A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky - James F. Hopkins (1951)

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Exerpts from the book.

Slavery In The Hemp Industry

Without hemp, slavery might not have flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves, and it is a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the hemp producing area. Perhaps the nearest approach in Kentucky to the plantation on the southern scale was the large Bluegrass farm upon which hemp was one of the major crops and where virtually all manual labor was performed by slaves. On the other hand, since hemp does not require as much attention as must be given to cotton, the number of Negroes on a Kentucky farm was usually far less than the number necessary on a cotton plantation of comparable size. Consequently, owing to their high birth rate, the slaves increased faster than they were needed. Sale of surplus blacks to the lower South brought welcome revenue to Kentucky and led to the unwelcome charge that people in the state were engaged in the breeding of Negroes for market.

Kentuckians sometimes referred to hemp as a "nigger crop", owing to a belief that no one understood its eccentricities as well or was as expert in handling it as the Negro. A Lexingtonian stated in 1836 that it was almost impossible to hire workmen to break a crop of hemp because the work was "very dirty, and so laborious that scarcely any white man will work at it," and he continued by saying that the task was done entirely by slave labor. Among the slaves, the men held a monopoly on all the tasks connected with the production of fiber because, in the words of this observer, "Negro women cannot labor at hemp at all, and are scarcely worth anything." Another commentator a few years later concluded that "none but our strong able negro men can handle it to advantage." To a considerable extent that belief was based on fact, for the tasks connected with hemp culture were for the most part laborious and sometimes unpleasant, and such work was given to the slave or, after the Civil War, to the Negro tenant or "hired hand."

Mechanized Hemp Rope Making

Slave labor was used to a large extent in the manufacture of hemp, the Negroes being owned by the operator of the business or hired by him for a period of time. In either case the task work plan was used to promote diligence, and the slave who applied himself could earn in the 1850s two or three dollars per week which he was free to spend as he chose. The price paid for the hire of such laborers varied according to the ability of the slave. In Louisville in 1834 one Negro, George, was hired for $30 per year, whereas Henry cost his employer $80 for the same period of time. Two years later the extremes were George, at $40, and Sullivan, at $180. "The exceedingly low price of twenty-five cents per day," was the figure set in 1836 by the Nicholasville manufacturer who, wishing to retire from business, offered to sell his factory and hire out his "thirty old hands well skilled in the manufacture of Hemp." Wishing to protect insofar as possible the valuable property he was hiring to another man, the owner of a slave sometimes required a contract which obligated the employer to treat the laborer well, clothe and feed him, "pay his taxes & physician Bill Should the Same be necessary, & return the Boy as usual well clothed at the End of the time" for which he was hired. Early in the nineteenth century Thomas Bodley and Company of Lexington wanted to hire ten Negro boys, from 12 to 15 years of age, and five men, from 17 to 25, "the boys to spin & the men to weave and heckle in a Coarse Linen Manufactory." In the same year Tom, a ropemaker by trade, ran away from his master in Danville, and shortly afterward Thomas H. Pindell advertised a desire to purchase or hire several Negro boys, age 14 to 18, to work in a ropewalk. When John W. Hunt of Lexington decided to retire from the manufacture of bagging, he advertised an auction sale of 60 men, boys and women.