During this countrys period of slavery, many freed
blacks worked for years to purchase the freedom of family
members. But a great many freemen became slave masters themselves,
and for the same reason as whites--to make use of slave labor
for the sake of profits. Larry Koger writes, "By and
large, Negro slaveowners were darker copies of their white
counterparts." Following are excerpts from Chapter 6
of his book, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in
South Carolina, 1790-1860 [University of South Carolina Press].
Many historians have argued that the majority of black masters
purchased their relatives and friends who were held in bondage.
Being unable to manumit their loved ones, the black masters
were forced to hold their kinsfolk and friends as nominal
slaves. So they treated their relatives and friends as free
persons, and whenever possible, they attempted to manumit
their loved ones. Thus the dominant pattern of slaveholding
that developed among free blacks was benevolent and based
primarily on kinship. The chief architect of the benevolent
interpretation was Carter G. Woodson, and his thesis has been
accepted by most historians.
Yet the Woodson thesis has many weaknesses that have been
overlooked or not fully explored by its supporters. Furthermore,
the Woodson thesis has been overemphasized, while the other
side of free black slaveowning has been characterized as a
minor facet by many scholars. However, there is ample evidence
which demonstrates that free blacks purchased slaves as capital
investments. To many black masters, slaves represented valued
property being used to produce more wealth. These slaveowners,
therefore, bought slaves as commercial assets and used them
to make a profit. In fact, the commercial side of free black
slaveholding was more prevalent than previously maintained
by historians. In short, the Woodson thesis that most free
black slaveowners were benevolent masters may be a myth. .
Even though [black] slaveowners usually demonstrated benevolent
behavior towards their slave relations and friends, a commercial
or materialistic exchange existed between them and their slaves
purchased as investments. In fact, the free blacks who maintained
a dual relationship with their slaves had no universal commitment
against slavery. To them, slavery was an oppressive institution
when it affected a beloved relative or a trusted friend, but
beyond that realm, slavery was viewed as a profit-making institution
to be exploited.
In many instances, free black slaveowners shared a similar
view of slavery with their white counterparts. Slaveowners
of both races occasionally manumitted a trusted servant and
in the same moment requested the sale of another slave. The
act of freeing one or several slaves while others remained
in bondage did not constitute a firm commitment against slavery,
but a personal view which acknowledged that some slaves, through
merit or hard work, deserved their freedom, while others were
destined to be slaves until death. So when philanthropic free
blacks purchased slaves and then emancipated them, they were
not always paternalistic owners as Carter G. Woodson suggested.
For example, Richard Holloway, Sr., a free black of Charleston
City, bought a slave named Charles Benford in order that the
slave might enjoy his freedom. Yet at the same time, he owned
other slaves who were not treated so kindly. In 1834, for
instance, he purchased a Negro woman named Sarah and her two
children, Annett and Edward, from Susan B. Robertson for $575.
Within three years after the purchase, he apparently became
dissatisfied with the slave family and sold them for $945.
Even though Richard Holloway, Sr., allowed a trusted servant
to enjoy a greater degree of freedom, he was still a slaveowner
for profit. So he sold and purchased slaves as an investment
even while he held other slaves for benevolent reasons. To
consider him a benevolent master would be erroneous because
he also exploited other slaves for his own benefit.
Another example of the dual interaction between black masters
and their slaves is the case of Rose Summers. In her will,
she stated: "I desire as soon as it may be practicable
that my Executor herein named will sell for money my four
slaves to the best possible advantage together with all my
household Furniture . . . ." While Summers requested
that the children of her trusted servant Bellah should be
emancipated, her other slaves were doomed to the auction block.
In December 1840, her executor sold the slave woman Elsey;
then the slaves Sam and Henry were auctioned to the highest
bidder for $970.13 in January 1841. Shortly after that date,
the slave woman named Harriet was sold by the executor of
Rose Summers for $300. After the sale of the Negro slaves
and the furniture, the estate of Rose Summers netted $1,334.79,
which was divided among five colored women designated as heirs
by the deceased woman. . . .
When Carter G. Woodson declared that "the majority of
Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of
philanthropy," he failed to consider that there were
so-called benevolent masters who freed one slave and sold
another slave for profit. Woodsons perceptions of free
black slaveholding were partially correct; however, when the
totality of the institution is examined, his assumptions are
revealed to be erroneous. . . .
Many black masters were firmly committed to chattel slavery
and saw no reasons for manumitting their slaves. To those
colored masters, slaves were merely property to be purchased,
sold or exchanged. Their economic self-interest overrode whatever
moral concerns or guilt they may have harbored about slavery.
Since the black masters benefited from slavery, they rationalized
that because the institution was profitable, they could not
relinquish their valuable property without being reimbursed.
So black masters continued to own slaves even when the Union
army was preparing to invade South Carolina in 1864. . . .
The commercial impulse of black masters to exploit the commodity
of slave property was recorded not only by the Secretary of
State but the Master of Equity in Charleston District. In
scores of reports, the black masters appeared to have used
their slaves as commodities. . . .
George Shrewsberry and James Hanscome, both colored slave
masters, argued over the ownership of three slaves in the
court of equity. Rather than sue each other, they filed a
complaint against the master of the workhouse because he refused
to release the slaves to either of the men until the ownership
of the slaves was established. In 1845, the two colored slaveowners
filed a suit against the master of the workhouse and claimed
that he refused to release their property. . . . The commercial
impulses of both colored men are vividly illustrated by the
court proceedings. Such cases are not isolated incidents;
in fact, they are prevalent in the court records. . . .
For example, there were mortgages registered by free blacks
who used their slaves as collateral to secure loans. In 1811,
Philis Wells, a free colored woman of Charleston City, used
her servant Mark as collateral to obtain a loan from Peter
Desportes for $900. In 1823, a slave named Sarah was used
as security by William Aiken, a free black and a carpenter
of Charleston City, when he applied for a loan from Joseph
S. Brown for $600. . . .
The black masters who were not related to their slaves by
ties of kinship were not personally disturbed when default
and seizure occurred. In December 1841, John S. Mark, a barber
of Charleston City, bought a Negro man named Billy and his
wife, Provy, from Otto Cook for $420. Two years later, he
obtained a loan from George Shrewsberry for $300. To secure
the loan, he mortgaged Billy and Provy. Shortly thereafter,
John St. Mark apparently defaulted on the loan and sold the
slaves Billy and Provy for $375. . . .
Most of the black women who conveyed their slaves in marriage
settlements were not related to their slaves by kinship; thus
their slaves were primarily viewed as commodity. For example,
shortly after the marriage settlement of Hannah Norman Miles,
she sold her servant woman Lucy, who was part of the chattel
in her marriage contract, for 35 pounds sterling. When the
bond of kinship has been eliminated from the slaveholding
of free blacks, the commercial element becomes a strong motive.
Consequently, the colored women who established marriage settlements
viewed their slaves as investments to be utilized. In the
marriage contract of Claudia Angelina Inglis, the daughter
of a colored slaveowning barber from Charleston City, she
held one-fifth interest in three slaves named Lindy, James,
and George. . . . By and large, slaves conveyed in marriage
contracts were seen as property by their colored owners.
The probate records also demonstrated the commercial motives
of black slaveholding in South Carolina. In scores of wills,
black slave masters used their human chattel as commercial
assets, requesting that their slaves should be auctioned to
the highest bidder for payment of their debts or for the benefit
of family members. In 1820, Benjamin Lincoln, a free black
and a tailor of Charleston City, instructed his executors
to "sell my Negro Woman Slave Phillis and for the proceeds
therof to pay my just debts. . . ."
Abraham Jackson, an ex-slave from St. Pauls Parish,
stipulated that "my Negro Woman by the name Sarah be
immediately set free from all Servitude . . ." However,
Jackson did not emancipate the children of the slave woman,
but requested that they be disposed of as "my Executor
shall judge proper . . ." Indeed, even as the colored
masters were making their deathbed testaments, the commercial
bond of slavery permeated their dying demands. To them, slavery
remained an economic system to be exploited. . . .
Clearly, the bond of kinship compelled the colored slaveholders
to inform their executors that their loved ones were not chattel
to be humiliated and dehumanized by appraising them at the
level of horses, cattle, and swine, narrowed to the impersonal
medium of gold and silver. Yet the colored masters who were
not related to their servants were not restrained from considering
their slaves as chattel. Consequently, when the executors
of the commercial masters filed their inventories, those slaves
were appraised just like cattle and pigs. . . .
The commercial impulse of black slaveholding can be examined
nowhere better than in Charleston City. In the port city,
the environment was conducive to black slaveholding. The urban
setting of Charleston provided many free blacks with the economic
opportunity to prosper. . . . In fact, free blacks nearly
monopolized such work as barbering, bricklaying, shoemaking,
and tailoring. Once the black entrepreneurs were able to establish
themselves and had developed a clientele, they began to prosper
and eventually earned the capital needed to invest in slaves.
So it was quite common for free black artisans to purchase
slaves and use them in their businesses.
In 1822, Moses Brown, a colored barber, purchased a Negro
boy named Moses from Mary Warhaim for $300. Since Moses Brown
was a barber, he instructed his slave in the art of cutting
hair. By 1823 the slave boy was working in his masters
shop on 5 Tradd Street. Also in 1829, Camilla Johnson, a colored
pastry cook, purchased a mulatto woman named Diana Todd (who
was 18 years old) from Joseph and Ann Wilkie for $375. According
to a Charleston socialite, Camilla Johnson used her mulatto
servant to work at several of the parties she was hired to
cater. As these black artisans began to prosper, they were
able to utilize the services of slaves, and so they invested
in human chattel and trained their servants in the skills
of their trade to increase the profits of their businesses.
. . .
When black masters exploited their slaves for commercial
purposes, they encountered the same problems which perplexed
many white slaveowners. Regardless of the color of the slave
masters, the oppressive nature of slavery was met with opposition
from the slaves.
Many black masters were faced with the dilemma of controlling
their slaves when they exploited the labor of their servants.
The black masters believed that punishment was a necessary
instrument to control their slaves and preserve a sense of
authority. Like white slaveowners, the black masters placed
disobedient slaves in the city jail or the workhouse and contemplated
further punishment for their servants. In 1851, Elizabeth
Collins Holloway, a colored woman, placed her servant Celia
in the city jail after her slave had run away. In 1852, Holloways
servant Peggy was confined in the workhouse for disciplinary
reasons. Such a confinement usually lasted from five to thirty
days, depending upon the disposition of the slave masters.
After the slaves were released from the workhouse, it was
not unusual for their masters to give them a flogging for
their disobedience. . . .
By and large, the commercial impulse of black masters to
exploit their slaves was quite apparent in Charleston City.
Many slaveowners of African descent used the labor of slaves
for their own benefit. Yet the exploitation of slave labor
was not always a smooth process because the slaves of black
masters attempted to assert their own rights to freedom by
resisting their owners. Thus, Carter G. Woodsons serene
picture of black slaveholders does not totally portrait the
realities of the institution.