Sunday, December 13, 2020

Leasing the Enslaved Created Family Separations at Christmas and the New Year


The Holiday Season is typically a time of sharing and looking forward to a fresh start in the New Year. However, for enslaved men, women, and children, Christmas and New Year often created uncertainty and anxiety.

During slavery it was common in Virginia and other slaves states to lease or rent enslaved people for an agreed upon rate and time period. The contracts between the parties—those who were leasing out and those who sought additional laborers—more often than not ran on a yearly cycle. Leases typically started on New Year’s Day and ran to Christmas Day.

Leasing enslaved individuals could solely involve two private parties, but sometimes a middle man got involved, serving as a broker. As shown in the accompanying advertisement, which appeared in the December 12, 1860 edition of the Petersburg Daily Express, commission merchant brothers Alexander and James Donnan, who operated an office in Petersburg, offered to locate enslaved people for those who had specific labor needs. For their services the Donnan brothers received a commission or “finder’s fee.”  

When thinking of separations involving enslaved family members during the antebellum and Civil War years, we tend to focus on sales. Sales from upper-South states like Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky to the growing “Cotton Kingdom” states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and East Texas happened frequently. However, it is also important to also remember that separations between husbands and wives, and children from parents occurred as well in leasing agreements. The distances for leasing may have involved dozens of miles rather than the hundreds of miles that went with sales, but the anguish of parting from loved ones was no less a painful experience. From the perspective of the enslaved, it mattered little whether their family member was 1,000 miles away or 10 miles away when there was little to no opportunity for contact to enjoy the love and support of the family circle.   

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