Hirelings: African American Workers and Free Labor in Early Maryland by Jennifer Hull Dorsey (review)
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Labor, Slavery, Maryland, Manumission, Migration

Hirelings: African American Workers and Free Labor in Early Maryland. By Jennifer Hull Dorsey. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. 224. Cloth, $45.00.)

Jennifer Hull Dorsey means to fill what she calls an "inexplicable gap in African American studies" by closely examining the relationship between [End Page 390] the First Emancipation and "the nascent wage labor system" in the early national countryside (ix). Drawing her inspiration from predominant strains in Reconstruction historiography, Dorsey reveals much about the working lives of free and freed post-Revolutionary African Americans in the agricultural counties of Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, as well as exploring the familiar, closely related themes of migration, family, and community.

It is well known that Maryland's farmers and planters began to shift from tobacco to commercial grain production (and, to a lesser extent, other foodstuffs) well before the American Revolution, and concomitantly were increasingly drawn into the economic orbit of Baltimore and Philadelphia, from which these crops were shipped to Atlantic and Caribbean markets. While slave labor initially produced much of this agricultural surplus, rural free labor expanded after independence. Manumissions rose after the war, and Marylanders, unlike other southerners, left the process virtually unregulated for a long period. This meant immediate freedom for some, and the emergence of a complex system of self-purchase, redemption, and term slavery for others, and created an unusual potential labor force of slaves, freedmen, the free born, and those in transition to freedom.

Organized thematically, Hirelings turns first to the question of work. Rural Marylanders enjoyed rising grain prices between the1790s and the 1810s that put free African American labor in demand. Some became cottagers, but wage labor was more typical. Grain production "masculinized" in this period, and rural freedwomen's wage-labor opportunities became limited largely to spinning and miscellaneous farm work. Some free people also made a living from nonagricultural work in household production, the trades, herding, peddling, and transportation and service occupations. In many respects, free African Americans faced limits to economic opportunity reminiscent of the challenges of Reconstruction. Economic independence through land ownership was an unattainable dream for most, and manumission itself, Dorsey illustrates, was contingent upon slaveholders' belief that ex-slaves would remain an integral part of the labor force that benefitted, and was controlled by, landholders.

Turning to migration, this book demonstrates that, as with general emancipation in the 1860s, some early national freedpeople sought to improve their economic lot by relocating. Dorsey illustrates the emergence of a regional labor market that enticed predominantly young adult [End Page 391] men and women to leave home singly, in search of more desirable work in urban centers or neighboring counties. Others migrated out of the United States entirely (to Africa or the Caribbean) in this period, typically traveling in family groups. While during Reconstruction ex-slaves used migration as a tool of labor negotiation, Dorsey's findings suggest that the continuation of slavery in the early republic reduced the effectiveness of this tactic.

Slavery's interference with free labor negotiations is nowhere clearer than in Dorsey's discussion of family and community. She examines how ex-slaves and their children fought to build autonomous households and the contributions of religious institutions (especially the AME Church) to the emergence of sustained free African American communities in the region. At the same time, she traces how manumission, in contrast to slavery's full destruction, had a tendency to put family connections at risk, as it was a common strategy among slaveholders to free one generation but leave the next in a state of partial or full servitude. This approach limited workers' ability to migrate and focused their surplus earnings on self and family purchases rather than household economic advancement more generally. Freedpeople operated under considerable legal constraints as well, which were intended to ensure that African Americans, even in freedom, remained subordinate to Euro Americans.

The economic decline that hit grain markets starting in 1807 and accelerated after 1815 marked an important change for Maryland's rural African Americans, according to Dorsey. Not only did their economic fortunes suffer, but manumission itself declined, as fewer masters...