Slavery in North Carolina

By Kate Donahoo and Ellen Spearing

Modern popular conceptions of slavery in the antebellum South suggest that grandiose plantations with dozens to hundreds of slaves toiling in cotton fields in a society where slavery was ubiquitous was the norm. In reality, however, most Southern whites did not own slaves. In addition, the majority of slaves performed domestic labor or worked on small farms rather than on large plantations. Because its dangerous coastline made the importation of slaves through the state’s ports difficult and the mountainous terrain of the western portion of the state prevented the establishment of large farms, North Carolina had only the seventh largest slave population in the South by 1860. Less than one third of white households owned slaves.1

Enslaved North Carolinians’ experiences varied. The majority of slaves in the state lived on the eastern coastal plains and labored to grow crops, including tobacco and cotton, for sale on the commercial market. In contrast, those slaves who lived in the central piedmont region, where Davidson College is located, predominantly worked on small farms cultivating crops such as wheat, barley, and rye and producing other consumable goods such as dairy products. These products, although less lucrative than cash crops like cotton and rice, were sold regionally and therefore were not as vulnerable to fluctuations in price. For small farmers in this region, slavery contributed – but was not essential to – economic security. Moreover, families could consume their production when prices fell. In this way, the piedmont was a unique slave society when compared to other regions of the South, and this shaped the Lacy family’s experience as slave owners.2

For all of the differences in practice, North Carolinians participated in slave holding for reasons similar to those of other Southerners. Contemporary discourse written by slave owners cites religion and morality as primary motivations. Although modern society understands slavery as an injustice and violation of human rights, proponents of enslavement in the antebellum era truly believed that they were civilizing and instilling Christian values in African and African descended peoples.3 Although it is unclear whether the Lacy family took part in these efforts to Christianize their slaves, they were closely tied to Presbyterian institutions such that it is reasonable to conclude that they encouraged their slaves to conform to Christian morality.4

Historical scholarship makes clear that economic concerns, however, outweighed all other considerations. Slaveholders benefitted directly from the labor provided by slaves. Beyond wealth accrued through ownership, slavery also produced an economic boom that extended to non-slaveholders as agricultural production stimulated related industries such as textiles, railroads, and shipping. Slave owners also profited from the practice of hiring out slaves to work for other individuals. This further ingrained slavery among lower class whites who did not own slaves but who benefitted from their labor.5 The Lacy family provides one such example as they also hired others’ slaves to perform work in their household. The flexibility of slavery to meet diverse labor needs kept it firmly rooted as an institution even in a region that was not orientated around the production of a cash crop.

As slaves were considered valuable assets and investments, the North Carolina legislature developed an extensive legal system around slavery to protect them as their owners’ property. This included not only the criminalization of stealing slaves but also providing the enslaved with some right to self-defense in the event of an assault or attempted murder. These rights acknowledging the personhood and agency of enslaved people subsequently caused anxiety about their potential for rebellion, and, therefore, the legislature introduced other statutes to minimize the threat of social instability. Owners wielded absolute power in disciplining their slaves with violence, and every white person enjoyed the right to punish enslaved and free African Americans for perceived improper behavior. The conflicting interest between treating slaves as objects owned by others and lacking a self and at the same time individuals capable of acting in their own self-interest created immense confusion. Various judgments from the North Carolina courts throughout the 1800s demonstrate how this tension undermined the goal of maximizing profits while preventing rebellion.6

For example, firearm laws became progressively more restrictive through the first half of the nineteenth century and made no distinction between free blacks and slaves, thus barring all African Americans from possessing guns. Although many slave owners wanted their slaves to have firearms to protect other property, such as livestock, fear of insurrection prompted the limitation of ownership and use of firearms to whites.7 In her letter from February 1859, Mary Lacy refers to one incident in which an enslaved man was beaten for being found in possession of a gun. The context of the letter suggests that she approved of the assault, a reaction that demonstrates how seriously white society took the possibility of slave insurrection, the lengths they would go to in order to protect themselves and their estates from threats both real and imagined, and the normalization of white-on-black violence. Slave law evolved over decades but could only be applied inefficiently due to its inherent contradictions.

This word cloud focuses on text in the letters specifically discussing slavery. The words suggest both how deeply gendered the institution was and how slaves in the Lacy household were largely engaged in domestic labor. By Mary Walters.

Just as North Carolinian slavery was anomalous in the South, so was the experience of the Lacy family compared to other slave owners in the piedmont. As a college president and slave owner, Drury Lacy did not fit the norms of slave-owning farmers or non-slaveholding yeoman farmers in this central region of North Carolina. The Lacy slaves likely primarily performed domestic work, including serving at events held by the college and maintaining the residence, which involved accommodating guests hosted by the family for official business. Their slaves therefore experienced much different working environments than the majority of slaves who labored in the agricultural sector. The lives of the Lacy family and their slaves demonstrate the wide range of experiences among whites and slaves in piedmont North Carolina and serve as an important reminder that no matter where we are in the South, we are tried to this tragic history.


  1. For further details about North Carolina laws on slavery, see: Jeffrey Crow, “Slavery,” Encyclopedia of North Carolina, ed. William S. Powell, (accessed July 10, 2017); for statistics about slave populations in the South, see: Jenny Bourne, “Slavery in the United States,”, Economic History Association, (accessed July 8, 2017).
  2. John David Smith, ““I Was Raised Poor and Hard As Any Slave:” African American Slavery in Piedmont North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 90, no.1 (January 2013): 3-4.
  3. Edward W. Phifer, “Slavery in Microcosm: Burke County, North Carolina,” in Journal of Southern History no. 2 (1962): 149.
  4. Donnie Bellamy, “Slavery in Microcosm: Onslow County, North Carolina,” in The Journal of Negro History 62 no. 4 (1997): 346.
  5. Bellamy, 346.
  6. Reuel E. Schiller, “Conflicting Obligations: Slave Law and the Late Antebellum North Carolina Supreme Court,” Virginia Law Review 78, no.5 (Aug 1995): 1207-1251.
  7. Antwain K. Hunter, “’A Nuisance Requiring Correction’: Firearm Laws, Black Mobility, and White Property in Antebellum Eastern North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review 93 no. 4 (2016): 387-8.