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Hemp Farming and Slavery: A Story of Exploit and Shame

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Monica Donovan 30 Jun 2020

Slave labor brought this labor-intensive crop to prominence in centuries past. As the hemp industry begins anew, it should remember the shoulders it stands on.

Though hemp sees a growing acceptance today as a progressive and highly useful source of food, fiber, fuel and building materials, it’s a crop fraught with economic, social and political significance throughout American history. Those who are currently working to build a healing hemp industry across the 50 states would do well to remember: Without hemp farmers exploiting slaves for their labor, hemp might never have flourished in early America.

Slave-Grown All-American Hemp

In 1619, it was illegal not to grow hemp in Virginia and soon, due to its resourcefulness, Massachusetts and Connecticut adopted similar laws. American history books, in effusive language, explain how crops like tobacco, sugar and cotton saved the early American colonies thanks to their easy cultivation and high value on the world market — but rarely do students in American schools (acknowledging, of course, that this is just the tip of the whitewashing history iceberg) learn how hemp was the crop that saved early settlements in Virginia, in Massachusetts Bay and throughout the South.

An unknown African American male breaking hemp on hand brakes in a field of hemp stalk stacks. Source: John Winston Coleman Jr. via the University of Kentucky.
An unknown African American male breaking hemp on hand brakes in a field of hemp stalk stacks. Many former slaves transitioned after abolition to sharecropping which continued the exploitation of black Americans.  Source: John Winston Coleman Jr. via the University of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, North & South Carolina and the New England states were heavily encouraged to cultivate hemp through subsidies and bounties. However, the efforts to establish a hemp industry in new markets in Northern states weren’t that successful. The cultivation power largely remained in the South, where greater numbers of enslaved African Americans were forced to plant, grow, harvest and process hemp.

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By the 17th century and the discovery of the New World, hemp accounted for over 80 percent of clothing and was essential within the massive transportation industry, which relied on hemp canvas for sails. Hemp grows quickly and is naturally resistant to mold and mildew, pests, UV radiation and other potential harms, making it a near-perfect crop for struggling colonists.

White European colonists were not the ones in the hemp fields or hemp factories. The large, strong and sticky hemp plants made for difficult, dirty work, and the sheer amount of crop requiring harvesting and processing required a large labor force. American farmers kept their costs minimal and their hands clean by relying on African slaves.

Hopkins even noted that “Kentuckians sometimes referred to hemp as a ‘n***** crop.’”

“On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of … slaves,” wrote James F. Hopkins in a 1951 historical account of Kentucky hemp, “and it is a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the hemp producing area.” He even noted that “Kentuckians sometimes referred to hemp as a ‘n***** crop.’”

Hopkins asserts that hemp is the reason that slavery was able to flourish in the Bluegrass State. By the mid 1800s, Kentucky was the nation’s leading hemp-producing state, with peak production of 40,000 tons in 1850.

A former slave uses a hand brake in Lexington, Kentucky. Many former slaves transitioned after abolition to sharecropping which continued the exploitation of black Americans. Source: John Winston Coleman Jr. via the University of Kentucky.
A former slave uses a hand brake in Lexington, Kentucky. Source: John Winston Coleman Jr. via the University of Kentucky.

Despite the difficult labor, working in the hemp fields was a desired job among slaves because it was task work rather than gang work. Gang work took place in the cotton fields where a taskmaster, whip in hand, drove the slaves hard. In task work, the slaves were given a quota for the day and left unsupervised to do the work themselves. If a slave exceeded his quota, he could earn wages for additional production or enjoy free time.

Jefferson’s plantation, where over 400 enslaved individuals lived and worked during the former president’s lifetime, has since turned into a tourist destination.

Slaves earned money in the task system, and a few even earned enough to purchase their freedom. For breaking hemp, they were typically paid a penny for every pound over the 100-pound quota. A good worker could break 300 pounds a day, earning about $2. Work in the hemp factories was task work as well.

Even Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, forced slaves to cultivate hemp on his Monticello plantation in Virginia, where tobacco, cotton, flax and other mixed crops also grew. Though he is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was also adamant about upholding the violence and indignity of slavery. He enslaved men, women and children on his 5,000 acre farm, where they reportedly grew massive amounts of hemp as early as 1774.

It was during the late 1700s that Jefferson declared “hemp … of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” Jefferson’s plantation, where over 400 enslaved individuals lived and worked during the former president’s lifetime, has since turned into a tourist destination.

“Hemp… is abundantly productive and will grow for ever on the same spot, but the breaking and beating it, which has always been done by hand, is so slow, so laborious, and so much complained of by our laborers.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1815

Slavery in Vermont

In early March of this year, shortly before all hell broke loose due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nikole Hannah Jones, New York Times staffer and founder of The 1619 Project, spoke at Middlebury College, addressing a crowd of more than 700.

Northern states relied on slavery as much as Southern states did, Hannah-Jones said during her talk. While Vermont was the first colony to abolish slavery, she said Vermonters still benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans.

“Vermont had quite a few textile factories. Those textile factories were spinning enslaved-grown cotton,” she said. “So we can’t really draw these neat lines around who was responsible for slavery and who was not. It really was a national endeavor.”

“Vermont had quite a few textile factories. Those textile factories were spinning enslaved-grown cotton.”

Slavery was banned outright upon Vermont’s founding in July 1777, and by a further provision in its Constitution, mandating that existing male slaves become free at the age of 21 and females at the age of 18. Not only did Vermont’s legislature agree to abolish slavery entirely, it also moved to provide full voting rights for African American males.

However, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture noted that “Vermont’s July 1777 declaration was not entirely altruistic either.”  While Vermont’s constitutional language set an independent tone apart from the 13 colonies, “the declaration’s wording was vague enough to let Vermont’s already-established slavery practices continue.”

Washington state-based author Jared Ross Hardesty, in his “Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England,” released last year, made similar observations in an interview with Vermont Public Radio in February.

“There was a very strong tradition of anti-slavery,” he said. “Yet when you look at legislation from the Vermont Legislature in the 1780’s and in the 1790’s after statehood, there’s a number of laws that are passed that are banning slave trading, that are banning the selling of enslaved people out of Vermont, and what this suggests is this practice is still going on.”

It was fairly common and unsurprising, Hardesty said, that there were slaveholders in Vermont after the Constitution went into effect, noting that the 1810 Vermont census enumerates slaves. A look at the 1870 census shows the number of  “free colored” living in Vermont steadily increasing from 1790 onward.

1870 Census: Volume 1. The Statistics of the Population of the United States, page 68, shows a steady growth of “free colored” people in Vermont since the census began. Source: The United States Census Bureau.
1870 Census: Volume 1. The Statistics of the Population of the United States, page 68, shows a steady growth of “free colored” people in Vermont since the census began. Source: The United States Census Bureau.

While slaveholding was more common in cities (at one point a quarter of all Boston families owned slaves), Hardesty said Vermont farm families often had one or two slaves to supplement their farming and labor needs.

Harvey Amani Whitfield’s book, “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810” says that in any case, child slavery remained legal in Vermont and de facto adult slavery continued, “under the guise of such terms as ‘servant.’ ” Whitfield also writes that among those violating the abolition of slavery were Vermont Supreme Court Judge Stephen Jacob and Levi Allen, brother of the military leader Ethan Allen.

As the nineteenth century reached its midpoint, many Vermonters took strong personal stances on the abolition of slavery – but debate abounded as to how that should happen. At the same time, the state was seeing a surge of hemp cultivation among Vermont farmers. In the decade before the Civil War, from 1850 to 1860, strong opinions and actions on both slavery and hemp came from leaders in St. Johnsbury.

The Abolitionists of St. Johnsbury

In an in-depth look at the abolitionists of St. Johnsbury, the The North Star Monthly introduces us to Jonathan Arnold, a Rhode Island physician and statesman as well as an outspoken advocate for independence and the abolition of slavery. After clearing land in 1787, he moved his entire household to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where he became one of the town’s founders.

Strong advocates for the elimination of slavery, its members encouraged tolerance for different views on how to deal with “the slavery question,” because it wasn’t simple.

By 1840, Dr. Arnold’s abolitionist views prevailed among St. Johnsbury’s town leaders. The town already had its own St. Johnsbury Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1836. Strong advocates for the elimination of slavery, its members encouraged tolerance for different views on how to deal with “the slavery question,” because it wasn’t simple.

In addition to despising the notion that any person could “own” another, Vermonters had a strong sense of property rights. They were perplexed by the idea that southern plantation owners, who by that time accounted for most of the nation’s slavery, had invested so much of their business money in the “purchase” of Africans and African Americans. Could a decision, on moral grounds, deprive those business owners of their enormous financial investments?

Jonathan Arnold, from an engraving by Max Rosenthal. Source: The North Star Monthly.
Jonathan Arnold, from an engraving by Max Rosenthal. Source: The North Star Monthly.

One industry leader who spoke for “gradual abolition,” a popular idea that proposed to ease financial trauma for slaveholders, was Erastus Fairbanks. He and his brother Thaddeus founded a mill-based business, manufacturing stoves, plows, and other items from iron.

When they added the handling of hemp – a rope component, grown locally – Thaddeus developed an invention called the “platform scale” for weighing hemp, more popularly known as the Fairbanks Scales. Recognizing the importance of the new system for measuring weights, legend has it that Thaddeus rode all the way from St. Johnsbury to Washington, D.C., on horseback to obtain a patent.

Fairbanks Scales founder Thaddeus Fairbanks. Source: The Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus
Fairbanks Scales founder Thaddeus Fairbanks. Source: The Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus

Their brother Joseph P. Fairbanks, elected to the state legislature in 1845, became a significant voice in Vermont’s chapter of the American Colonization Society, which proposed to “send Africans home” under an African Colonization project – “the most effective plan yet devised for benefitting an oppressed and injured race,” the group announced in the Dec. 10, 1847, issue of the Burlington Free Press. Members asserted that their “enterprise” was “sanctioned by reason, by patriotism, and by Christianity.”

Civil war loomed in 1860, as Erastus Fairbanks won the Vermont governorship for his second term. The surging growth of St. Johnsbury-based Fairbanks Scales meant Erastus and Thaddeus had enormous investments in machinery and sales force in the south – which would be lost if a war broke out. Interestingly enough, Fairbanks Scales, Inc. appears to still be active and running, with a website and company headquarters listed in Kansas City, Missouri – so perhaps they survived the war after all.

Contributions by the Fairbanks brothers to the American Colonization Society, from the records of the African Repository. Source: The North Star Monthly.
Contributions by the Fairbanks brothers to the American Colonization Society, from the records of the African Repository. Source: The North Star Monthly.

The call to war, however, was inevitable. In the spring of 1861, Gov. Erastus Fairbanks received a request from President Abraham Lincoln to send forces to the newly declared conflict. According to popular legend, cited by Rutland Herald writer Mark Bushnells: “As the Civil War was breaking out, President Lincoln telegraphed Gov. Fairbanks urgently: ‘Washington is in grave danger. What may we expect of Vermont?’

“Washington is in grave danger. What may we expect of Vermont?”
– President Abraham Lincoln

‘Vermont will do its full duty,’ Fairbanks wired back. ‘Losses and all.’”

Same S***, Different Day

Kanell’s accounts of nineteenth century Vermonters and their spirited discussions around “how” to abolish slavery evoke an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. Two centuries later, we’re still at the kitchen table arguing about “how” to dismantle the systemic racism that we not only built through slavery, but have maintained through decades of intentional policymaking.

Kanell’s accounts of nineteenth century Vermonters and their spirited discussions around “how” to abolish slavery evoke an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu.

And while the cannabis and hemp industries are hailed as one of the fastest-growing and most profitable sectors in the country, they are overwhelmingly run by white male owners, and fall short on diverse hiring and social equity programs. Legal cannabis cash flows up the ladder, and people of color get shut out of the industry, while others remain incarcerated for minor cannabis infractions in cannabis-legal states.

Though hemp’s not-so-distant history may seem irrelevant to the modern hemp and cannabis industry, remembering the history of slavery in the hemp industry offers a nuanced insight into how people of color have contributed to the success of a crop that padded the pockets of slaveholders, and served as the backbone of an industry which still lives on today. It is incumbent upon us to pull back the revisionist veil of America’s dark, tragic history and examine the facts of our past.

Will Vermonters do their duty? Will the cannabis industry? These are complex questions, but they are well worth exploring – and, now more than ever, a moment spent examining this unique and familiar crossroads in our history is a moment well spent.

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Source: National Museum of African History and Culture
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Source: National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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