At the time of the Civil War, nearly 90,000 enslaved African Americans, almost half the entire population of the lower Chattahoochee River Valley of Georgia and Alabama, called the region home. These men and women tended the crops that sustained the area’s economy; built the structures in which many of its white citizens lived, worked and worshipped; and affected virtually every aspect of the social structure of the era.

Though enslaved people performed many different duties on farms and plantations, their labor is most closely associated with harvesting cotton, the primary cash crop of the region. It was not uncommon for slaves engaged in this task to be required to pick 150-250 pounds of cotton per day. In urban areas such as Columbus, many blacks worked in the homes of the wealthy doing domestic chores, or in a range of business establishments such as cotton presses, brickyards, and warehouses.

Enslaved people performed a wide variety of tasks, many requiring skilled labor. Many were apprentices to tailors, saddle makers, butchers, carpenters and masons. Numerous owners “hired out” these skilled slaves by renting them to others for an agreed upon fee or daily rate. Enslaved people could sometimes also hire themselves out. Most of the money earned from hiring out went into the owners’ pockets, but often the laborer got to keep some portion. In this way, slaves might save enough not only to live on their own, but in rare cases, to buy their freedom.

  • Iron window grate from a Columbus slave auction house
    Gift of W.M. Page 1987.16.1
    This window grate came from the A.K. Ayer slave auction house in downtown Columbus, where enslaved African Americans were sold as laborers. Click here for more information

  • Slave sale receipt from Columbus
    Gift of Norma Townsend McHann 2010.149.1

    This receipt for the purchase of a 20-year-old woman named Rose is dated November 11, 1864, less than six months before the end of the Civil War. Click here for more information

  • Horace King
    ca. 1855
    Museum purchase 1989.11.18

    Horace King, who came to Columbus as a slave with his owner in 1832, became a regionally well-known bridge-builder after buying his freedom in 1846.
    Click here for more information

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