One of our commenters, Nomad, was kind enough to offer some push back on what he saw as problematic, binary assumptions regarding race and the Southern slaveocracy. There, he suggested the common understanding that black slave owners were for the most part benevolent (owning kin folk to protect them from enslavement by whites) was somewhat overstated. Nomad and I dialogued. Subsequently, I went down the rabbit hole and learned some new things about free blacks in the South who owned other African Americans as slaves.
The institution of chattel slavery in America was prefaced on white supremacy. It was a system almost uniformly unique to, and reserved for, Black people in the United States. However, like all social institutions there is much complexity (and times where the exception proves the rule) in how individuals interact with, manipulate, as well as suffer under it.
I am not a historian of the South and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, so those of you who may be please share any insights or additional information that you may have on the subject. I am especially curious as to the reliability of the following accounts, as well as the state of historiography on the subject of free blacks who participated in the slave trade. I would really like to know how accurate Popular Science was--the source of the following information--as a journal of record in the early 20th century.
[There is a separate post to be done on the rise of mass communication, the popular press, and in particular the role of magazines in both maintaining--and eventually tearing down--the Racial State and American Apartheid.]
As I am fond of saying, black folks are like any other people in the range of our humanity: some of us heroic, others trying just to survive, many are greedy, others selfless, and a few truly great and amazing. The following accounts are powerful examples of how we worked to maintain family, but also how black Americans were also property to be traded, purchased on credit and installment plans, and part of the ledger sheet to be accounted for in probate.
Example One: The Trickster Entrepreneur
There was a negro named Nat Butler who lived near Aberdeen, Harford County, Md., who owned a small farm and bought and sold negroes for the southern trade. This sharp and noted fellow would persuade a slave to run off and hide for a few days at a place prepared by Butler, who would in the meantime see the master of the runaway and learn the price he would take for him. If the owner had little hope of recovering his slave and so placed the price low, Nat would buy him and resell him to slave dealers who knew Butler's rendezvous for hidden negroes. His conduct became so notorious that he lost the confidence of slave owners and respect of negroes, who several times tried to murder him.Example Two: Working hard, and making difficult choices, in order to maintain family
Jim Scott, a worthy colored man of the same county, was a local preacher and an industrious servant. He bought himself, wife and children from his master, Mr. George Amos, giving his own note, endorsed by his white neighbors. He hired out his wife and larger children and himself for ten years and paid off his indebtedness. He offered his son Henry to Mr. Henry Webster of "Webster's Forest" for three hundred dollars for five years, or until he was twenty-five years of age. Another negro in the same region sold his children in order to purchase his wife and set her free.
Dick Hunter, of Laurens County, S. C, was the slave of his wife, and he finished paying for himself long after the civil war. He died in 1902. Dick was first owned by Mr. James Hunter. The master entered into an arrangement with the boy, an intelligent youth, by which the latter was permitted to work for others for wages and reserve a part of his earnings to be applied to the purchase of his freedom, one thousand dollars being the stipulated price. Dick married a woman of color, and had paid six hundred dollars of his purchase money when his master died intestate, leaving no record of his private arrangement with the slave boy. Thereupon Dick was sold as one of the properties of the estate and was bought by a bachelor named Nugent.
Meanwhile Dick's wife had died and he married another free woman of color. This woman purchased her husband from Nugent, agreeing to pay for him on the installment plan. During four or five years the installments were paid, amounting to several hundred dollars. Then the civil war broke out, and in a little while Nugent died. His estate was claimed by relatives who lived in the west, and contracts between masters and slaves for the manumission of the latter were at that time frowned upon by the law.
Dick was put upon the block and sold for the second time, bringing fifteen hundred dollars. The buyer was again his wife and she was enabled to make the purchase through the generosity and compassion of a white neighbor, Mr. Clark Templeton, who provided the money. When the war ended this debt was still due Templeton's estate, and Dick did not repudiate it, though doubtless under the law he might have done so. On the other hand, he continued to work and save, and in the course of six or eight years after emancipation he paid the last dollar with interest.Example three: Beware a woman scorned who happens to own you as a slave
Aunt Fanny Canady was a colored woman of Louisville, Ky., who bought herself and several members of her family. She also owned her husband, named Jim, a little drunken cobbler. One day Fanny went into her husband's shop with fire in her eyes and finger pointed at her husband. She said, "Jim, if you don't 'have yourself, I'm gwine sell you down river." Jim sat mute and trembling, as to send down the river meant to sell to a negro trader and to be taken to the cotton fields of the far south.Example four: Likewise, if your son owns you as a slave, you had best be appreciative and respectful towards him
Judge William Gasken, who owned the man of whom we have just told, was thrice married, one of his wives being a daughter of Colonel McClure, of New Bern. After his death, one of the slaves, Jacob, became the property of Mrs. Gasken. This Jacob's wife was a free woman, and they had a son Jacob, then a young man and free, of course, as the child of a free woman. Aided by his mother's efforts, he managed to purchase his father at a very reasonable price as negroes were then held. All went smoothly for awhile, when young Jacob did not act as his father thought he should and his parent reproved him with fatherly love. Young Jacob was so disgruntled that he went off to a negro speculator named John Gildersleeve, who was from Long Island and was then in New Bern. This trader bought the father at a high price and at once sent him off south. Young Jacob afterward boasted that "the old man had gone to the corn fields about New Orleans where they might learn him some manners."Example five: White folks look out for their own. Don't ever forget that chattel slavery in America was the "peculiar institution," one exclusively reserved for Black people
There were instances in which free negroes became the purchasers and masters of transported white people, redemptioners. An example of the purchase by free negroes of two families of Germans who had not been able to pay their passage from Amsterdam to Baltimore and were sold for their passage money to a term of labor, is given in a volume issued in 1818 in Stuttgart. It contains letters written in 1817 addressed from Baltimore to the Baron von Gagern, Minister Plenipotentiary to the diet in Frankfort-on-the-Main. The Germans of Baltimore were so outraged by this action that they immediately got together a purse and bought the freedom of these immigrants. An early law of Virginia is aimed at the same thing, and forbids negroes or Indians to buy "Christian servants," but permits them to purchase those of their own "nation."