Enslaved Workers on Campus

Enslaved people could be found on the College campus in several capacities. People enslaved by College presidents were used to perform the work of domestic servants. In addition, Board members provided people they enslaved to the College for certain tasks. Probably the largest number of enslaved people on campus provided labor for the Steward’s Department, typical of colleges at the time. The Steward supervised boarding at the College; after 1819 students were required to board at the College unless they lived at home. The College building was destroyed by fire in 1827; boarding resumed after East and West Halls were completed, in 1855.

Enslaved workers owned and hired by Presidents

It is highly likely that slaveholding presidents were served in a personal capacity on campus by one or more of the people they enslaved. Primus, enslaved by William Smith, probably attended Smith in his duties at the College’s first President. (See Presidents) Colin Ferguson and Richard Ringgold may have also had people they enslaved working for them on campus.

In 1819, the Board reimbursed President Francis Waters (See Presidents) twenty dollars for the year for the “services of his servant” in making fires in the school room and sweeping the room twice a week. At that time, Waters held four people in slavery. A young woman named Dinah seems the most likely candidate to be performing the domestic work described here.

Charlotte, enslaved by longtime College Treasurer Joseph Wickes, was hired out to President Timothy Clowes in 1824 (See Presidents). Clowes arrived from New York in late 1823 to become the College’s head. Like previous presidents, Clowes and his family occupied the east end of the College. Charlotte may have worked serving Clowes in his capacity as president, or as a domestic servant to the Clowes family, possibly both.

Francis Waters returned to the College to serve a second term as President from 1854 to 1860. The 1860 Slave Schedule shows him as claiming two enslaved people—a twenty-eight-year-old man, and a twelve-year old girl. Since the President lived in East Hall at that time, the two would have been on campus, regardless of what kind of labor they performed.

The document also shows an enslaved person belonging to Andrew Sutton (See Presidents)–a girl, aged seventeen. At the time this census was recorded Sutton was a professor, but he would soon take over the presidency. He and his family also lived on campus.

Enslaved Workers owned by Board members

A receipt in the College’s financial records shows the Board Committee of Repairs authorizing payment of $15.75 to Dr. Thomas Whittington for “work done by his negro man at College.” (See Board.) At the time of his death in 1823, Whittington claimed seven enslaved people, only one of whom was an adult male. His name was Bill, and he was later freed “in consideration of his faithfull attention” to Whittington. Another possibility is a young enslaved man named James whom Whittington sold in August, 1822, for $370, for reasons unknown.

Another receipt shows reimbursement to Dr. Peregrine Wroth (See Board) in the amount of $16.65 for “having the bell rung” in 1832. Wroth was an 1803 graduate of the College and longtime Board member who also taught Chemistry and Geology. Bell-ringing was manual labor; likely Wroth was being compensated for work done by one of the people he held in slavery. Wroth claimed five people in the 1840 census, including one man, aged 36-54. Assuming this man was in Wroth’s possession in 1832, he would have been between 28 and 46 years old at the time of the receipt, and is the most obvious person to have been working at this job.

The Steward’s Department

Probably the majority of enslaved people to be found on campus worked for the Steward’s Department, as was typical of colleges at the time. The Steward supervised boarding at the College, and after 1819 students were required to board an campus unless they lived at home. Several stewards have been identified: George W. Thomas, Sarah B. Blake, Edward Wroth, and Professor William S. Hyson and his wife. President Francis Waters took charge of boarding arrangements for a time. All but the Hysons were slaveholders.

In 1819, the Board of Visitors and Governors established a set of Rules and Regulations governing student behavior on campus, particularly with regard to boarding. For example, meals were served at set times, students were expected to behave decently (“no throwing victuals”), and abide by a nighttime curfew. The Rules listed what students could expect from the “servants of the steward”. Students could not require these workers to “perform any service . . . out of their ordinary Business.” Students could expect the “servants” to make up their Beds, and sweep their rooms and other parts of the College at least once a day”, but could not expect more than that, especially the cleaning up of any mess they had deliberately made. In addition, “No student shall at any time offer the least insulting behavior to the steward, nor abuse any of his domesticks.”

White people often used terms like “servant”, as well as “negro”, or the possessive “my man”, or “my girl”, to describe people who were in fact enslaved. We can infer from the context and what is known about those who performed this type of labor at other colleges that the workers referenced here were enslaved men and women. 

The Rules were updated in 1856, reaffirming that “No student shall molest or interfere with the servants of the College, when engaged in their ordinary work or require of a servant to do what is not in the line of his appropriate duties.” This hints at what the Board knew or feared about the behavior of the students toward the enslaved workers in the Steward’s Department. Recent works on enslaved workers at other colleges have shown that they were frequently subject to abuse ranging from insults and “pranks” to more serious assault including whipping, and rape. In short, enslaved people on a college campus were vulnerable to the boys and young men away from parental supervision for the first time.   

With research by Cherie Ciaudella