Free black harbor pilot, alleged insurrectionary. Thomas Jeremiah, or “Jerry,” was a free person of color who earned a living by navigating ships through the treacherous waters of Charleston harbor. Little is known about his life. It appears that he obtained his freedom sometime in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. In addition to his skills as a harbor pilot, Jeremiah worked as a firefighter and ran the fish market in Charleston’s wharf district. Eventually he would become a slaveowner himself, acquiring an estate valued at somewhere between £700 to £1,000 sterling. Earning the respect of his own community as well as a number of prominent white allies, the pilot undoubtedly blurred and transcended the boundaries of race that were becoming ever more sharply drawn during the course of his lifetime. Yet the same skills which initially brought him success and notoriety would ultimately make him a target for suspicion.
Jeremiah’s paradoxical relationship to the power structure is perhaps best illustrated by an incident that occurred in 1771. On July 17, he was convicted of assaulting a white ship captain by the name of Thomas Langen—a bold action for a black man living in the pre-Revolutionary South—and was sentenced to an hour in the pillory and ten lashes with a whip. In view of his public deeds, however, Lieutenant Governor William Bull granted him a pardon. Four years later, when open conflict broke out between Great Britain and her North American colonies, Jeremiah would not be so lucky.
In June 1775, he became the foremost suspect in an alleged plot by the British to use the majority of the Carolina populace—enslaved blacks—against the patriot rebels. As a man who had long worked with battleships and fire, Jeremiah appeared to be the most plausible and potentially dangerous link between black Carolinians and the British. Embroiled in a cause célèbre between the last royal governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, and patriot leader Henry Laurens, Thomas Jeremiah was adjudged guilty by patriot authorities and sentenced to die under the Negro Act of 1740.
On August 18, 1775, at twelve o’clock noon, Jeremiah was brought before the gallows in Charleston. Before the noose could be tightened around his neck, he proclaimed his innocence and told his accusers that “God’s judgment would one day overtake them for shedding his innocent blood.” While the rest of spectacle is difficult to piece together, Jeremiah reportedly met “death like a man and a Christian.” After he was asphyxiated, his remains were set on fire—both a reminder and a warning. “Surely,” one contemporary concluded, “there is no murder so cruel and dangerous as that committed under the appearance of law and justice.” Although we may never know whether he was “guilty” or “innocent,” Jeremiah’s ordeal illustrated the three-way struggle for power between blacks, Whigs, and Tories that was taking place throughout the lower South on the eve of the Revolutionary War.
Ryan, William R. “‘Under the Color of Law’: The Ordeal of Thomas Jeremiah, a Free Black Man, and the Struggle for Power in Revolutionary South Carolina.” In George Washington’s South, edited by Tamara Harvey and Greg O’Brien. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.
Wood, Peter H. “‘Liberty is Sweet’: African-American Freedom Struggles in the Years before White Independence.” In Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, edited by Alfred F. Young. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993.
———. “‘Taking Care of Business’ in Revolutionary South Carolina: Republicanism and the Slave Society.” In The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, edited by Jeffrey J. Crow and Larry E. Tise. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.