, including Albemarle, Louisa, Fluvanna, Culpeper, Chesterfield, Nelson, and Orange. They were put to work in many capacities, including terracing the ridgeline, digging foundations, making bricks, quarrying stone, hauling supplies, blacksmithing, and doing tinwork on roofs. During construction, the number of enslaved people rented by the University fluctuated from a couple dozen to at last as high as sixty in 1823 and 1824.
That same year, Arthur S. Brockenbrough noted in the daybook some details about “Negros Clothing… 2 pieces plains…16 yds lining of Raphael…10 yds for shirts…of Pollock of Bishop…of Spencer.” Additionally, Brockenbrough’s “Memorandum of Blankets for the same year mentioned enslaved people hired by the University: Jim, John, Squire, John, Suckey, Fleming, Jack, Simon, Henry, Davey, and Becky.
Thomas Jefferson’s overseer at the time, Edmund Bacon, also appears in the daybook. In 1822, Brockenbrough recorded the hiring of “Lewis, John, Wilson, [and] Isham of E. Bacon for $280.” Earlier that year, Edmund Bacon had completed the purchase Lewis for $450 from his brother John Bacon’s estate (John had died in 1807). For years before that, Edmund Bacon recorded in his memoranda book the amounts for Lewis’ yearly hiring to Thomas Jefferson.
The records remain unclear as to who actually owned John, but Edmund Bacon was involved in hiring John out yearly from at least 1812 to 1814. Isham also appears to have been owned by a member of the Bacon family. In 1815, Mary Bacon was paid $4 for two wool hats for Isham. Enslaved workers Isham and Jack that year were paid by Edmund Bacon a total of $25 for extra work. In 1816, Bacon paid Isham two dollars for “building a stable.” By 1822, Edmund Bacon, then living in a cottage at Monticello and working as the overseer there, also owned at least three enslaved people and was responsible for hiring out a few other slaves owned by his family.
Proctor Arthur S. Brockenbrough’s day book also indicates that free people of color who lived in the area also came to the construction site seeking employment. While the vast majority of skilled work and all the major construction projects were awarded to white artisans, contractors, and builders, free people of color do show up in the University accounts. From May to October 1823, free man of color Robert Battles, who owned a small farm just east of the University, hauled nearly 200,000 bricks from the brickyards and kilns that had popped up at various locations nearby. Many of those bricks were destined for the Rotunda. He also hauled several tons of sand. In 1824, he would even sell a cow to James Brockman, the overseer hired by the University to manage and control the dozens of enslaved laborers working there. Brockman was paid $150 yearly for his work as overseer. His work included chasing down enslaved hires who ran away from the construction site. In 1824, he was paid for his expenses in going to Louisa County to capture Tom, an enslaved man hired by the University. While in Louisa County, Brockman was also paid five dollars for “hiring hands.”
That same year, Robert Battles’ sister, Dolly, was paid by the University for her work washing clothes and making clothes for enslaved laborers toiling on various aspects of construction. In 1827, free woman of color Keziah Davis was paid two dollars for making table covers for the library. Zachariah Battles earned five dollars in September 1827 for cutting wood. Elijah Battles was paid ten dollars in 1828 for carpentry work for the observatory. That same year, free woman of color Sally Kenny was paid seventy-five cents for making clothes for Henry, an enslaved man hired from Fluvanna County to work on the observatory.
We want to thank our students: Caroline Biondo, Luke Butterworth, John Cragun, Tim Crosby, Katie Gallagher, Landon Gragg, Jenna Gustafson, Kelly Hillgren, Lan Jiang, Abey Koolipurackal, Sarah Mast, Ellie Matthews, Caroline Peters, Kate Rutman, Leanne Shen, Rambert Tyree, Elle Wimmer, and Oliver Yan.
–Kirt von Daacke, Co-Chair, President’s Commission on Slavery and the University