As the United States careened toward Civil War, the British media took greater interest in the peculiar institution as it existed in the American South. In its April 6, 1861 edition, The London Illustrated News had two stories (with illustrations naturally) on slavery in Baltimore and New Orleans respectively. That this publication chose to feature slavery in two metropolitan centers of the antebellum South is interesting. Only about 5 percent of the American slave population lived in urban areas on the eve of the Civil War. If The London Illustrated News had really wanted to capture a more typical slice of the slave experience at that moment its journalists would have ventured into the countryside, particularly the cotton plantations of the Deep South. But for unknown reasons they chose not to venture beyond these two great southern port cities, especially since the personal interest stories this publication emphasized could be readily found there. Nonetheless, the stories offer interesting and contrasting images of urban slavery in the week before the outbreak of hostilities with the attack on Fort Sumter.
The Baltimore story, entitled “The Dandy Slave,” purports to describe the amicable relationship between a well dressed bondsman and his mistress. Like many urban slaves, this unnamed man lived apart from his owner, paying her half his wages as a waiter in posh hotels and luxurious steamships. While the article describes the slave as content with the relationship, it would be interesting to know what became of it when freedom came to Maryland in 1864. Below is the illustration of the Baltimore slave and his mistress.
The New Orleans story, entitled “Slaves for Sale” tries to put a pleasant face on one of the most notorious rituals in the antebellum South–the slave auction. The fine dress of the slaves suggests they were destined to remain in New Orleans as house servants rather than be sold for plantation labor. The article’s contention that the slaves facing sale, “look heavy, perhaps a little sad, but not altogether unhappy,” suggests nervous people trying to preserve some shred of dignity in trying circumstances.
In any case, both images and the accompanying articles, suggest urban slavery was alive and well on the eve of the Civil War. Like rural slavery it was well entrenched in the life of the American South and showed no signs of fading away. Yet beneath the surface of the peculiar institution in the cities were discontented slaves, living in close proximity to free blacks and like the Dandy Slave with opportunities for independent living, and so knowledgeable about freedom, ready to grab at the opportunities to achieve that status the war would shortly bring.