It is widely believed that slavery in 19th-century America was the exclusive province of whites. However, as historian Larry Kroger reveals in Black Slaveowners, free black people in the United States owned slaves, fought for their right to do so and had little sympathy for abolition.
A five-year investigation of federal census data, wills, mortgages, bills of sale, tax returns and newspaper ads from 1790 to 1860 provided the foundation for Koger’s examination of black slave masters in the Palmetto state, culminating in his illuminating book, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (McFarland, 1985). Charleston City, in which 72.1% of African-America households owned slaves, was a valuable primary documentation source. Records that survived the Civil War indicated the existence of 260 black slave masters.
This well-sourced book, which contains lengthy appendices of federal census data and well over 600 citations, represents an earnest attempt to examine a difficult and complex topic that too few have addressed: the phenomenon of black slaveowners.
According to Kroger’s comprehensive and well-researched volume, black slave owners lived in every Southern state that allowed slavery and even Northern states, including Maryland. The practice of black slave ownership was widespread and stretched from New York to Florida to Missouri, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. According to the 1830 federal census, free blacks owned 10,000 slaves, including in New York City eight free blacks who reportedly owned 17 slaves. Many black slave owners were large planters who raised cotton, rice, and sugar cane. Many inherited slaves from relatives or white kinsfolk who transported them from Africa to the New World.
As the economy of Charleston City expanded in the early 19th century, many free blacks were able to buy slaves, making the city the center of black slave holding in South Carolina. Between 1820 and 1840, most free black heads of households in Charleston owned slaves. Freed slaves in business customarily used slave labor, hired slaves out for a fee to non-slave owners or used slaves as collateral to secure loans. Former slaves bought slaves for economic benefit in a society in which slavery was an acceptable form of labor. They had no qualms about using slaves and were well assimilated into the white slaveowner culture. Often, free blacks purchased enslaved kinfolk to buy their freedom.
It was common in 19th-century South Carolina for the mulatto offspring of a white slave owner to be manumitted, educated, and made beneficiaries in a father-child relationship with the master. They were perceived as the legitimate heirs of the slave owner and thought of themselves as slave masters who legitimately used the labor of their father’s slaves. Kroger explains how divisions in the black community were delineated by skin tone, with lighter-skinned blacks enjoying higher socioeconomic status. He cites documented evidence from the state census of 1850 that indicated that 93.1 % of Negro slave owners were mulattos and 90% of their slaves were dark-skinned blacks.
During slavery in South Carolina, a clear distinction existed between artisan and house slaves and slaves who worked the fields. The former had better food, clothing, and housing and tended to identify with white slaveowners rather than sympathize with the plight of fellow blacks. Field slaves worked from sunup to sundown, endured harsh conditions, and were more likely to feel abused and oppressed.
Although many free blacks devoted their lives to earning enough money to free family members, many purchased slaves themselves as a path to financial security or to produce greater wealth. In other words, they typically owned two sets of slaves: family members and slaves for profit. Economic self-interest overrode any moral concerns about slavery. This practice continued as the Union Army began its invasion of South Carolina in 1864.
In Black Slaveowners, the commercial aspect of slave owning by blacks is extensively documented and represents most cases of slaveowning. Like white slave masters, black slaveowners used flogging, incarceration, and workhouse confinement to punish unruly bondsmen. When they transferred slaves out of the area, they often placed the auctioned slaves in the workhouse as a precaution against their running away. Like their white counterparts, many black slave owners bequeathed their slaves to their family members at the time of their death.
Free rural blacks who owned farms or plantations typically made use of slave labor to produce crops on a commercial scale. The revenue made by cultivating staple crops led free black planters to invest in slaves to increase production and profits. Landowners of African descent were some of the largest slaveowners in South Carolina. A couple of African slave traders even established themselves as slave-owning planters in South Carolina. The black rice planters of South Carolina used slaves to plant and harvest rice — a crop for the wealthy — and later, cotton.
Numerous black artisans – carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, mechanics, millwrights, seamstresses, shoemakers, caterers, butchers, and others – used slave workers. Without the assistance of slave labor, it would have been impossible for them to remain competitive and participate in growing markets. Excess slave labor was available for hire to the community with the owner benefiting from the slaves’ wages. In Charleston, widows and spinsters were the primary suppliers of hired-out slaves within the black community. Their way of life committed these women to the institution of slavery, as it was often the only way they could support themselves. By the 1850s as the anti-slave movement intensified, black slave owners chose, upon their deaths, to sell their slaves and bequeath the proceeds to heirs rather than give their bondsmen to kinfolk.
A slave rebellion planned for 1822 by free black, Denmark Vesey, demonstrated the deep divisions within the 19th-century Charleston black community and illustrated how free blacks served as a buffer between slaves and white masters. Free blacks and mulattos, the privileged offspring of white masters and slaves, had an interest in preserving slavery, while poor, free blacks and most rural slaves, who knew slavery’s cruelty, were determined to gain control over their own destinies. The free black elite regarded slave ownership as a privilege and status symbol and valued their ties to the white community. Many lived in white neighborhoods, attended white-dominated churches and shunned the slave community.
The insurrection, which Vesey kept from elite blacks and the white community for four years, was thwarted by this fragmentation within the black community. Free blacks believed they had much to lose and nothing to gain from a slave rebellion. Vesey’s plan unraveled when a contented mulatto slave, approached to join the uprising, told his master about the plot. Remarkably, when 35 black slaves were summarily executed, the disclosure conferred great respect and financial rewards on free blacks who had warned of the planned insurrection.
When the Civil War began in 1861, free black slaveowners took the Confederate side. In the Antebellum South, urban slaveowners fared better than their rural counterparts. With the abolition of slavery, black planters found that they could not recover and rebuild their plantations. Former slaveowners from the cities, who identified with white aristocrats, were more able to adjust from slave labor to wage labor. Generally, they were educated, of a higher socioeconomic status, and had invested their profits in income-producing real estate.
Historian Larry Kroger is to be commended for tackling this difficult and complex topic that extends the purview of slavery in pre-Civil War America beyond its usual focus of white enslavement of blacks. His exploration of free black participation in this exploitation of human beings represents a courageous examination of an aspect of slavery, not well known. It reveals how the oppression of others can be a race-neutral proposition borne of an accepted, societal institution.
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You might be interested in the other two volumes of this three volume set: The Essence of Liberty Volume I: Liberty and History and The Essence of Liberty Volume III: Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic.