Saturday, June 4, 2011

No Small Amount of Complexity: Free Blacks Who Owned Other African-Americans During Slavery

Earlier this week, I offered an intervention regarding African-American Civil War reenactors and how many Americans still hold on to basic misunderstandings about the institution of slavery and the Black Freedom Struggle.

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."


annum natalem said...

Oh my, Virginia. Conflating whiteness and Christianity. But then again, even the Irish weren't white back then, even though they were Christian... Catholic, at least. But then again, I've heard how Protestants don't truck with the "Papists" right?

History is very confusing, occasionally.

fred c said...

The lesson here is that nothing is ever straightforward. The "Classic Comics" version of anything at all lacks the detail that is required for real understanding. No story of any entity, institution, person or event is ever as simple as black and white. The truth comes in shades of gray.

Simplified versions are much more susceptible to emotionalization. The version can be manipulated to achieve a powerful emotional effect, for one side another. Full facts are rarely to be viewed in such a one sided manner.

In the case of slavery, certain details render it even more shocking (White men owning and selling their own illegitimate,to say the least! children), poignant (more enlightened masters helping favored slaves to free themselves) or merely interesting (the wives owning their husbands is some funny shit right there).

And no, I'm not minimizing the horror, or the just-plain-wrongness of it. Those things stand in bold relief in any version of American slavery.

Plane Ideas said...

I'am going to repost my comments

Why is it revelant to anything? The very reality that a very insignificant group of enslaved people parroted the inhumanity of their oppressors or fashioned some creative approach to dealing with slavery is not a news flash nor worthy of any scholarly tome...

I live in the 'D" I see hustles 24/7...

Nomad has another agenda it is a defensive and deflective device to that seeks to mitigate the raw truth about white supremacy..From my platform I view the reactions of a people under duress as just that the crude reality of people dealing with the slings and arrows of inhumanity etc..

CD can appease this shallow tease but I don't have to....WTF

nomad said...

I don't know how many times I will have to say this, but I will say it as many times as necessary. These were not slaves. Most had never been slaves. These were free blacks.

Oh Crap said...

CD - there was a discussion on H-Net Afro a few mos ago on just this topic. - "Black Americans holding Black slaves"

There are a few rec'd titles listed in that thread.

Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Jefferson, NC: Mcfarland, 1985.

Koger, Larry. "Black Slaveowners: Free black slave master in South Carolina, 1790-1860" (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995)

Koger, Larry. "Black Masters: The misunderstood slaveowners," Southern Quarterly 43, no.3 (Winter): 52-73

Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.

Woodson, Carter G. Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1924.

Johnson, Michael P. and James L. Roark. Black Masters. New York: Norton,

John H. Russell, “Colored Freemen as Slave Owners in Virginia.” Journal of Negro History 1 (June 1916): 233-42.

Louisiana Historical Assoc. Panel addressing the issue

Black Slave Owners in Colonial and Antebellum New Orleans

Virginia M. Gould, Tulane University, Chair

"Black Slaveholding Patterns in New Orleans, 1760s-1820s"
Vera Gutmann, Tulane University

"Slaveholding Free Women of Color: A Case Study on Race, Gender, and Class in Antebellum New Orleans"
Anne Ulentin, Louisiana State University

Christopher Stacey, Louisiana State Univ. at Alexandria, Commentator

nomad said...

Wow! Great find, CD! I wish I had known about this article 20 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of time. Much of this is new to me. But I now understand the story of one of my maternal ancestors better. The phrase my mother used to describe her: "a light-skinned woman sold into slavery". I always found that phrase puzzling. Till now.

nomad said...

@Oh Crap

I love the internet! Shamelessly copying this stuff. Louisiana, BTW, was a special case (due to it's French origins).

chaunceydevega said...

@Fictional. Oh my friends the Irish. Hated black folks in America and sided with the South via the Democratic Party, but not really considered white and thought to be a tool of the papacy.

@Fred C. People love the truthiness and real American classic comics version of reality. What are you some type of commie?

@Thrasher. I hear you. On one hand we should always be ready for knucklehead apologists who want to find one black confederate or one black slaveowner to invalidate the obvious, i.e. the reality of white supremacy. But, that doesn't mean we should run from our own history. We need to arm ourselves so we can be ready to repel the assault.

@OhCrap. Thanks for the hnet link--and the links. You historians have all the fun!

@Nomad. I hope you enjoy digesting it.

nomad said...

Well, you know, this is right down my alley. That's why I keep following this thread. And, like some here, I was just as shocked many years ago, when I discovered this "situation".

Abstentus said...


fred c said...

Sometimes I wonder about the commie thing. If longing for a middle-class world where prosperity is shared and we are all brothers and sisters is a commie thing, then I am guilty.

fred c said...

Maybe, like Nomad, I'm longing for the Star Trek reality. That's a long-term wish right there, and perhaps unreasonable. But I never thought that I'd live to see the end of the Soviet Union either.

nomad said...

The term "free black" taken at face value is somewhat misleading. Usually these people were more white than black. Whereas most other cultures acknowledged this mixedness, essentially an intermediate racial class, in the US we developed that unique "one drop" rule. I could go on. And I will.

Plane Ideas said...



nomad said...

and Thrasher

My purpose is not merely to assert that it happened. I examined the evidence and saw that it did happen. My object is to explain how and why. This knowledge of our past can shed light on the nature of this deplorable present political situation.

Vesuvian Woman said...

Won't you agree that knowing the truth is empowering? Slave/ endentured servant: People have been assholes for a long time, non-restrictive to color or circumstance ; )

Plane Ideas said...


You Doth Protest to Much...Enough Said

nomad said...


Well, I'm not sure what you mean but you're probably right. Call it a character flaw.

nomad said...

@Vesuvian Woman

If you're asking me, yes. Yes I do think truth is empowering. The more accurately you can evaluate past events, the better you can understand why the present is as it is. The better you understand it, the better chance you have of changing things for the better. And yes, those assholes have always been among us. There were black slave-drivers, snitches that betrayed rebel slaves, down through history. Martin Luther King apparently had black spies in his inner circle. Better to acknowledge such things rather than pretend they didn't happen.

nomad said...

I mean, how can we apply this knowledge of the unbenevolent Negro slave holder to the present situation? Hmmm. Let me think. Just off the top of my head:
Just because he got the same color skin
Don't mean he's your friend.
Look deeper and find
That Blackness is a state of mind.

Plane Ideas said...


Spare me the fireside parables..I sense you have an agenda that has nothing to do with the nature of Blackness...

nomad said...

I will spare you nothing, my friend.

nomad said...

In that vein, there is an interesting article at Black Agenda Report. Sadly, I don't know how to post links here so Google it...that talks about a survey among Gen 3 about their views on racism. The author notes that the survey is limited to an educated elite and thus did not take the attitudes of 70-80% of Gen3s blacks into account. Two probably different classes of blacks. How did such a situation arise?

nomad said...

No your history. The end of slavery united the elite black slaveholding class with the slave underclass.
The table is turned now.

Anonymous said...

The OP states: "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 think we can enrich this examination of history by adding the thread of Indigenous involvement in slavery. Indigenous people were enslaved all across North & South America, as well as the Caribbean. In some areas of what is now the US, large numbers of Indigenous people were enslaved, and there was a large amount of mixing with the African-descended slaves. There were also Indigenous slave-owners.

I recommend reading Africans and Native Americans: the language of race and the evolution of Red-Black peoples for more information about this history.