OFFICIAL MANUALSeal of the State of Missouri
State of Missouri, 1973-1974
The Role of the Negro in Missouri History

Slavery in Missouri

Philippe Francois Renault is traditionally considered to have introduced Negro slavery to Missouri. It is said he brought 500 Negroes with him about 172O, from Santo Domingo to work the lead mines in the Des Peres River section of what is now St. Louis and Jefferson counties.

The Industrial Revolution with its emphasis on cotton manufacturing gave a great impetus to slavery at the beginning of the 19th century. That growth was due, in large part, to Eli Whitney who invented the cotton gin in 1793. It made it easier to remove the cotton seeds from the bolls.

America's cotton crop grew by eight hundred per cent over the next decade. With that rapid increase in cotton production came an equally rapid demand for virgin lands and new slaves to work them.

The purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the United States in 1803, was, in part, an early result of that ever-increasing demand. It offered slave owners a potential new world, spreading from the Mississippi to the Rockies, into which they could move the "peculiar institution."

Part of that new world was Upper Louisiana, containing the present states of Missouri and Arkansas.

Upper Louisiana was not as conducive to cotton growing geographically as Lower Louisiana, but there still existed possibilities for slave labor in tobacco and hemp production, as well as in the cultivation and production of grain and live stock. This caused an influx of slaveholders and their chattel into Missouri.

A majority of these slaveholders came from the worn out lands of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. Figures taken from census returns give some idea of the rapid growth of slavery in Missouri prior to the Civil War.

Even though the slave trade grew, demand exceeded supply and values rose. The price of slaves reached a peak in Missouri during the period immediately preceding the Civil War.

In 1860, top male slaves brought about $1,300 each, and female slaves about $1,000. The State Auditor's report for 1860 placed the value of the slaves in the State at $44,181,912.

In Missouri, as in all the other slave states, economic conditions determined the number of slaves in a given locality. Since Missouri was largely agricultural, most slaves were employed in the fertile bottom lands which bordered the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. Without a single staple crop, Missouri never developed large plantations as did the cotton states.

In 1860, only 36 counties had 1,000 or more slaves. In general, most of the Missouri slaveowners held only one or two slaves. Jabez F. Smith of Jackson County, who is reported to have owned 165 Negroes, and John H. Ragland of Cooper County, with 70 slaves, were exceptions, not the rule.

Missouri slaves were used in a wide variety of tasks. They were employed as valets, butlers, handy men, field hands, maids, nurses and cooks.

Masters often hired out their slaves during periods when the slave was otherwise likely to be unemployed. The person hiring the slave was responsible for the sustenance of the slave, in addition to an amount of money paid to the slaveowner for the services of his chattel.

During the 1850's the crews of river boats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers were generally black. Aboard the boats, hired-out slaves served as deck hands and cabin boys or as stevedores.

The Missouri slave, like the Missouri farmer, became somewhat a jack-of-all-trades. Tools and implements that broke had to be mended, livestock had to be cared for, old buildings needed repair and new ones had to be built. Many slaves became skilled laborers--blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, horticulturists, as well as general all-around trouble shooters for the entire farm.

In fact, the slave and his family and the master and his family were, more often than not, a team, sharing the burden of work together in the field. Unfortunately, the partnership failed when the profits were to be shared.

While it is true the slave generally worked only for one white, he stood in a servile relation to all whites. The lowliest of whites was, before the law and before society, in a superior position to even the most favored slave or free Negro. That was the only way slavery could exist. Consequently, Missouri's institutions, both social and legal, constantly reminded the black man he was property not a human being.

To keep the blacks "in their place", a series of laws, known as slave codes, were drawn up.

Under the territorial slave codes of 1804, slaves were made personal property and each revision of the law was drafted with this precedent in mind. The State Constitution of 1820, for example, provided that slaves were not to be emancipated "without the consent of their masters, or without paying them, before such emancipation."

One could not do business with a slave without the prior consent of the owner; persons found guilty of violating that code were subject to a payment to the owner of four times the value of the thing bought or sold. Ferrymen or other persons who carried a slave across the Mississippi River without written permission of his owner were required to pay the cost of the slave and damages to the owner.

A slave was not permitted to keep a gun in Missouri. If he was caught carrying a gun, he was to receive 39 lashes and forfeit the gun. Slaves who participated in riots, attended unlawful assemblies or who were guilty of making seditious speeches, were subject to whipping. Slaves guilty of conspiracy, rebellion, insurrection and murder were to be put to death.

Other laws further dehumanized the blacks. Negroes or mulattoes (Negroes of mixed racial parentage) "who should commit or attempt to commit assault upon white women would be mutilated." However, since the slave woman was a chattel, a white man who raped her was guilty only of a trespass on the master's property.

Slaves who offered resistance to their owners and overseers were to be given 39 stripes. Slaves lifting their hands in opposition to white persons, except in self-defense, were to be punished at the discretion of the justice of the peace, with not more than 39 lashes.

The slave was liable to the same punishment for disturbing church service by "noise, riotous or disorderly conduct . . ." And slaves were to be given 25 lashes and committed to jail for bartering, selling or delivering liquor to any other slave.

In 1825, a law was passed declaring blacks to be incompetent as witnesses in legal cases involving whites.

In 1847, one of the harshest laws which further dehumanized the slave was enacted. In that year an ordinance specifically prohibiting the education of Negroes was passed. Anyone operating a school or teaching reading and writing to any Negro or mulatto in Missouri could be punished by a fine of not less than $500 and up to six months in jail. This law was a direct result of an ever-increasing conviction on the part of slave holders that literacy led to rebellion.

Though master and slave generally attended the same church, religious worship was so structured as to leave no doubt in the slave's mind of his own inferiority. Slaves were generally physically separated from their masters and the other whites, either in a loft above the rest of the congregation or in pews provided in a special section at the real of the meetinghouse. Negro communicants participated in the sacrament only after all the whites had partaken.

Generally, Negro marriages were not recognized by churches in the period before the Civil War. The law supported the churches in that view. Slave marriages were considered moral agreements having no legal force. After the Civil War, a state law was passed requiring all ex-slave couples who were living together as man and wife be "remarried" legally. Most black couples were glad to comply.

Even in death, the races were generally separated. Usually there were "white" and "colored" cemeteries in every area of the State. Occasionally, as in the case of William Jewell of Columbia, a man's slaves were buried close to the body of their master.

Missouri slaves did not generally have much free time. As a rule, masters allowed them to have Saturday afternoons to themselves, during which time they often manufactured small articles for sale or tended small plots of land adjoining the slave quarters. They were usually allowed to retain the proceeds from those ventures, which many slaves applied to the purchase of their freedom from their masters. At times they were allowed to sing and to hold dances in the evenings and occasionally attend a Circus.

Throughout the slavery period in Missouri there were persons, black; and white, who advocated the abolition of slavery both locally and nationally. These abolitionists were a hated group in a slaveholding state because they threatened the continued existence of an institution which provided cheap labor. Moreover, they advocated a way of life which did not include institutionalized inferiority and servitude for blacks.

Because of their deep animosity toward persons who challenged their way of life, pro-slavery forces generally dealt severely with abolitionists.

In 1837, Elijah Lovejoy, who had been run out of St. Louis for editing his antislavery newspaper, The Observer was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, because of his outspoken stand against the institution of slavery. At Chillicothe, the Christian minister, the Reverend David White, was forced to leave the city in 1855, for strongly tincturing his sermons with abolitionism. Slavery was a way of life and those who benefited from it would go to any length to preserve it.

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