The early antebellum decades were auspicious for Ellison, as the expanding “Cotton Kingdom” increased demand for his skills.
Free black entrepreneur. Originally named April, Ellison was the mulatto offspring of a slave woman and one of the Ellison men who owned her near Winnsboro in Fairfield District. In approximately 1802 he began an exceptional fourteen-year apprenticeship with a local cotton-gin maker. While slaves sometimes acquired skills, they typically remained unskilled all their lives. April’s apprenticeship allowed him to learn the craft of gin making, which also required mastering the skills of the blacksmith, machinist, and carpenter along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. As he gained more experience, April visited outlying plantations and did repair work there. During his free time he worked for wages, and by 1816 he had acquired the funds to purchase his freedom. Once free, April relocated to the town of Stateburg in Sumter District. By 1817 he purchased and freed his enslaved wife Matilda and their daughter Eliza Ann. In 1820 April legally changed his name to William. In freedom, the Ellisons had three sons.
The early antebellum decades were auspicious for Ellison, as the expanding “Cotton Kingdom” increased demand for his skills. After purchasing land in Stateburg in the early 1820s, Ellison established a shop and soon manufactured his own brand of cotton gin. While most of his patronage was local, he occasionally shipped the “Ellison Gin” as far west as Mississippi. In addition to gin repair and manufacture, Ellison provided blacksmith and carpentry services. Slaves were essential to Ellison’s success. He hired them, trained slave apprentices, and by 1820 had become a slaveowner. Many of the men were trained artisans, but as Ellison acquired nearby farmland, most of his slaves were employed in cotton production. It has been estimated that by the 1850s, the profits from Ellison’s plantation exceeded those of his shop. In 1860 he owned nearly nine hundred acres of land and sixty-three slaves, which he conservatively valued at $53,000. His estate exceeded the total wealth of the other 328 free blacks in Sumter District by several times, and he was among the top ten percent of all slaveholders and landholders in the district. Ellison’s ability to avoid offending white racial sensibilities and his demonstrated commitment to planter values through investment in land and slaves afforded him unique opportunities. For example, in 1838 Ellison purchased his family mansion, known as Wisdom Hall, from Stephen Miller, a former congressman and governor of South Carolina. His family worshiped at Holy Cross Episcopal Church, and while other black people were confined to the galleries, the Ellisons sat in their own pew at the rear of the main floor. Ultimately, Ellison could not escape the racial strictures of his society, and even he had to comply with the law requiring free blacks to have white guardians. On the eve of the Civil War, as white suspicion and persecution of free blacks increased, Ellison contemplated emigrating from the South. He died on December 5, 1861.
Johnson, Michael P., and James L. Roark. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: Norton, 1984.
–––. No Chariot Let Down: Charleston’s Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860. 1985. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina
Press, 1995. Wikramanayake, Marina. A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.