- Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680–1860 by Jennifer Oast
In 1718, the Virginia General Assembly granted £1,000 to the College of William and Mary to provide scholarships to students. The College used the money to purchase land on Nottoway River and seventeen slaves, whose labor would fund the education of free white men through the colonial period. As Jennifer Oast shows in Institutional Slavery, William and Mary was hardly alone in using slave labor to subsidize its activities. Virginia's civil society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rested on slave foundations.
By "institutional slavery," Oast calls attention to the schools, churches, and other corporations that made use of slave labor. While there is quite a bit of excellent scholarship on industrial slavery in the United States, Oast's book marks a substantial contribution to the small but rapidly growing historiography on slaveholding by schools and churches. The landmark in this field, Craig Steven Wilder's acclaimed Ebony & Ivy, focused largely on northern colleges; not surprisingly, institutions in the southern colonies and states were complicit, too. [End Page 413]
Oast offers a set of case studies of institutions that made use of slave labor, including Anglican, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, the Yeats Free Schools in Nansemond County, William and Mary College, Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Virginia, and the Hollins Institute. A final chapter examines the use of slave labor by Virginia's colonial and state governments, as well as in industry. The result is something of a hodgepodge that reflects the availability of archival materials. Many of the sources are thin, yet Oast squeezes the most out of them.
A good example comes in Oast's chapter on slaveholding by Presbyterian churches in Virginia. In the 1840s, the trustees of Briery Presbyterian Church in Prince Edward County kept thorough records on the church's two dozen or so slaves, who were hired out annually. Oast's careful analysis of these records sheds light on the patterns of slave hiring and its negative impact on the slaves' families and welfare. The data supports the insight of one of Briery's ministers, William Hill, who contended that the hiring-out system practiced by the church was "the worst kind of slavery" (100).
Oast ties these case studies together through the analytical framework of paternalism, that Old Faithful of slavery historiography. She suggests that institutional slavery was a "weakened form" (7) of paternalism because institutions lacked the personal ties and economic incentives that sometimes compelled individual masters to improve their slaves' material conditions. Moreover, slave-holding institutions' common practice of hiring out their slaves, as Briery's trustees did, or of hiring slaves to work for them, further attenuated paternalist bonds.
Despite the pitfalls of corporate ownership and oversight, some institutionally held slaves found ways to better their lot and even, on rare occasions, get free. Among these was Billy Brown, or Hampden-Sydney's "College Billy," who was able to purchase his freedom out of money that he earned doing odd jobs for students. Backed by white patrons who testified to his trustworthiness, Billy Brown petitioned the General Assembly for permission to remain in the state, and although the assembly never granted his wish, Oast finds that he managed to stick around for decades.
According to Oast, institutional slavery extended slavery's benefits to non-slaveowning white men and women. Those who attended slaveholding churches or schools reaped direct and indirect rewards from the work done by their institutions' slaves. Endowments funded by slave labor fattened ministers' salaries and subsidized scholarships for students, while the hiring out of institutional slaves gave some local employers access to slave labor that they might otherwise not have had. Yet these effects were limited because institutional slaves were only a small fraction of Virginia's slave population, and Virginia's nonslave-owners were affected by slavery in so many other material and psychic ways.
More significant but harder to specify, perhaps, was the ideological effect of...