I never knew the blacks owned slaves in America. I always considered myself pretty smart. I got good grades in school. I paid attention. I was the teacher’s favorite, the one who ruined the curve for everyone else (sorry you guys). However, I loved history. I always did all the extra credit and had my assignments for the year done by Thanksgiving. However, I don’t recall reading a blessed thing about any of this before. I had my eyes opened for the first time, and it was shocking what I discovered:
In an 1856 letter to his wife Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee called slavery “a moral and political evil.” Yet he concluded that black slaves were immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically.
The fact is large numbers of free Negroes owned black slaves; in fact, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in society at large. In 1860 only a small minority of whites owned slaves. According to the U.S. census report for that last year before the Civil War, there were nearly 27 million whites in the country. Some eight million of them lived in the slaveholding states.
The census also determined that there were fewer than 385,000 individuals who owned slaves (1). Even if all slaveholders had been white, that would amount to only 1.4 percent of whites in the country (or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more slaves).
In the rare instances when the ownership of slaves by free Negroes is acknowledged in the history books, justification centers on the claim that black slave masters were simply individuals who purchased the freedom of a spouse or child from a white slaveholder and had been unable to legally manumit them. Although this did indeed happen at times, it is a misrepresentation of the majority of instances, one which is debunked by records of the period on blacks who owned slaves. These include individuals such as Justus Angel and Mistress L. Horry, of Colleton District, South Carolina, who each owned 84 slaves in 1830. In fact, in 1830 a fourth of the free Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves; eight owning 30 or more (2).
According to federal census reports, on June 1, 1860 there were nearly 4.5 million Negroes in the United States, with fewer than four million of them living in the southern slaveholding states. Of the blacks residing in the South, 261,988 were not slaves. Of this number, 10,689 lived in New Orleans. The country’s leading African American historian, Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, records that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves, or 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city.
To return to the census figures quoted above, this 28 percent is certainly impressive when compared to less than 1.4 percent of all American whites and less than 4.8 percent of southern whites. The statistics show that, when free, blacks disproportionately became slave masters.
The majority of slaveholders, white and black, owned only one to five slaves. More often than not, and contrary to a century and a half of bullwhips-on-tortured-backs propaganda, black and white masters worked and ate alongside their charges; be it in house, field or workshop. The few individuals who owned 50 or more slaves were confined to the top one percent, and have been defined as slave magnates.
In 1860 there were at least six Negroes in Louisiana who owned 65 or more slaves The largest number, 152 slaves, were owned by the widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards, who owned a large sugar cane plantation. Another Negro slave magnate in Louisiana, with over 100 slaves, was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at (in 1860 dollars) $264,000 (3). That year, the mean wealth of southern white men was $3,978 (4).
In Charleston, South Carolina in 1860 125 free Negroes owned slaves; six of them owning 10 or more. Of the $1.5 million in taxable property owned by free Negroes in Charleston, more than $300,000 represented slave holdings (5). In North Carolina 69 free Negroes were slave owners (6).
In 1860 William Ellison was South Carolina’s largest Negro slaveowner. In Black Masters. A Free Family of Color in the Old South, authors Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roak write a sympathetic account of Ellison’s life. From Ellison’s birth as a slave to his death at 71, the authors attempt to provide justification, based on their own speculation, as to why a former slave would become a magnate slave master.
At birth he was given the name April. A common practice among slaves of the period was to name a child after the day or month of his or her birth. Between 1800 and 1802 April was purchased by a white slave-owner named William Ellison. Apprenticed at 12, he was taught the trades of carpentry, blacksmithing and machining, as well as how to read, write, cipher and do basic bookkeeping.
On June 8, 1816, William Ellison appeared before a magistrate (with five local freeholders as supporting witnesses) to gain permission to free April, now 26 years of age. In 1800 the South Carolina legislature had set out in detail the procedures for manumission. To end the practice of freeing unruly slaves of “bad or depraved” character and those who “from age or infirmity” were incapacitated, the state required that an owner testify under oath to the good character of the slave he sought to free. Also required was evidence of the slave’s “ability to gain a livelihood in an honest way.”
Although lawmakers of the time could not envision the incredibly vast public welfare structures of a later age, these stipulations became law in order to prevent slaveholders from freeing individuals who would become a burden on the general public.
Interestingly, considering today’s accounts of life under slavery, authors Johnson and Roak report instances where free Negroes petitioned to be allowed to become slaves; this because they were unable to support themselves.
Wow, so even back in the day they were trying to look ahead and make sure people weren’t here to suck the economy dry….I guess that idea went down the crapper. I can’t believe I never knew this before, and I think that I’m not alone. Political correctness on slavery sure was dead wrong. Time to rewrite this horrible historical wrong.
H/T: American Civil War
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