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 bl. 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 — only by petition to both houses of the legislature could slaves be freed.

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 (by their white masters for whom they fathered children), inheritance (from their white masters, relatives, and even husbands who had a higher mortality rate than women), and personal industry once they were free. 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. 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.

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.

Source: Larry Koger. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1985