As with the accounts by Nichols (1863), when people think of the slavery period in American history, it is normally assumed that the slave owner was white and the slave black. This was true in many cases but the number of free black slave owners was actually higher than most people realize. Black slave owner usually treated family members and friends much better than the other slaves they might own. But even being a family member did not raise the slave above being a commodity.
According to Lightner and Ragan (2005), even the black slave owners could not free their slaves so even the ones who purchased family members had to list them as slave purchase. For example, a husband who was born or had managed to become free might buy his wife from the white person who owned her. The husband would thereafter possess his spouse as a slave, not because he wished to keep her in bondage but because the laws of the slave states often made manumission difficult or impossible. Slaves were an investment to their owners and this included the owners who were black themselves.
Slavery was inhuman and oppressive but only when it affected a loved one, otherwise, it was a profitable endeavor. According to the 1830 census, roughly 65% of black slave owners bought the slaves for financial reasons with only 8% buying strictly family members and close friends to ensure good treatment and better lives. The 1830 census also named the number of slaves owned by blacks as 10,000 in 4 different states. In 1811, a free black woman named Philis Wells received a $900 loan from Peter Desportes, She got the loan by using her black slave, Mark, as collateral.
This was not an uncommon practice. Many black slave owners put up slaves against loans they requested. Mulattos were considered the “black elite” because of their light complexion and meshed with the whites as much as possible. Treating a slave as anything but a slave would mark you as unworthy to mix with the whites or to enjoy the finer privileges society offered. According to Koger (1985)many other free blacks purchased slaves to use as apprentices for their trade. Moses Brown purchased a young boy for around $300.
Moses was a barber by trade and trained the boy to following his footsteps. By the next year, the boy was working as a full barber in Moses shop. Camilla Johnson was a free black pastry cook. She purchased a mulatto name Diana and with Diana’s light coloring, was able to use her as a server at the parties she catered. Freed blacks quickly found that purchasing slaves to train meant an increase in the profits of the business. As Johnson and Roark (1985) explain “…while the mulattos could mix more easily with white society without many questions, darker skinned free blacks had a harder time”.
Richard Edward DeReef was one of the richest free black men in Charleston, SC. He owned real estate and had achieved a small fortune. Due to his dark complexion, however, he would have been shunned by the “black elite” except for his claim of Native American Indian blood. If one claimed Native American blood, many times the complexion was accepted as an indication of this lineage. This did not help the slaves to ascend their station but it was a large help to those free blacks who wished to be part of the mainstream society, accumulate wealth and maintain slaves of their own.
In South Carolina in 1860, William Ellison was the largest black slave owner in the state. He had been born into slavery and once freed had begun to accumulate his own slaves. By 1960 he owned 63 slaves, not including the ones owned by his son. According to Grooms (1997) “Ellison’s major source of income came from his being a “slave breeder”. Slave breeding was looked upon with disgust and the laws of most southern states forbad the sale of slaves under the age of twelve”, but Ellis made a fortune selling slaves of all ages including babies.
Grooms (1997) also states that the majority of black slave owners raised sugar cane and lived in Louisiana. There were a few black slave owners who owned sugar cane plantations. C. Richards and her son P. C. Richards were black slave owners who had 152 slaves working the sugar cane plantation they owned. A large majority of black slave owners were female. This was due to the fact that more female slaves were set free than males. History has shown us that a race enslaving its own people has gone on throughout history, but black slave owners are virtually unheard of in the common histories.
Questions for Discussion • Why would someone who had been a former slave and was well aware of the conditions slaves endured justify owning slaves themselves? • Why were the majority of freed slaves’ women? • Why were black slave owners overlooked throughout much of the history of the slave period? References Grooms, R. 1997 Dixie’s Censored Subject: Black Slaveowners, Retrieved January 23, 2007 From the Barnes Review. Website: http://www. americancivilwar. com/authors/black_slaveowner. htm
Johnson, M and Roark, J 1985 Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company,Inc. Koger, L. 1985 Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Lightner, D. L. , & Ragan, A. M. (2005). Were African American Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploitative? A Quantitative Approach. Journal of Southern History Nichols, C. H. (1963). Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves’ Account of Their Bondage and Freedom. Leiden: E. J. Brill.