Justene Hill Edwards on the Slaves’ Economy and the Limits of Black Capitalism

Unfree Markets

Recently, it seems that more and more people within and beyond the academy are talking about slavery and capitalism. From universities and colleges like the University of Virginia, compelled to reckon with the enslaved labor that built many campuses, to the financial sector, where, in 2005, JP Morgan Chase made headlines after it issued a rare apology for its involvement in the slave trade via the Citizens’ Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana, both now part of JP Morgan. In the latter case, JP Morgan’s acknowledgement served to underline recent scholarship on the way enslaved people functioned as labor and capital, powering the nation’s early economy. Still, for all of the discussions about slavery’s contribution to the development of American capitalism, we know far less about the ways capitalism functioned in the everyday lives of enslaved people.

Justene Hill Edwards seeks to change that with her new book chronically the inner workings of the slaves’ economy from the colonial period to the Civil War. Told from the ground up, Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina takes readers on a journey through bustling urban marketplaces to back country-roads, and all the places in between where enslaved people participated in market transactions with each other and whites, including their enslavers. In doing so, she never loses sight of the limitations of the slaves’ economy. Rather, with nuance and clear implications for our present moment, she shows how enslaved peoples’ investments in capitalism, while providing temporary relief, ultimately benefited the very people who denied their freedom.

Check out the episode here!

Justene Hill Edwards is an Assistant Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina.


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