Most slaves who worked for South Carolina College were “hired” on a short-term basis. Hiring out, or hiring, referred to a system in which a hirer would temporarily lease a slave from an owner. In doing so, owners generated revenue from their slaves’ labor without having an investment in the actual work itself. Slaves were more likely to face weekly, monthly, or yearly hiring than being permanently sold. Each year, five to fifteen percent of the slave population was hired for outside work. Conversely, less than four percent of slaves permanently exchanged hands. Hired slaves performed all kinds of labor: women worked domestic jobs such as laundering and wet-nursing, while men labored on roads, canals, and railroads. Others worked in industries such as mining coal, smelting iron, and processing tobacco. Skilled slaves might work as carpenters or blacksmiths. The number of hired slaves and the variety of jobs reflected not only the flexibility of slavery but also the importance of slaves as capital for owners and hirers.
College officials relied on the hiring-out system for various types of labor. The steward hired slaves to prepare student meals. Faculty members hired slaves for assistance in the laboratory and tasks such as removing the college bell. The college marshal, first appointed in 1835, coordinated most of the college hiring for general labor. He hired slaves from owners, furnished them with an identification badge, and oversaw daily tasks such as bed making, cleaning, building repairs, and other general maintenance.
Campus enrollment grew in the decades before the Civil War, and the demand for labor at the college increased. The marshal hired two slaves, Jack and Henry, on a monthly basis in the late 1850s at a cost of $37.50 per month. But tenement, or dormitory, slaves made up the majority of the work force. At any given time in the late 1850s, the college’s labor force ranged from ten to fifteen slaves, excluding slaves owned or hired by other faculty.
The hiring-out system generated contention between hirer and owner: hirers wanted to make the most out of a short-term investment; owners wanted to protect their long-term capital. Contracts typically placed the burden of clothing, food, and shelter on the hirer. At South Carolina College, slaves were provided clothing, board, and medical attention. Boarding alone constituted nearly one-third of the total hiring cost.
Physical distance between hirer and owner gave hired slaves an opportunity to influence their own experience, and this daily resistance undermined the hirer’s authority. In 1850, the steward lamented: “If [the college slaves] boarded at any other place the three hours [spent serving students’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner] would be lost for I have never heard of a Negro that would go to his meals and return in less than an hour for each meal.” The steward’s concern reflected an understanding of the limits of his authority over hired slaves. Other forms of resistance on campus could be more overt: in 1853, tenement slaves “struck” in protest to a decrease in the ratio of slaves to tenements. This tension was characteristic of the hiring system. Many slaveholders questioned the safety of hiring out because in practice it gave slaves some slight power in who they worked for and under what terms. Nonetheless, the hiring-out system was an essential part of slavery at South Carolina College.
Receipt of payment to James Henton for purchase of “1 pair of shoes for Jim [and 1 pair of shoes for] Jim Black.”
Receipt of payment to W. B. Broom “to hire of Henry and Tom for the month of June [and] to board ten dollars.” This receipt is signed by the college president, Augustus B. Longstreet.
Receipt of payment to W. B. Broom detailing the daily costs of hiring Mal., Abraham, Anthony, Peter, and Tom while they worked at the college. As marshal, Broom was responsible for settling debts with the owners of these slaves.