During the Federal period, some states and territories outlawed the practice of slavery. But even in “free” states and territories, white people found legal ways to make Black men and women work without pay. One common practice was to require enslaved people to sign long-term indenture contracts.
Indenture contracts existed from the early days of the colonies. Usually, the indentured servant promised to work seven to ten years without pay in exchange for transportation to the colonies or job training. At the end of the term, the indentured servant was usually given clothing and sometimes tools to help them start their independent life.
When faced with abolition in their state or territory, many enslavers required their enslaved people to sign indenture contracts. The indenture contracts signed by enslaved people were very different from traditional contracts. They required decades of unpaid work in exchange for freedom. There were also no promises of clothing or tools to help the person start a new life at the end of their term. Historians have called these deals “a limited form of slavery.”
The gradual emancipation laws passed by states like New York and New Jersey made long-term indenture in exchange for freedom a statewide policy. Every enslaved person in those states had to work unpaid for decades to earn their freedom.
This is an indenture contract signed by Lucey, a Black woman who was about 20 years old. Lucey agreed to work for Robert Chesney in St. Clair County, Illinois, for 40 years. It was signed in 1815 when Illinois was still part of the Northwest Territory. Slavery was outlawed in the Northwest Territory in 1787, so this contract was a way for Robert to continue to benefit from Lucey’s unpaid labor without breaking the law. Lucey would have been about 60 years old by the time the contract ended.