[Reprinted from Issues & Views Summer 1998]
During this country’s 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. Woodson’s 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. Paul’s 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 master’s 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, Holloway’s 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. Woodson’s serene picture of black slaveholders does not totally portrait the realities of the institution.