Abstract: No Free Market: The Enslaved Marketwomen and Butchers of Charleston’s Centre Market Stalls

Kelly Kean Sharp


This paper explores the use of enslaved labor in Charleston’s Centre Market as part of a larger project reconstructing networks of food production and consumption in early nineteenth-century Charleston. While the municipal governments and residents of mid-nineteenth century northern cities shifted to favor a free market model in urban provisioning, those in Charleston did not.[1] Instead, the city’s unique dependence on enslaved men and women as the primary vendors of fresh foodstuffs sparked tighter regulation, as my analysis of Centre Market’s spatial organization, faunal remains, and regional regulatory ordinances, as well as fears expressed in personal correspondences and petitions reveals. 

While Charleston’s marketplace appeared dedicated to republican-era ideals of municipal regulation for the “common good,” early-antebellum white Charlestonians of all classes did not want greater liberalization within the city’s market system as evidenced by their repeated anxieties and expanding municipal and state regulation. By navigating legislative regulation and white residents’ marketplace ideals, enslaved marketeers dominated the city’s provisioning market, serving a vital role in the Lowcountry’s local economy and exercising a degree of autonomy within the confines of slavery. Considering the labor of enslaved marketwomen and butchers as property selling property challenges the existing understanding of nineteenth-century political economy. My paper also reveals the role of urban infrastructure and commercial activity in influencing culinary culture.


[1] For ideological shifts in northern markets, see Helen Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America; Hendrik Hartog, Public Property and Private Power; Cindy Lobel, Urban Appetites; and Gergely Baics, Feeding Gotham.