Free blacks never exceeded two percent of the state’s antebellum black population, which was consistent with its lower-South neighbors but starkly contrasted with states in the upper South.
Also known as free blacks, free persons of color occupied an anomalous position in the race-based slave society of antebellum South Carolina. Several factors contributed to their expansion. For personal reasons, especially during the colonial era and early nineteenth century, slaveowners manumitted (freed) slaves by last will and testament. Slaves who accumulated money through trading or by hiring their time were sometimes allowed to purchase their freedom. Meritorious service to society could warrant freedom. An act of 1702 freed slave militiamen who killed or captured an invading enemy. When the slaves Caesar and Sampson invented cures for rattlesnake bite in the 1750s, the legislature emancipated them. Free blacks sometimes descended from Native Americans, while others migrated to South Carolina from other states and foreign countries.
Free blacks never exceeded two percent of the state’s antebellum black population, which was consistent with its lower-South neighbors but starkly contrasted with states in the upper South. This disparity occurred because the egalitarianism of the American Revolution and the natural rights doctrine that stimulated manumissions in the upper South were less influential in the lower South. Also, upper-South economic changes facilitated emancipation, while the lower South’s emerging Cotton Kingdom increased its dependence on slavery. As early as 1800, almost six percent and sixteen percent of the black populations of Virginia and Maryland respectively were free. The disparities with South Carolina became greater by 1860, when Virginia and Maryland’s percentages increased to eleven and forty-nine percent respectively.
Free persons of color were disproportionately female because slaveowners had fewer apprehensions about manumitting women. Also, since miscegenation was legal in South Carolina before the Civil War, white men frequently had sexual relationships with black women, sometimes marrying and emancipating them with their mulatto children. Philippe Stanislaus Noisette, a famous French horticulturist who migrated to Charleston in 1794, had several children by his slave Celestine and went through extraordinary legal means to manumit her and their progeny. In 1860 mulattoes comprised five percent of the state’s slave population but seventy-two percent of the free blacks. The term “free persons of color” referred to the mixed ancestry of free blacks in the lower South. Before the Civil War, race was not defined in South Carolina law, leaving race to be determined by reputation and phenotype. Because of this, some free persons of color passed for white.
The state’s compelling interest in the slave system led it to regulate private manumissions. A 1722 law required removal of freed slaves unless legislative approval was granted, suggesting that free persons of color were considered unfit for citizenship. An 1800 act required court approval of manumissions in order to prevent elderly or “depraved” slaves from being foisted on society. The antislavery movement, the bitter debate over Missouri’s admission as a slave state, and the 1810–1820 expansion of South Carolina’s free black population by fifty percent led to a new act in 1820. To curtail free black population growth, the act vested the right of manumission solely in the General Assembly, prohibited immigration of free blacks to the state, and restricted their egress and ingress. The final loopholes were closed by an 1841 act to “Prevent the Emancipation of Slaves.” Only two slaves were legally emancipated in the state in 1850, leaving the future expansion of the free black population to depend primarily on natural increase.
Most free blacks resided in the countryside and worked as general laborers or as farm labor. A smaller number were artisans, tenant farmers, or acquired their own land. Reflecting national trends, a disproportionate number resided in cities. In 1860 three percent of the state’s slave population resided in Charleston, but one-third of its free blacks lived there. Charleston’s economic opportunities attracted free blacks, and by 1850 more than eighty percent of the men worked in skilled or semiskilled occupations as, for example, carpenters, tailors, bricklayers, or wagon drivers. Women frequently worked as domestics or in needlecraft trades. By 1860, 299 Charleston free blacks owned real estate valued at $759,870; half this amount was owned by fourteen percent of all free black property holders. Anthony Weston belonged to this propertied elite and used his millwright skills to accumulate an estate worth $40,000 by 1860. Jehu Jones accumulated a similar estate through real estate speculation and his famous hotel in downtown Charleston. In 1860, 171 free persons of color owned 766 slaves. Frequently these were family members who had been purchased but could not legally be emancipated. Other free blacks held slaves for their labor. In 1860 Daria Thomas, a planter in Union District, used many of his 21 slaves on his cotton farm. Likewise, William Ellison, Sr., of Sumter District used 63 slaves on his plantation and in his cotton gin manufacturing business.
By the early antebellum years, Charleston was the center of a propertied, light-complexioned group of free blacks who enjoyed a well-developed institutional life. The Brown Fellowship Society was established in 1790 for charitable and social purposes, and membership was limited to light-complexioned free blacks. Complexional differences often divided the community, and in 1843 equally elite and “respectable Free Dark Men” established the Humane Brotherhood. Elite free persons of color established private schools, and their children sometimes continued their educations in the North or abroad. William Rollin, a successful entrepreneur, sent his daughter Frances to the renowned Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, while Francis Cardozo attended universities in England and Scotland. Such opportunities were rare but expanded the differences between the elite and most free blacks who experienced material conditions not unlike their enslaved brethren.
All free blacks led somewhat tenuous lives because of their legal disabilities. The presumption was that all blacks were slaves, and free persons of color had to demonstrate on demand that they were legitimately free, making travel to communities where they were unknown dangerous. In 1792 free blacks were subject to a special capitation tax. When accused of crimes, they were tried before slave courts. They could not testify in regular courts for or against whites. Their lives were increasingly circumscribed, especially during times of social instability. New laws following the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy established fines and enslavement for those leaving the state and attempting to return. Free blacks over age fifteen were also required to have white guardians. As the nation edged toward civil war, the plight of free blacks became more precarious. Reflecting a regional trend, in 1859–1860 South Carolina’s legislature considered bills to expel or enslave free blacks. These measures were not passed, but their discussion terrified free persons of color, many of whom fled the state for the North. Most, however, remained until the end to slavery ended their unique social position.
Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Johnson, Michael, and James L. Roark. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: Norton, 1984.
Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860. 1985. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Wikramanayake, Marina. A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.