“Benign Paternalism”: African Americans Making a Living
in Early Nineteenth-Century Worcester
by Philip Schneider

African American Home

People of color were viewed very differently in Worcester than they were in many other areas of the country. On the one hand, many of Worcester ’s African Americans in the antebellum period where the descended of eighteenth-century slaves in the area and other African Americans who had gained their freedom before the War of Independence. These “people of color” are of mixed heritages: some are of African heritage, others of African and Native African heritage, and still others of African and European heritage. As is true for other portions of New England , some of the “people of color” were of European, Native American and African ancestry. On the other hand, numerous fugitive slaves had made their way to New England , some like author Isaac Mason settling at Worcester . Generally, however, in the period preceding the Civil War, many of Worcester ’s white residents, including member of the local elite, viewed African Americans from a benign paternalism and accepted responsibilities to assist the city’s small black community.

Though Worcester ’s African Americans comprised only several hundred men, women and children during this period, blacks were still a visible part of Worcester ’s community. As we look at the account books of the Salisbury family and others from the early 1800s, we can begin to see a picture of how successful Worcester merchants of the period lived and how their relationships with people of color were structured.

Stephen Salisbury, for example, like many of his contemporaries of wealth and privilege, kept very detailed account books and ledgers of the happenings on his extensive estate. These documents give us detailed records of everything from household and medical expenses, to work done on the estate, including amounts of alcohol provided daily to numerous workers employed on his substantial farm properties. He also maintained logs of how much his workers earned, whether in cash payments or by charging goods at his store where his laborers frequently charged foodstuffs, clothing, and supplies, working off debts. In many cases, it appears that Salisbury ’s workmen received little cash but they and their families were survived performing seasonal labor, surviving other times of year only through charging at his store.

In one document, for example, where Salisbury keeps track of alcohol provided to his workers, Cato Walker, a former slave and one of several African Americans employed by Salisbury frequently doing garden work for the Salisbury family. Like other men of color working for Salisbury , he received liquor up to four times a day. He appears in the book for several dates in the late 1790s, listed along with all the white workers employed by Salisbury ; Walker receives the exact same amount of liquor as the other non-colored workers that suggests for Salisbury their equality as laborers.

Stephen Salisbury I, however, kept very account books identifying each person who ever worked for him. In addition to Cato Walker, he frequently employed men like Cato Walker as well as Peter Rich Sr. and his sons Benjamin and Peter Rich Jr. and other men part of the town’s small African American community. Many of the black workers employed by Salisbury were former local slaves owned by the Chandler , Paine and Worcester ’s other elite eighteenth-century families

We see all of these men working in various capacities, more often than not, performing garden tasks at various times of the year like preparing fields for planting, tending crops and working during harvest times. Occasionally Salisbury would choose to pay these men on the same day suggesting that if they were not working off a debt for some loan or purchase, some of his workers would be paid cash on the spot. Salisbury ’s books, however, were so detailed, that he even mentions that one of his colored workers, David Brown, decided to leave after breakfast on Friday May 7, 1807 . His records also confirm that though he may have trusted his both his white and African American laborers, Salisbury kept an eye on them and made sure he knew everything happening on his property.

Dr. William Paine, on the other hand, kept a slightly different set of logs for his workers, where he would itemize their labor in great detail. In his memorandum books from 1798 to 1823, for example, he documents each worker and his or her activities for the any given day. For example, Dr. Paine might write “Worcester (a servant) worked here in the forenoon, sticking Pees and planting Pole Beans”, or perhaps “Lent Worcester 13/ -to pay for his boots, to be repaid by labour”. Worcester Winslow had been a slave of Paine’s mother, Mrs. Sarah Chandler Paine, and, here, as in the accounts of Salisbury and others, we see how marginally employed African Americans could support and sustain their families. Through personal, face-to-face encounters, Winslow and other African Americans could ask for a loan from elite members of the community like Dr. Paine and then work it off through an equivalent in labor. For those workers who were supposed to be present on the Paine estate on a regular basis, Dr. Paine even kept track of why they failed to show for work. Typical is Paine’s notation “Caesar unable to work, from laming himself by a fall”, though a few days later Caesar was back to “work in the cellar”. As Paine was a physician, he frequently had his services repaid with labor, and often provided medical care to his workers.

Additionally, a review of similar records for other prominent and wealthy Worcester families indicate the same pattern of providing a means for local African Americans to make a living

On the whole, I would say that the documents seem to be fairly easy to understand. Those who kept them were fairly meticulous in their descriptions of services rendered. And through their account books we can see, for example, that Peter Rich and other men and women of color spent decades working as occasional laborers for multiple families part of the town’s elite. Without this type of employment, many of Worcester ’s African American families would have lacked an income. Through personal connections—sometimes to families who had owned them or their parents— Worcester ’s African Americans were able to make a living, support their families and establish a place in the town from which an African American community will arise in the 1840s and 1850s.