We know them by first name only, and there’s a good chance those are not the names they were born with. Men called William, Moses, Edwards, Patrick, Sam, Major, Quillen, Arthur, Speers, Robert, Andrew, Swindle, Peter, Erasmus, Anderson, Jack, Isaac, and Jim (among others) were very much a part of the early life of the University of Alabama, but they’ve long remained in the shadows of history. Why? They were slaves, essentially rented (or bought) from local owners to do work at the University.
Typically, these men performed outdoor labor like “hauling” and “cutting”…
…but some took on domestic duties:
Be it ordained by the Trustees of the University of Alabama; that in addition to the servant now owned by the University the
facultyPres. of Board of Trustees shall be authorized to hirepurchase one other competent servant at the lowest terms that can be procured, for the service of the Dormitories; and be it further ordained; that the Steward shall board the two college servants, to compensate for which he shall have their service during meals, and also during vacations.
While the “servants” mentioned above were apparently permanent (notice the change of “hire” to “purchase”), most were temporary manual laborers. They worked at the University for a prescribed time, and the money for their labor was remitted to their owners. Here are a couple of examples of receipts for their wages:
The University also had to feed and in some cases clothe and otherwise care for the slaves, especially the permanent domestic servants:
Dozens of invoices for such transactions, as well as other related receipts and memos, are included in the University Archives. These administrative records can now be accessed online in our digital repository, Acumen.
- Another collection of interest on the history of slavery in Alabama is the S. D. Cabaniss papers. Cabaniss, a lawyer, took on a controversial mid-19th c. case. Samuel Townsend, an unmarried planter who owned more than half a dozen plantations, wanted to leave his property to some of his slaves, many of whom were also his children. Townsend’s will took years to settle, providing us a look at the legal system of the day…and the ways in which it was being forced to change with the times.
- For other items and collections relating to slavery, go to Acumen and enter the search term “slavery.”