The fact is large numbers of free Negroes
owned black slaves; in fact, in numbers disproportionate to
their representation in society at large. In 1860 only a small
minority of whites owned slaves. According to the U.S. census
report for that last year before the Civil War, there were
nearly 27 million whites in the country. Some eight million
of them lived in the slaveholding states.
also determined that there were fewer than 385,000 individuals
who owned slaves (1). Even if all slaveholders had been white,
that would amount to only 1.4 percent of whites in the country
(or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more slaves).
In the rare instances when the ownership
of slaves by free Negroes is acknowledged in the history books,
justification centers on the claim that black slave masters
were simply individuals who purchased the freedom of a spouse
or child from a white slaveholder and had been unable to legally
manumit them. Although this did indeed happen at times, it
is a misrepresentation of the majority of instances, one which
is debunked by records of the period on blacks who owned slaves.
These include individuals such as Justus Angel and Mistress
L. Horry, of Colleton District, South Carolina, who each owned
84 slaves in 1830. In fact, in 1830 a fourth of the free Negro
slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves; eight
owning 30 or more (2).
According to federal census reports, on
June 1, 1860 there were nearly 4.5 million Negroes in the
United States, with fewer than four million of them living
in the southern slaveholding states. Of the blacks residing
in the South, 261,988 were not slaves. Of this number, 10,689
lived in New Orleans. The country's leading African American
historian, Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, records
that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves,
or 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city.
In 1860 there were at least six Negroes
in Louisiana who owned 65 or more slaves The largest number,
152 slaves, were owned by the widow C. Richards and her son
P.C. Richards, who owned a large sugar cane plantation. Another
Negro slave magnate in Louisiana, with over 100 slaves, was
Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued
at (in 1860 dollars) $264,000 (3). That year, the mean wealth
of southern white men was $3,978 (4).
In Charleston, South Carolina in 1860 125
free Negroes owned slaves; six of them owning 10 or more.
Of the $1.5 million in taxable property owned by free Negroes
in Charleston, more than $300,000 represented slave holdings
(5). In North Carolina 69 free Negroes were slave owners (6).
In 1860 William Ellison was South Carolina's
largest Negro slaveowner. In Black Masters. A Free Family
of Color in the Old South, authors Michael P. Johnson and
James L. Roak write a sympathetic account of Ellison's life.
From Ellison's birth as a slave to his death at 71, the authors
attempt to provide justification, based on their own speculation,
as to why a former slave would become a magnate slave master.
At birth he was given the name April. A
common practice among slaves of the period was to name a child
after the day or month of his or her birth. Between 1800 and
1802 April was purchased by a white slave-owner named William
Ellison. Apprenticed at 12, he was taught the trades of carpentry,
blacksmithing and machining, as well as how to read, write,
cipher and do basic bookkeeping.
On June 8, 1816, William Ellison appeared
before a magistrate (with five local freeholders as supporting
witnesses) to gain permission to free April, now 26 years
of age. In 1800 the South Carolina legislature had set out
in detail the procedures for manumission. To end the practice
of freeing unruly slaves of "bad or depraved" character and
those who "from age or infirmity" were incapacitated, the
state required that an owner testify under oath to the good
character of the slave he sought to free. Also required was
evidence of the slave's "ability to gain a livelihood in an
Although lawmakers of the time could not
envision the incredibly vast public welfare structures of
a later age, these stipulations became law in order to prevent
slaveholders from freeing individuals who would become a burden
on the general public.
Interestingly, considering today's accounts
of life under slavery, authors Johnson and Roak report instances
where free Negroes petitioned to be allowed to become slaves;
this because they were unable to support themselves.
Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in
Civil War Virginia (University Press of Virginia-1995) was
written by Ervin L. Jordan Jr., an African-American and assistant
professor and associate curator of the Special Collections
Department, University of Virginia library. He wrote: "One
of the more curious aspects of the free black existence in
Virginia was their ownership of slaves. Black slave masters
owned members of their family and freed them in their wills.
Free blacks were encouraged to sell themselves into slavery
and had the right to choose their owner through a lengthy
In 1816, shortly after his manumission,
April moved to Stateburg. Initially he hired slave workers
from local owners. When in 1817 he built a gin for Judge Thomas
Watries, he credited the judge nine dollars "for hire of carpenter
George for 12 days." By 1820 he had purchased two adult males
to work in his shop (7). In fewer than four years after being
freed, April demonstrated that he had no problem perpetuating
an institution he had been released from. He also achieved
greater monetary success than most white people of the period.
On June 20, 1820, April appeared in the
Sumter District courthouse in Sumterville. Described in court
papers submitted by his attorney as a "freed yellow man of
about 29 years of age," he requested a name change because
it "would yet greatly advance his interest as a tradesman."
A new name would also "save him and his children from degradation
and contempt which the minds of some do and will attach to
the name April." Because "of the kindness" of his former master
and as a "Mark of gratitude and respect for him" April asked
that his name be changed to William Ellison. His request was
In time the black Ellison family joined
the predominantly white Episcopalian church. On August 6,
1824 he was allowed to put a family bench on the first floor,
among those of the wealthy white families. Other blacks, free
and slave, and poor whites sat in the balcony. Another wealthy
Negro family would later join the first floor worshippers.
Between 1822 and the mid-1840s, Ellison
gradually built a small empire, acquiring slaves in increasing
numbers. He became one of South Carolina's major cotton gin
manufacturers, selling his machines as far away as Mississippi.
From February 1817 until the War Between the States commenced,
his business advertisements appeared regularly in newspapers
across the state. These included the Camden Gazette, the Sumter
Southern Whig and the Black River Watchman.
Ellison was so successful, due to his utilization
of cheap slave labor, that many white competitors went out
of business. Such situations discredit impressions that whites
dealt only with other whites. Where money was involved, it
was apparent that neither Ellison's race or former status
In his book, Ervin L. Jordan Jr. writes
that, as the great conflagration of 1861-1865 approached:
"Free Afro-Virginians were a nascent black middle class under
siege, but several acquired property before and during the
war. Approximately 169 free blacks owned 145,976 acres in
the counties of Amelia, Amherst, Isle of Wight, Nansemond,
Prince William and Surry, averaging 870 acres each. Twenty-rune
Petersburg blacks each owned property worth $1,000 and continued
to purchase more despite the war."
Jordan offers an example: "Gilbert Hunt,
a Richmond ex-slave blacksmith, owned two slaves, a house
valued at $1,376, and $500 in other properties at his death
in 1863." Jordan wrote that "some free black residents of
Hampton and Norfolk owned property of considerable value;
17 black Hamptonians possessed property worth a total of $15,000.
Thirty-six black men paid taxes as heads of families in Elizabeth
City County and were employed as blacksmiths, bricklayers,
fishermen, oystermen and day laborers. In three Norfolk County
parishes 160 blacks owned a total of $41,158 in real estate
and personal property.
The general practice of the period was
that plantation owners would buy seed and equip~ ment on credit
and settle their outstanding accounts when the annual cotton
crop was sold. Ellison, like all free Negroes, could resort
to the courts for enforcement of the terms of contract agreements.
Several times Ellison successfully sued white men for money
In 1838 Ellison purchased on time 54.5
acres adjoining his original acreage from one Stephen D. Miller.
He moved into a large home on the property. What made the
acquisition notable was that Miller had served in the South
Carolina legislature, both in the U.S. House of Representatives
and the Senate, and while a resident of Stateburg had been
governor of the state. Ellison's next door neighbor was Dr.
W.W. Anderson, master of "Borough House, a magnificent 18th
Century mansion. Anderson's son would win fame in the War
Between the States as General "Fighting Dick" Anderson.
By 1847 Ellison owned over 350 acres, and
more than 900 by 1860. He raised mostly cotton, with a small
acreage set aside for cultivating foodstuffs to feed his family
and slaves. In 1840 he owned 30 slaves, and by 1860 he owned
63. His sons, who lived in homes on the property, owned an
additional nine slaves. They were trained as gin makers by
their father (8). They had spent time in Canada, where many
wealthy American Negroes of the period sent their children
for advanced formal education. Ellison's sons and daughters
married mulattos from Charleston, bringing them to the Ellison
plantation to live.
In 1860 Ellison greatly underestimated
his worth to tax assessors at $65,000. Even using this falsely
stated figure, this man who had been a slave 44 years earlier
had achieved great financial success. His wealth outdistanced
90 percent of his white neighbors in Sumter District. In the
entire state, only five percent owned as much real estate
as Ellison. His wealth was 15 times greater than that of the
state's average for whites. And Ellison owned more slaves
than 99 percent of the South's slaveholders.
Although a successful businessman and cotton
farmer, Ellison's major source of income derived from being
a "slave breeder." Slave breeding was looked upon with disgust
throughout the South, and the laws of most southern states
forbade the sale of slaves under the age of 12. In several
states it was illegal to sell inherited slaves (9). Nevertheless,
in 1840 Ellison secretly began slave breeding.
While there was subsequent investment return
in raising and keeping young males, females were not productive
workers in his factory or his cotton fields. As a result,
except for a few females he raised to become "breeders," Ellison
sold the female and many of the male children born to his
female slaves at an average price of $400. Ellison had a reputation
as a harsh master. His slaves were said to be the district's
worst fed and clothed. On his property was located a small,
windowless building where he would chain his problem slaves.
As with the slaves of his white counterparts,
occasionally Ellison's slaves ran away. The historians of
Sumter District reported that from time to time Ellison advertised
for the return of his runaways. On at least one occasion Ellison
hired the services of a slave catcher. According to an account
by Robert N. Andrews, a white man who had purchased a small
hotel in Stateburg in the 1820s, Ellison hired him to run
down "a valuable slave. Andrews caught the slave in Belleville,
Virginia. He stated: "I was paid on returning home $77.50
and $74 for expenses.
William Ellison died December 5, 1861.
His will stated that his estate should pass into the joint
hands of his free daughter and his two surviving sons. He
bequeathed $500 to the slave daughter he had sold.
Following in their father's footsteps,
the Ellison family actively supported the Confederacy throughout
the war. They converted nearly their entire plantation to
the production of corn, fodder, bacon, corn shucks and cotton
for the Confederate armies. They paid $5,000 in taxes during
the war. They also invested more than $9,000 in Confederate
bonds, treasury notes and certificates in addition to the
Confederate currency they held. At the end, all this valuable
paper became worthless.
The younger Ellisons contributed more than
farm produce, labor and money to the Confederate cause. On
March 27, 1863 John Wilson Buckner, William Ellison's oldest
grandson, enlisted in the 1st South Carolina Artillery. Buckner
served in the company of Captains P.P. Galliard and A.H. Boykin,
local white men who knew that Buckner was a Negro. Although
it was illegal at the time for a Negro to formally join the
Confederate forces, the Ellison family's prestige nullified
the law in the minds of Buckner's comrades. Buckner was wounded
in action on July 12, 1863. At his funeral in Stateburg in
August, 1895 he was praised by his former Confederate officers
as being a "faithful soldier."
Following the war the Ellison family fortune
quickly dwindled. But many former Negro slave magnates quickly
took advantage of circumstances and benefited by virtue of
their race. For example Antoine Dubuclet, the previously mentioned
New Orleans plantation owner who held more than 100 slaves,
became Louisiana state treasurer during Reconstruction, a
post he held from 1868 to 1877 (10).
A truer picture of the Old South, one never
presented by the nation's mind molders, emerges from this
account. The American South had been undergoing structural
evolutionary changes far, far greater than generations of
Americans have been led to believe. In time, within a relatively
short time, the obsolete and economically nonviable institution
of slavery would have disappeared. The nation would have been
spared awesome traumas from which it would never fully recover.
1. The American Negro,
Raymond Logan and Irving Cohen New York: Houghton and Mifflin,
2. Black Masters. A Family
of Color in the Old South, Michael P. Johnson and James
L. Roak New York: Norton, 1984), p.64.
3. The Forgotten People,
Gary Mills (Baton Rouge, 1977); Black Masters, p.128.
4. Men and Wealth in
the US., 1850-1870, Lee Soltow (New Haven, 1975), p.85.
5. Black Masters, Appendix,
Table 7; p.280.
6. Black Masters, p.
7. Information on the Ellison
family was obtained from Black Masters; the number
of slaves they owned was gained from U.S. Census Reports.
8. In 1860 South Carolina
had only 21 gin makers; Ellison, his three sons and a grandson
account for five of the total.
9. Neither Black Nor White:
Slaveiy and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States,
Carl N. Degler (New York, Macmillan, 1971), p.39; Negro Slavery
in Louisiana, Joe Gray Taylor (Baton Rouge, 1963), pp. 4041.
10. Reconstruction, 1863-1877,
Eric Foner (New York; Harper & Row, 1988), p.
47; pp. 353-355.