University of Maine at Presque Isle History Professor John Zaborney has shed new light on slave labor in the antebellum South in his newly published book and the University will celebrate with a reading and book signing event with the author on Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m. in the Campus Center. The public is invited to attend this special event, which will include a reception featuring light refreshments, and wine available through a cash bar.
In his new book Slaves for Hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia, Dr. John J. Zaborney, UMPI Professor of History, suggests—contrary to popular belief—that the endemic practice of slave renting or hiring bolstered the institution of slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War, all but assuring Virginia's secession from the Union to protect slavery. Zaborney's book was published by Louisiana State University Press, one of the nation's outstanding scholarly presses.
Zaborney's book is the first in-depth examination of slave hiring in Virginia. Previously, scholars viewed slave hiring as an aberration—a modified form of slavery involving primarily urban male slaves, that worked to the laborer's advantage and weakened slavery's institutional integrity.
Moving beyond previous analyses, Zaborney's book examines slave hiring in rural and agricultural settings, along with the renting of women (including pregnant women), children, and elderly slaves. His research reveals that, like non-hired-out slaves, these other workers' experiences varied in accordance with sex, location, occupation, economic climate, and crop prices, as well as owners' and renters' convictions and financial circumstances. Hired slaves in Virginia faced a full range of oppression from nearly full autonomy to harsh exploitation.
Ultimately, widespread white mastery of hired slaves allowed owners with superfluous slaves to offer them for rent locally rather than selling them to the Lower South, establishing the practice as an integral feature of Virginia slavery.
Zaborney came across the idea of slave hiring in graduate school as he was seeking a topic suitable for his Ph.D. dissertation.
"I had noticed scattered references to slave hiring in the books we read, and it seemed very unique and significant," Zaborney recalled. "It soon became clear to me, however, that very little research had been done on slave hiring, and that what little had been done on it resulted in conclusions about it that did not ring true to me. After some preliminary work in numerous sources, I discovered that there was much more, and much different, material on slave hiring out there, and I was certain of it. I did some research of records on microfilm, but most of it in archives and courthouses throughout Virginia. After finishing my dissertation, I knew I had something which, with more time and work, could be expanded into a book."
In the years since, Zaborney returned to the South in search of additional material. He also had opportunities to present his findings at conferences and publish small pieces, all the while incorporating the new material into a growing manuscript that ultimately was picked up by Louisiana State University Press. Founded in 1935, LSU Press is one of the oldest and largest university presses in the South and has garnered national and international accolades, including four Pulitzer Prizes. It is a major publisher of scholarly books, especially in the area of Southern history.
Dr. Zaborney has served as a professor at UMPI since 1998. He has written nearly 20 articles and book chapters on topics associated with slavery and slave hiring. Dr. Zaborney earned his Bachelor's degree in History/Political Science from Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Va., his Master's degree in history from SUNY College at Cortland, and his Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of Maine.
All are encouraged to attend this special evening with John Zaborney. The March 21 event will include a reading and Q&A by the author, followed by a book signing. There will also be a reception featuring light refreshments, and wine available through a cash bar. Copies of his book will be on display and for sale.