Free Black Slaveowners in South Carolina

Domestic slavery was quite common in West Africa, although the Europeans organized the trade to a much greater magnitude and value. Free black slaveowners resided in states as north as New York and as far south as Florida, extending westward into Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri. According to the federal census of 1830, free blacks owned more than 10,000 slaves in Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia. The majority of black slaveowners lived in Louisiana and planted sugar cane. The majority of black masters had not been slaves themselves. Yet, the ranks of black slave masters were diverse: some acquired slaves as soon as they had accumulated enough capital after their own freedom, others received slaves with their own freedom from their white masters, and others had been free for several generations.

Free black masters used slaves to work their farms as skilled and unskilled workers in urban centers and as hired workers to other employers. Although some black masters, such as those in Louisiana, owned scores of slaves and large tracts of land, most were small slaveholders who owned one or two slaves. Many of these small slaveholders owned family members who could not be emancipated because state legislatures prohibited private manumission unless the freed slaves left the state. The South Carolina Act of 1806 required slaves who lived outside their master's household to have written permission from their masters to do so. The statute also made it illegal to rent lots, houses, or enclosures directly to slaves. Some scholars explain the large number of slaves living in black households in Charleston, for example, as the slaves being merely boarders. But the detailed tax and manuscript census records show that slave boarding can not account for the majority of recorded slaveholdings among free blacks in Charleston.

Descendants of mulatto slaveowners who were intermarried with Indians often rejected their African ancestry and passed as free Indians, which allowed them to avoid paying the "state capitation tax" that all free blacks were required to pay (between 16 and 60 years for men and from 14-55 for women), and they were permitted to give sworn testimony in court litigations concerning the race of other Indian-blooded blacks. In South Carolina, the courts decided that 1/4 to 1/8 Negro ancestry (or three generations) would make a person white! In 1820 the South Carolina legislature passed an act that banned personal manumissions (freeing slaves) -- only by petition to both houses of the legislature could slaves be freed.

Year

Slave Owners

Slaves

Free Black Slaveowners and Their Slaves in Charleston, 1790-1860

The diagram above shows that mulattos were more likely to be free, be slaveowners, and live in cities than darker-skinned Africans. Can you explain this?

By 1800, one third of colored heads of households in Charleston recorded slave property. Between 1820-1840, the percentage increased to 75 percent.
By 1850, the percentage had declined to 42 percent. See the table to the left.

By the 1880s a few free Blacks and former slaves had accumulated sufficient wealth to own 'plantations;' see the map of the Natchez area (Davis 1994).

1790

49

277

1800

36

315

1810

17

143

1820

206

1,030

1830

407

2,195

1840

402

2,001

1850

266

1,087

1860

137

544

The majority of urban black slaveowners were women. In 1820, free black women represented 68 percent of heads of households and 70 percent of slaveholding heads of colored households. The large percentage of black women slaveowners is explained by the combined effects of manumission (being freed by their white masters for whom they fathered children), inheritance (receiving slaves from their white masters, relatives, and even husbands who had a higher mortality rate than women), and personal industry once they were free (buying slaves themselves).

Black women were the majority of slaves emancipated by white slave owning men with whom they had had sexual relations. The miscegenous nature of South Carolina society is nowhere better revealed than by the fact that 33 percent of all the recorded colonial manumissions were mulatto children and 75 percent of all adult manumissions were females. If homosexual relations existed between black male slaves and their white masters, these relations were not directly acknowledged through emancipation. By 1830 in Charleston, 65 percent of black slaveowners bought slaves for profit rather than to free family members, as indicated in registered documents. Black slaveowners often owned family members and slaves that they used in their businesses, but only 8 percent of black slaveowners who recorded slave transactions were purely benevolent masters--buying a slave's family members, such as their spouses, children, and other relatives.

Examine the 1790 federal census for free colored slaveowners. Do this 1790 slaveowner assignment (not graded).
Slave Revolt in 1822
Denmark Vesey, a slave who bought his freedom when he won a lottery, plotted with hundreds of free blacks and slaves to take control of Charleston and kill all whites on 16 June 1822 in Charleston. The plans of the insurrection were kept from whites for nearly four years. A mulatto slave told his free mulatto friend about the planned revolt and asked what to do. The mulatto told him to tell his white slavemaster. Once the slave conspiracy was discovered, a mob of white Charlestonians burned the African Methodist Church and the city officials forced the church's bishop to flee the state, even though he and his congregation had nothing to do with the plot. The police seized the leaders and participants, who were held in irons in the city jail. Thirty-five slaves were executed, and more than 30 blacks were deported from the state. Black sympathizers were prohibited from dressing in black and wearing black crape to mourn the executed. The bodies of the executed were dissected by the city surgeon!

When Vesey was organizing, Charleston's black community was divided into three groups: affluent persons of color who shared a direct interest in preserving slavery, poor members of the free black community, and the vast number of slaves. For the Negro elite to take part in a slave insurrection was unthinkable because they had their own slaves and wealth to lose. They also risked losing the "respect" of the white community upon whom they relied for their income. The black elite continued to join churches of primarily white denominations, such as St. Philip's Episcopal Church, and they frequently lived on the same streets as white families. Vesey, on the other hand, identified with slaves and he belonged to the African Methodist church.
 See the map of Vesey's Charleston.
In fact, the lighter-colored mulatto families distinguished themselves from the darker-colored free black families, who had their own exclusionary club (the Brown Fellowship) and who in turn separated themselves from the dark-skinned slaves. Many free mulattos had sought refuge from the slave revolt in Santo Domingo where they had lost land and slaves. Consequently, they were unlikely to identify with slaves, their fellow Africans.

After Vesey's attempted rebellion, the Citadel (state-run military academy) was built just outside of the historic city to protect against future slave revolts. Today, the original Citadel is a hotel and a current one is on the northside.

Source: Larry Koger. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1985. Provides lots of details about specific families and their personal histories; fascinating reading.

Created by Ingolf Vogeler on 5 March 1997; last revised June 3, 2014.