Perhaps a majority of successful runaways escaped to towns and cities.
Even in colonial days these urban areas offered them unique opportunities for
autonomy and anonymity. The hiring of enslaved men and women by townspeople, as well as
self-hire was common, and by the early 1800s, most Southern
cities had hundreds and sometimes thousands of hired bondspeople, making it possible
for escapees to blend in.
Resourceful fugitives who made it to urban centers could find ways to
conceal their identities, create new ones, perhaps find shelter with relatives
-enslaved and free- and possibly lose themselves in growing free black
populations. Many who succeeded in hiding their true identities were literate,
possessed marketable skills, and could easily pass as free. They knew what
whites wanted to hear and could produce a plausible explanation of their
backgrounds. Males found work as laborers, carpenters, masons, bricklayers,
mechanics, shoemakers, and tradesmen; women were employed as house servants,
cooks, maids, and laundresses.
Although escapees still faced the constant danger of being stopped and
questioned by the authorities or suspicious citizens, control was less
intensive than in the countryside, where black strangers were
scrutinized and often arrested. As Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond,
Louisville, Nashville, Mobile, New Orleans, and St. Louis grew, it became
increasingly difficult for authorities to keep track of the expanding African-American
Residential patterns in these cities impeded the ability of the
authorities to check the identities of African-Americans. They lived in
alleys behind their owners' town houses, in rundown houses along the rivers and
in residential areas and suburbs where they worked as house servants.
There was little racial separation: regular slaves, hired slaves, free
persons of color, and runaways lived in close proximity to white artisans and
mechanics as well as members of the planter aristocracy. Although detailed
statistics do not exist, local police records suggest that there was a
continual flow of fugitives into urban areas.
In these cities where runaways might have relatives and friends, there
were also free blacks willing to assist and religious institutions that would
take them in. In the
Upper South cities, many legally free people, who had
recently emerged from bondage, sympathized with the fugitives' plight and
provided aid and comfort. A free mulatto in Camden, Delaware, Samuel D. Burris,
was described as "notorious" for providing protection to fugitives. Despite a
previous conviction, an observer reported, "Burris still persists in the
nefarious practice of enticing Servants and Slaves away from their