Born into slavery on William Robbins's plantation in 1824, Henry Townsend is intelligent, hard working, and ambitious. The son of Augustus and Mildred, Henry is bought out of slavery by his father in 1843. However, rather than moving away from the institution, Henry embraces it as a means of acquiring status and wealth. By the time he dies in 1855, he owns over 50 acres of land and 33 slaves. He is the main vehicle author Edward P. Jones uses to explore the heart of slavery and its consequences—allowing it to be examined as a human issue and not a racial one. Henry's choice to become a slave master stems from his long association with William Robbins, first his owner and then his mentor. Robbins provides the model of power and authority that Henry wishes to emulate. His choice violates his parents' belief that slavery is wrong and causes an unbridgeable rift between Henry and his father. Henry naively intends to be a benevolent master, "the kind of shepherd master God had intended," and he inevitably fails. The conditions of slavery require Henry's emotional distance from his "property," stunt his compassion, and distort his sense of justice.
Caldonia Townsend is a well-educated, free-born black woman; twin sister of Calvin. She is raised by parents who own slaves, though her father comes to believe slavery is wrong. Wife of Henry, Caldonia is 28 years old when Henry dies, and she is childless. At the outset of her marriage to Henry, Augustus Townsend has hopes that Caldonia will have a positive influence on his son and guide him to free his slaves. He sees "a light in her that had failed" in Henry. She is compassionate and gentle and sometimes wonders if the life path she and her husband are on is the right one. However, she loves her husband and is unable to judge him harshly. By the time Henry dies, Caldonia has adapted her values to accept slavery as it is and cannot imagine freeing his slaves. She is still managing the plantation when she receives a letter from Calvin dated April 12, 1861—the brink of the Civil War.
Augustus Townsend is an artisan slave—a carpenter by trade whose wooden carvings "could bring sinners to tears." At age 22 he buys his freedom from white slave master William Robbins, then works diligently to buy the freedom of his wife, Mildred, and son, Henry. While most freed slaves are required to leave the state within a year, Augustus is permitted to stay—based on a petition from Robbins, who respects his artistry and skill. Though Augustus is Henry's father, the institution of slavery forces their separation for most of Henry's youth. Upon buying his son out of bondage, Augustus finds he is not the most influential male figure in his son's life. That role has been appropriated by slave master Robbins. An unwavering man of principle and a strong opponent of slavery, Augustus is appalled when Henry follows in the footsteps of Robbins and buys his first slave, Moses. The resulting confrontation causes a schism between father and son that is never bridged. Augustus is, in fact, an active abolitionist—something his son never knows. He and Mildred are participants in the Underground Railroad—a secret network of abolitionists who help fugitive slaves escape to freedom in the North. Following Henry's death, Augustus is kidnapped and sold back into slavery, where he dies rather than serve.
Moses is 35 years old when Henry dies. He was born into slavery and purchased by Henry—for "$325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins." Moses is Henry's first slave, and as the plantation grows he becomes his trusted overseer. In some ways Moses mirrors Henry. They are both born in bondage, are about the same age, and in the early days of his ownership, Henry treats him as an equal. Moses's later position as overseer separates him from the other slaves, much as Henry is separated from them by his position as master. Moses also aspires, after Henry's death, to replace him as the freed-black owner of his plantation by marrying Caldonia, Henry's widow. He creates a different life for himself within the system of slavery but is never fully able to escape it and the damage it has caused him. Moses's world is the plantation—it is all he knows. In this world the land he works means "almost as much as his own life." He can judge the health and seasonal changes in the soil by the taste of the earth itself. When he tries to escape, he cannot find his way to freedom. He ends his days trapped in slavery on the plantation, crippled physically and spiritually.
With 113 slaves, William Robbins dominates the slave-owning class in Manchester County. He is perhaps the most important figure in Henry Townsend's life. Robbins owns the Townsend family, but eventually Augustus saves enough money to buy himself, his wife, and his son out of slavery. However, by the time Henry is free, Robbins has become his father figure and mentor whose advice Henry seeks as he works his way up in the world. In the character of Robbins, author Edward P. Jones explores the complex interracial relationships fostered by conditions of slavery. Jones states that Robbins is among "the few white men who would not suffer from sitting across from a black man." This underscores Robbins's powerful social standing while demonstrating slavery's social divisions. It also suggests that Robbins is not, by nature, racist. Though he adheres to the laws and customs that prohibit the crossing of certain lines, he harbors no biases based on color. Robbins, in fact, has a free black mistress, Philomena, whom he loves more than his white wife, and he holds genuine affection and respect for Henry. Nevertheless, slave owner Robbins cannot escape the toxic effect slavery has on relationships. It skews his perspective and taints his judgment. For example, when Philomena runs off to Richmond, Robbins feels compelled to track her down like an escaping slave.
John Skiffington is the outgoing, "bear-large" sheriff of Manchester County. He grew up in North Carolina in a family that owned slaves. However, that changed when his mother died and his father dreamed that God wanted him to renounce owning slaves. As a result Skiffington is deeply opposed to slavery. His story provides insight into the insidious effects of slavery, even on those who are not active participants in the institution. Skiffington's wife, Winifred, is equally opposed to slavery. When as a marriage gift the couple is given a young black girl, Minerva, they are presented with a moral dilemma. They will not violate their beliefs by selling the child, and she is too young to safely be set free. They are forced to compromise by keeping her, but they raise her as their child. In this way they accommodate slavery, and it inevitably distorts their relationship with Minerva. For Skiffington, a private battle begins with his inappropriate attraction to the maturing Minerva. His moral beliefs go to war with the knowledge that conditions of slavery would permit him to take Minerva as a lover. Skiffington's moral stand on slavery is further compromised by his job. One of his main duties as sheriff is to track down runaway slaves and return them to their masters. His obligation to the law requires him to accept conditions that directly conflict with his belief that human bondage is wrong.