Most slaves who worked for South Carolina College
were “hired” on a short-term basis. Hiring out, or hiring, referred to
a system in which a hirer would temporarily lease a slave from an owner. In doing
so, owners generated revenue from their slaves’ labor without having an
investment in the actual work itself. Slaves were more likely to face weekly,
monthly, or yearly hiring than being permanently sold. Each year, five to
fifteen percent of the slave population was hired for outside work. Conversely,
less than four percent of slaves permanently exchanged hands. Hired slaves
performed all kinds of labor: women worked domestic jobs such as laundering and
wet-nursing, while men labored on roads, canals, and railroads. Others worked
in industries such as mining coal, smelting iron, and processing tobacco.
Skilled slaves might work as carpenters or blacksmiths. The number of hired
slaves and the variety of jobs reflected not only the flexibility of slavery
but also the importance of slaves as capital for owners and hirers.
College officials relied on the hiring-out system for various types of labor.
The steward hired slaves to prepare student meals. Faculty members hired slaves
for assistance in the laboratory and tasks such as removing
the college bell. The college marshal, first appointed in 1835, coordinated
most of the college hiring for general labor. He hired slaves from owners,
furnished them with an identification badge, and oversaw daily tasks such as
bed making, cleaning, building repairs, and other general maintenance.
Campus enrollment grew in the decades before the Civil War, and the demand for
labor at the college increased. The marshal hired two slaves, Jack and Henry, on a monthly
basis in the late 1850s
at a cost of $37.50 per month. But tenement, or dormitory, slaves made up the
majority of the workforce. At any given time in the late 1850s, the college’s
labor force ranged from ten to fifteen slaves, excluding slaves owned or hired
by other faculty.
The hiring-out system generated contention between hirer and owner: hirers
wanted to make the most out of a short-term investment; owners wanted to
protect their long-term capital. Contracts typically placed the burden of
clothing, food, and shelter on the hirer. At South Carolina College,
slaves were provided clothing, board, and medical attention. Boarding alone
constituted nearly one-third of the total hiring cost.
Physical distance between hirer and owner gave hired slaves an opportunity to
influence their own experience, and this daily resistance undermined the
hirer’s authority. In 1850, the steward lamented: “If [the college
slaves] boarded at any other place the three hours [spent serving students’
breakfast, lunch, and dinner] would be lost for I have never heard of a Negro
that would go to his meals and return in less than an hour for each meal.” The
steward’s concern reflected an understanding of the limits of his authority
over hired slaves. Other forms of resistance on campus could be more overt: in
1853, tenement slaves “struck” in protest to a decrease in the ratio of slaves
to tenements. This tension was characteristic of the hiring system. Many
slaveholders questioned the safety of hiring out because in practice it gave
slaves some slight power in who they worked for and under what terms.
Nonetheless, the hiring-out system was an essential part of slavery at South Carolina College.
'Trustees to James Henton,' April 1834, SCL
Receipt of payment to James Henton for purchase of "1 pair of shoes for Jim [and 1 pair of shoes for] Jim Black.
'College to W. B. Broom,' ca. 1858-1860, SCL
Receipt of payment to W. B. Broom "to hire of Henry and Tom for the month of June [and] to board ten dollars." This receipt is signed by the college president, Augustus B. Longstreet.
'College to W.B. Broom,' ca. 1858-1861, SCL
Receipt of payment to W. B. Broom detailing the daily costs of hiring Mal, Abraham, Anthony, Peter, and Tom while they worked at the college. As marshal, Broom was responsible for settling debts with the owners of these slaves.