In one way or another, many white Virginians were deeply invested in the economy of slave labor, using enslaved people either to work on their farms and plantations or as cooks or household servants. A majority of white Virginians did not own slaves, but many of them leased enslaved laborers to assist as domestic servants, cooks, or farmers. During the 1840s and 1850s industrial development and improvements in transportation created new demands for enslaved labor in the salt industry and in coal mines and ironworks, on railroads and canals, and in mills and urban factories. Many Virginians who owned more slaves than they could profitably employ responded to the economic changes by leasing enslaved laborers to people and businesses who needed extra workers or domestic servants. Rapid expansion of cotton planting in the lower South generated its own great demand for slaves, and Richmond emerged as a center of the massive interstate slave trade. By the 1850s, that trade may have been the largest commercial business in the state. Traders annually sent eight to ten thousand Virginia men, women, and children to slave markets in other states. It is likely that sales of slaves brought more money into Virginia than any other exports.
Enslaved African Americans provided the foundation of Virginia's social order. Within the confines of this oppressive system, enslaved men and women asserted their humanity and built a distinctive African American culture. The state's laws did not recognize marriages of enslaved people as legal and offered no protection to families living in slavery, but enslaved men, women, and children often created meaningful bonds of kinship that endured in some instances for generations. The hiring out of enslaved workers sometimes provided opportunities for those workers to purchase their own freedom or that of their family members, but it also frequently separated members of slave families for a year or more. The interstate slave trade permanently tore apart the families of tens of thousands of black Virginians.