- Historic Sites
Selling Poor Steven
The struggles and torments of a forgotten class in antebellum America: black slaveowners
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
In absolute terms the number of slaveowning blacks was always small. In antebellum North Carolina, for example, only about 10 percent of free blacks owned any kind of property at all, let alone slaves. In the America of 1830 more than three hundred thousand people of color were free; of these, about 2 percent were slaveholders. One scholar has estimated that from 1790 to 1860 just one in eighty free blacks was a slaveowner. Blacks who owned slaves were thus a tiny minority within a minority. Of course, white slaveowners were a minority too—though a much larger one—composing about a third of white families in the first half of the nineteenth century. Booker T. Washington, born to slavery in Virginia, revealed in 1905 that he did not even know black slaveowners had existed. Perhaps he did not want to, for black masters, though few, were widespread, their presence, as John Russell wrote in his 1916 history of early Virginia, “so common in the period of the Commonwealth as to pass unnoticed and without criticism by those who consciously recorded events of the times.”
It is not unusual to find that people of color who owned slaves did so for humanitarian motives. In the 1830s John Barry Meachum, a St. Louis minister, bought bondsmen and then invited them to purchase their freedom on easy terms. A woman from Charleston, South Carolina, sold a slave in 1828 on the condition that “he is kindly treated and is never sold, he being an unfortunate individual and requiring much attention.” In one extraordinary case a Baptist Negro church in Lexington, Kentucky, is said to have gained a slave preacher by paying for him on the installment plan, passing the Sunday collection plate to pay the deacons of a local white congregation who had purchased him.
Most often black slaveowners were men who had bought their own family members. For instance, Mosby Shepherd, manumitted by the Virginia legislature for giving information concerning the Gabriel insurrection of 1800, bought his own son with the express purpose of later freeing him. Owning blood relatives could be a convenient legal fiction to protect them from the hostility that free blacks attracted. Often it was a way to evade stringent laws requiring newly freed slaves to leave the state within a certain period. Sometimes free blacks married slaves and raised families. If the slave in such a union was owned by a third party and “threatened” with freedom, the spouse could purchase him or her. Some laws even made it easier for blacks to own family members than to manumit them.
Frequently terrible decisions would have to be made, as when children had to be sold off to purchase a spouse. Rose Petepher of New Bern, North Carolina, bought her husband, Richard Gasken, a runaway who had spent several years roaming the woods. They raised several children later hired out as slaves, presumably to keep family finances afloat. Daniel Brown of Norfolk, Virginia, purchased his freedom through hard work and was sold to his wife, Ann, to avoid the law requiring newly manumitted slaves to leave Virginia. When Brown decided he wanted to emigrate to Liberia, his wife balked, not only refusing him permission to go but threatening to sell him. After great effort he persuaded her to manumit him, and he shipped out for Liberia. In 1854 Brown wrote from Monrovia pleading that “Liberia is the place for us and our children, and no where else but here.” Later that year Ann finally decided to join him.
wnership could, of course, add a strange dimension to ordinary family squabbles. Dilsey Pope of Columbus, Georgia, a free woman of color, owned her husband. After they quarreled, she sold him to a white slaveowner; he refused to sell him back once the couple had reconciled. Carter Woodson, the historian who in the 1920s published the research on black slaveholders in the 1830 census, recalled an acquaintance whose mother had been purchased out of slavery by her husband, himself a former slave. When later she grew enamored of another man—a slave, it turned out—and secretly bestowed upon him her husband’s manumission papers, the police, thinking the husband had conspired to give up his papers, arrested him and brought him to trial. To cover his legal expenses, the angry husband sold his wife for five hundred dollars.
Black slaveowners, like white ones, sometimes bid for their charges on the open market. Many, however, did not actively seek to obtain slaves but inherited them from family members or white neighbors. In the latter case the person inherited often appears to have been the product of a secret sexual liaison. Henry Lipscomb, a white slaveowner from Cumberland County, Virginia, willed several slaves—probably his own children—to a black family by the same name, headed by Nancy Lipscomb, a “free woman of color.” Another black woman, Priscilla Ivey of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, inherited several slaves from a white man in 1821 and held them for thirty-five years, eventually willing them to her children.