Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860, Larry Koger, University of South Carolina Press, 1985, 286 pp., $14.95 (newly released in paperback)
The myth persists that slavery consisted solely of cruel white masters and exploited blacks. This history of oppression is supposedly responsible for all the troubles blacks face today and, for some blacks, it even justifies reparations. Few people realize that black Americans owned slaves, too. In Black Slaveowners, Larry Koger has written a meticulously researched account of the black, slave-owning elite of South Carolina.
Mr. Koger’s purpose is not just to describe the black slaveowning class but to refute the majority academic view that blacks purchased other blacks — primarily their own relatives — in order to set them free. Mr. Koger believes that blacks generally bought, owned, and sold other blacks for economic reasons, just as whites did.
Before the War Between the States, black slaveowners could be found in every slave state and at nearly all educational and economic levels. Mr. Koger reports that, according to the 1830 census, black masters in just four states — Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina — owned more than 10,000 slaves. Even the enlightened state of New York was home to eight black slaveowners. In the South, many pro-slavery whites grew to accept these men and women as neighbors and as allies against abolition.
Mr. Koger reports that by 1840, South Carolina boasted 454 Negro masters with 2,357 slaves. Although only about one in five white households in the South owned slaves, approximately 75 percent of the free black heads of household in the state owned slaves. Many former slaves did not regard slavery as a malevolent institution but as an economic opportunity, and had no qualms about buying other blacks once they were able to.
Who were these black slaveowners? Eighty-three percent were mulattoes, even though they accounted for only 49 percent of all free blacks. Ninety percent of their slaves, by comparison, were of unmixed African descent. A few mixed-race masters inherited slaves from a white parent or grandparent, but most worked and saved on their own to acquire their property.
Mulattoes as a group eventually came to shun all dark-skinned blacks, slave and free, whom they viewed as beneath them. According to the 1860 census, nine out of ten mulattoes chose mixed-race spouses. Their dislike for darker blacks was so pronounced that if a free mulatto woman could not find a mixed-race free man to marry, she might marry a mulatto slave rather than a free black.
Mulattoes had advantages that were both social and biological. Between 1800 and 1840, the average earnings of the wealthiest free, dark-skinned blacks was only $1,805 while the mulatto elite’s average came to $4,642. To highlight the differences, mixed-race blacks of South Carolina formed the Brown Fellowship Society. Membership was limited to “free brown men” (mulattoes) and included a number of slaveowners.
Some free mulattoes kept their distance from blacks for fear of being mistaken for slaves. Others strongly identified with whites and wanted to preserve the right to own slaves. During the War Between the States many mulatto slaveowners wholly supported the Confederacy. One wrote to his white associates: “in our veins flows the blood of the white race, in some half, in others more than half … our attachments are with you, our hopes and safety and protection from you … our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”
After the war, when the fear of being mistaken for a slave had past, mulattoes continued to see themselves as above pure blacks. According to Mr. Koger, they refused to attend church with them and even tried to set up a caste system based on pre-war social strata.
It may be that relations between Charleston’s mulattoes and full-blooded blacks were permanently soured by events that took place between 1818 and 1822. With the help of 4,000 sympathetic slaves, a free black named Denmark Vesey plotted to lead the blacks of Charleston in a violent uprising. Vesey’s supporters had located stockpiles of weapons to seize. One slave vowed he had access to “a keg of Powder and five hundred (500) muskets.”
The plan was not just to fight for freedom but to kill every white in the city. For blacks who felt hesitant about butchering whites, Vesey invoked Old Testament parallels to God’s chosen people exterminating their enemies. A religious eclectic, he also entreated one co-conspirator, an Angolan mystic named Gullah Jack, to produce a magic potion to protect the rebels from harm. He further inspired his followers by recounting how the blacks of Santo Domingo rose up, massacring scores of white families in the name of freedom.
Vesey excluded free blacks from his plan. All of his closest accomplices were, unlike himself, slaves. Vesey, who was born and “nurtured in the bosom of Africa,” also kept mulattoes out of the plot because of their ties to whites and the slaveowning class.
The divisions among Charleston blacks were so complete that Vesey was able to keep his plans secret for four years. Ultimately, it was a mulatto slave who betrayed the insurrection just two weeks before it was to start. South Carolina’s Governor asked for federal troops to protect the city. Then Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, dispatched them, and all the rebel leaders were arrested within two weeks.
The plot — and its betrayal — deepened divisions between blacks and browns. Both groups used the event to justify their suspicions of the other and it may have removed the doubts of some free mulattoes about owning human property.
The Woodson Thesis
Black slavemasters are an embarrassment to the orthodox, and have generally been justified by means of “the Woodson thesis.” In 1924, historian Carter G. Woodson hypothesized that blacks were “benevolent” owners who bought spouses and relatives for the purpose of freeing them. Mr. Koger’s analysis refutes this claim. He has discovered that 65 percent of purchases of slaves by blacks in the city of Charleston were clearly motivated by profit and only eight percent could be called “benevolent.” He could not determine the motive for the remaining 27 percent.
Several benevolent transactions are detailed in the text, including one 1817 purchase by a black man of his wife. Interestingly, for reasons Mr. Koger does not appear to know, the man kept his wife as a slave for two years before freeing her.
From 1820 until the war, the South Carolina legislature began limiting manumission to extraordinary circumstances, such as life-saving heroism. This made it even less likely that free blacks would buy slaves in order to free them, because it became next to impossible to do so. A few, though, did find ways around the new laws by deeding their slaves to friends or sympathizers with a written agreement that the slaves be allowed to live as if they were free. Some of these nominal slaves worked for wages and paid taxes. One, Hannah Gonzales, even bought and sold slaves herself.
“Benevolent” ownership was unusual because, as Mr. Koger often points out, black slaveowners felt little pity for slaves. Some historians have been misled by the large number of black slave holders who did purchase relatives. Many, though, bought additional slaves for strictly economic reasons. Mr. Koger surmises that for them, “slavery was an oppressive institution when it affected a beloved relative or a friend, but beyond that realm, slavery was viewed as a profit-making institution to be exploited.”
Black slaveowners took an entirely business-like attitude towards their property. They went to court to fight for their ownership interests, and appear to have been no more likely than whites to free slaves in their wills. Like whites, blacks used their slaves as collateral; one slaveowner in Charleston even mortgaged her two children, born as slaves, to secure a debt.
Like all careful students of slavery, Mr. Koger finds that it was not always the harsh existence modern portrayals suggest. Would Alex Haley’s fictional character, Kunta Kinte, have dared a dangerous escape to return to his master if he had been captured by the British during the Revolutionary War? Mr. Koger tells of one slave who did. He reports that, contrary to what is usually believed, many former slaves “harbored no ill feelings toward their former masters and showed no signs of deep hatred for the institution that enslaved them.”
Blacks, like whites, could nevertheless be cruel masters. It was not uncommon for black slaveowners to throw insubordinate servants in jail or the workhouse for up to thirty days, and flog them severely when they got out. If a recently purchased slave was unruly, the owner would often resell it, using the proceeds to buy more compliant property.
Blacks owned slaves until the fall of the Confederacy. Even in 1864, during the darkest days of the war, half of Charleston’s black slaveowners who had owned slaves in 1860 still owned them. In the early 1860s, some blacks felt optimistic enough to purchase slaves for the first time. In the final months of the war, many black slaveowners either tried to sell to whomever would buy or persisted in using their labor until the conquering Union armies forced them to stop. Very few willingly emancipated their property. As Mr. Koger writes, “the colored masters of Charleston perceived the invasion as apocalyptic destruction rather than salvation.” He estimates that emancipation cost Charleston’s black masters $216,000 in slave-property — a large loss for just one city.
Black Slaveowners is a fascinating look at a misunderstood era of American history, but Mr. Koger is sometimes a little too free with his personal opinions, especially about would-be mass-murderer, Denmark Vesey. We learn that Vesey had “a certain sparkle in [his] eyes” and was wealthy enough to own slaves had it not been for the “racial pride [that] ran through his veins.” After his conviction, he “fac[ed] the gallows with courage.” Mr. Koger sums up, with these words, the man who planned the murder of every white man, woman, and child in Charleston: “Denmark Vesey showed his followers in life how to be a proud black man, urging the slaves to be men and to take their freedom; he also showed them how to die with conviction.”
Nevertheless, Larry Koger’s study of black slaveowners and his refutation of the theory of “benevolent Negro slaveowners” is as welcome as it is well researched. His investigations may force scholars to revise their assumptions about the peculiar institution and its supporters.