University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group

The University of Mississippi

Enslaved Laborers and The Phi Sigma Society

On May 26, 1849, during its fourth recorded meeting, Phi Sigma, one of the antebellum literary societies students at the University of Mississippi were required to join, paid for the hire of a campus slave for the first time. “The acct of the College Servant, for lighting of the room, and other services, was presented,” the minutes read, “and The Treasurer was ordered to collect the money and pay it as soon as possible.”1

Such entries, which are scattered throughout Phi Sigma’s ledgers, reveal that while the substance of the organization’s meetings advanced the University’s proslavery mission, their very existence was made possible by the labor of enslaved people. Indeed, the work performed by the unnamed “College Servant” mentioned in the minutes of Phi Sigma’s May 26, 1849 meeting was deemed so essential to the organization’s functions that, a few months later, the body decided to formalize the relationship, passing a resolution stating that it would pay $1 for the services of an enslaved man named George.2 The meeting minutes outlined the tasks Phi Sigma expected him to perform. These included attending the hall, sweeping the floor, cleaning the spittoons, disposing of trash, bringing water for the meeting, and making fires when necessary.

Ledger of the Phi Sigma Society, 1849-1867. The Department of Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi.

The society, moreover, was apparently unable or unwilling to operate without the services George provided: when, at the November 3, 1849 meeting, “George was deposed for not attending to The Hall,” Phi Sigma chose Isaac, another campus slave, to complete the same duties that had previously been assigned to George at the same price. The minutes indicate that on December 8, 1849, the treasurer of the society was instructed to pay for the hire of Isaac, and on February 9, 1850, the society appointed a member to superintend the cleaning of the hall, a command which almost certainly instructed that member to oversee Isaac’s work.3

Despite its dependence on such work, Phi Sigma was often delinquent in paying for the services it hired. The May 11, 1850 meeting minutes indicate that, by that time, the society was “in debt to Isaac, for services.” In response, the society instructed the treasurer to “inquire into the matter and pay if just.” The meeting minutes do not show if this debt was paid, but during the June 15, 1850 meeting, “it was reported that the servant’s time had expired, and he demanded his pay.” The treasurer was then told to pay the amount due. It can be assumed that the “servant” who demanded his pay was Isaac, and it is noteworthy that the minutes explicitly state that he “demanded his pay.” This suggests some autonomy and agency for Isaac, since it would have been bold for an enslaved person to make demands on students.4

Precisely how long Isaac continued to work for Phi Sigma after this incident remains unclear, but by December 1852, the society had hired a new campus slave, Simon. During the January 15, 1854 meeting, the treasurer was instructed to pay Simon $3.50 for his services in the hall. Simon appears in the minutes at least until June 1854, when the society once again needed to pay for his hire.5

In addition to demonstrating Phi Sigma’s dependence on the work performed by the enslaved, the hiring of slaves by the society also provided a way for students to practice mastery. In the classroom and in their debates, they reaffirmed their own proslavery views, and their personal interactions with slaves allowed them to put their views into action.

Notes:

1 Phi Sigma Debate Society Meeting Minutes, May 26, 1849. The Department of Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi.

2 In 1849, $1 in wages would have been a significant sum, the equivalent of $241 in wages in 2017. See Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, accessed April 11, 2018.

3 The meeting minutes suggest that The Phi Sigma Society paid the enslaved laborers it employed at the end of each semester. Phi Sigma Debate Society Meeting Minutes, September 29, 1849; November 3, 1849; December 8. 1849; February 9, 1850.

4 Phi Sigma Debate Society Meeting Minutes, May 11, 1850; June 15, 1850.

5 Phi Sigma Debate Society Meeting Minutes, December 11, 1852; January 14, 1854; June 10, 1854.

By Andrew Marion  |  April 12, 2018