Business and Commerce

Early Development

What skills did slaves bring to American culture?

Free blacks gave evidence of a fashion industry as early as the 1700s, when Virginian Stephen Jackson made hats of fur and leather. The industry carried over into slavery, however, as slave women worked as seamstresses and embroiderers on large plantations. Some became widely known later on.

The economics of slavery required black labor that went beyond field work and house work and sought craftsmen who were artisans, dressmakers, musicians, barbers, furniture-makers, and brick masons. Once freed, these talented people developed skills that were immediately economically beneficial to them.

Slave narratives, or stories that slaves told about themselves, were the source of much of the early information about African-American businesses during that period. Although the American slave system restricted the life and times of the slave, some were able to operate businesses on the plantation of their master or were hired out for such purposes. When they were able to earn money for their labor, slaves often bought their freedom as well as that of their families and sometimes friends.


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