What was slavery like in the urban North?  

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We all have images of slavery in the American South with its plantations and cotton and slave cabins, but slavery also existed in the North and even in the middle of Northern cities. Slavery, however, looked quite different.

In Northern cities, some slaves were household servants. They cooked, cleaned, gathered wood and water, made household repairs, did laundry, removed waste, and generally kept households running smoothly. Slaves typically slept in nooks in basements or attics. There lives were difficult, to be sure, but probably not nearly as burdensome as the lives of their Southern counterparts. People in cities tended to own only a few slaves: sometimes one or two, sometimes a couple more, depending on the size of their household.

Other slaves in the urban North become skilled artisans who produced goods for their masters, with whom they worked. Still others were laborers who worked to build and maintain roads, docks, and buildings or dock workers who loaded and unloaded goods from ships or even sailors. Sometimes slave owners hired out their slaves for wages (that the owners usually took).

Early on in American history, slaves actually made up between twenty and twenty-five percent of the population of some Northern cities, and many Northerners did own slaves. Just like in the South, slaves in the North could not own property, and their lives were hemmed in by rules of all kinds, including prohibitions on gathering. Punishment for offenses could be quite harsh, and indeed, the life of a slave, no matter where he or she lived, was not easy.

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