The African slave trade was very profitable for everyone involved with the exception of the slaves themselves. It made money for the slave traders responsible for capturing and loading the slaves in Africa, the shipping companies made money, the slave brokers became rich, and owners of slaves made money in the buying and selling of their own slaves and their offspring. Slavery was a part of the economy of the area from the beginning of the colony until the end of the Civil War.
From the late 1700’s records show that there were free blacks living in South Carolina (Schweninger, 1990, 20). By 1860, there were thousands of “free persons of color” living in the state, and hundreds of them owned black slaves. Why did blacks own slaves? How and when did this practice begin?
In 1619, 20 Africans were brought to Virginia as indentured servants to work in the tobacco-growing colony. At the end of their indenture, officials in Virginia decided to enslave some of these people. Some historians believe that one of these slaves became a slaveholder himself (Abrams, 2001, ix). This began the long history of blacks owning other blacks.
There are many factors that led to black slaveholding. One was the desire of free blacks to purchase their family members out of bondage. Until around 1800, it was legal for white slaveowners to manumit their slaves, for whatever reason they wanted. However, in 1800 in South Carolina, the legislature began putting restrictions on the manumission of slaves. Additionally, there were restrictions that required freed slaves to leave the state (Schweninger, 22). Therefore, free blacks would often purchase their relatives in order to allow them to remain in the state.
Owning slaves offered the opportunity for economic advancement for blacks (Schweninger, 22). By the mid 1700’s, black artisans and shopkeepers owned slaves in the city, while free blacks also held slaves on farms in the country. In the city of Charleston, free blacks nearly monopolized the jobs of barbers, bricklayers, shoemakers, tailors and dressmakers. They prospered in their entrepreneurial jobs and were able to earn the capital needed to purchase slaves.
Another factor in black slaveholding was the development of a class of citizens referred to as “free persons of color.” There were relationships between white masters and slave women from the beginning of African slavery in the colonies. Often these relationships resulted in mulatto children born to the slave women. In some cases, masters would treat these mulatto children as their own, and they might inherit property at the master’s death. The mothers of the mulatto children would often be manumitted, or freed for a reason, at the death of the master. The manumitted mulatto son or daughter would then become a part of the growing group of “free persons of color.” On one occasion, “the amorous relationship between the slave Tabatha Singleton and her master survived the manumission decree…. He paid the rent for her tenement and eventually conveyed a house, lot, and two slaves to her" (Powers, 1994, 38). For this reason and for other reasons, there were many female slaveholders in South Carolina, and particularly in Charleston.
From amorous relationships between masters and slaves (and free persons of color) there grew a distinct class of “brown” elites. There was a difference in the way that whites regarded free dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned blacks. Light-skinned blacks were considered closer to white in the social stratification in southern society. A racial stratification developed into a three-tiered model with whites on the top, mulattoes and free blacks (of light complexion, mostly), and slaves. Slaveholding free blacks were considered at the top of the second tier, the most respected blacks of all in white society.
A third factor in the development of black slaveholding was the desire of “free persons of color” to operate in the economic world of white slaveholders and to be as equal to whites as possible. By the mid 1700’s to early 1800’s, most free blacks considered themselves more American than they did African, for almost all of them had been born on American soil, free or slave. They wanted to live the same life as whites, and they saw slaveholding as a way to become more equal with their white counterparts.
An important fourth and final factor in black slaveholding was the economic profitability of using slaves to work in jobs and businesses owned by “free persons of color.” “In a society that vested the ownership of one many in another, slaves represented another form of property held by free blacks.” (Powers, 1994, 39) Early on in the colony of South Carolina, mulattoes were often trained as artisans and were able to earn the money to purchase slaves by working. They were commercial masters who aligned themselves with the white majority in order to preserve the system of slavery. (Koger, 1985, 30) As this practice progressed, the black slaveholders often had the same incentives as whites to own slaves.
From the article “Black Slaveowners”, there comes the example of Richard Holloway. Richard Holloway was a black slaveholder in Charleston, and most of his family papers are in the archives at the Avery Research Center for African American History.
“… Richard Holloway, Sr., and free black of Charleston City, bought a slave named Charles Benford in order that the slave might enjoy his freedom. Yet at the same time, he owned other slaves who were not treated so kindly. In 1834, for instance, he purchased a Negro woman named Sarah and her two children, Annett and Edward, from Susan B. Robertson for $575. Within three years after the purchase, he apparently became dissatisfied with the slave family and sold them for $945. Even though Richard Holloway, Sr., allowed a trusted servant to enjoy a greater degree of freedom, he was still a slaveowner for profit. So he sold and purchased slaves as an investment even while he held other slaves for benevolent reasons.”
Interestingly enough, slaves reacted to ownership by black masters in the same ways that they did by white masters. They resisted their owners and were susceptible to dreams of freedom. The relationships between black masters and slaves were not smoother than those of slaves and white masters.
In conclusion, there were many reasons why free blacks owned black slaves. There was a new class developing during the 1800’s made up of slaveowning blacks and free light-skinned blacks. Relationships between masters and slaves were not smooth. Black slaveowners in Charleston had the same economic desires as whites when it came to being prosperous and owning slaves.