- 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
Many black slaveowners lived in cities, where they freely mixed with local slaves and occasionally bought them.
Humanitarian motives didn’t always play a part in the black slaveowner’s trade. Nat Butler, of Aberdeen, Maryland, obtained slaves by a gambit worthy of Simon Legree. Something of a rarity, Butler specialized in turning high hopes to abject misery. He was known to help runaways, providing them with a hiding place while they waited to escape North. At the same time, posing as a slave catcher, he would offer to resell the runaways to their original owners. If the price offered was too low, Butler would sell the slaves to a third party for a neat profit.
Like their white counterparts, black slaveowners advertised for runaways. Sarah Johnson, a seamstress from Charleston, South Carolina, placed an ad in a local paper in August 1836 to locate a servant of “small stature a little pitted with small pox her front teeth much decayed had on when she went away a striped blue frock. It is suspected that she will try and go into the country…. I will pay any reasonable reward.” In 1859 Eliza McNellage offered a reward of twenty dollars in the Charleston Mercury for a sixteen-year-old named Mary who was “well known in the vicinity of Market and Archdale Streets.”
Some owners mingled their more generous instincts with economic self-interest. Samuel Smith of Chesterfield, Virginia, willed his slave family to his daughter-in-law “to hold the above-mentioned slaves during her natural life, and at the death of the above named Betsy Smith, I desire that they shall be free.” Smith had earlier used a child as collateral for a loan, stipulating that should he not repay the outstanding debt, his creditor should “expose the said Negro boy for sale.” The evidence suggests that the child was Smith’s own son.
In 1845 Ricksum Webb, of Caroline County, Maryland, willed to his son a slave named Jerry, to be kept for ten years and then freed. The will provided good incentive for the bondsman to accept his lot. “Should Jerry abscond from service and be taken,” the document read, he was “to be sold for life to the highest bidder.” Richard Parsons, a farmer and boatman of Campbell County, Virginia, set free his slave children in a will of 1842 but made no such provisions for nine other slaves he considered simply to be property. In a particularly complex case Judith Angus of Petersburg, Virginia, willed her estate to her sons, George, Moses, and Frank. Moses was free at the time; the other two were slaves. The 1832 will stipulated that George was to be freed—unless Moses returned to Petersburg, in which case the former was to be “at his disposal.” If George did remain a slave, he was to be hired out, the funds from his labor to be used to buy free the third son, Frank, owned by another party. Among black slaveowners, family hierarchy could have its harsh prerogatives.
The legal complications encountered by families part slave and part free were nothing short of Byzantine, and in many cases Solomon himself would have been hard pressed to mete out justice. A slave named Miles took a slave wife in North Carolina. He was freed by his master and then purchased his wife, whom he in turn freed. One of their children was born when the mother was a slave, the others when she was free. When the mother died, Miles remarried a free woman of color by whom he had several more children. In 1857 Miles died intestate; the children of both mothers disputed the division of property. The North Carolina Supreme Court reasoned that the children of the first marriage had no claim to the estate since slaves could not make contracts that were legally binding. Thus Miles’s original marriage was a “fiction,” the children not recognized as legal heirs. He had, in short, failed to legitimize the marriage once he and his wife had become free.
Many black slaveowners lived in cities, where they freely mixed with local slaves and occasionally bought and sold them. Urban slaveowners engaged in a variety of occupations: they were barbers, livery stable men, blacksmiths, mechanics, grocers, even prostitutes. In South Carolina and Louisiana a powerful mulatto caste developed in the large cities, comprising lighter-skinned people of color who separated themselves at all costs from the lowly slaves who worked the plantations. The slaveowners among them amassed considerable commercial power, often parlaying it into greater social acceptance and educational advancement.