Selling Poor Steven


Like slaves, most free blacks were illiterate. But along the lower Mississippi some obtained more than a rudimentary education and left letters and diaries that offer fascinating glimpses into the lives of antebellum black slaveowners. Among these was William Johnson, a slave turned free man of color in Natchez, Mississippi. Granted his freedom in 1830, Johnson set up business in Natchez as a barber and moneylender until he purchased a nearby farm. At the time of his death in 1851 he owned fifteen slaves, with an eye to turning a profit. And yet, his diary indicates, some of them evoked in him a turbulent mixture of emotions. “To day has been to me a very Sad Day,” he wrote on December 31, 1843. “Many tears were in my Eyes to day On acct. of my Selling poor Steven. I went under the hill this Evening to See him of[f] but the Boat did not Cross over again and Steven got drunk in a few minutes and 1 took him Home & made him Sleep in the garret and Kept him Safe.” Johnson, who had bought Steven in 1832 for $455, had just sold him for $600. The next day the former slave still grappled with his conscience: “I felt hurt but Liquor is the Cause of his troubles; I would not have parted with Him if he had Only have Let Liquor alone but he Cannot do it I believe.”

As a black slaveholder Johnson was caught in a tangle of ironies. His diaries reveal the rancor he felt toward the arrogant white slaveowners of his area, though he was cautious to keep his resentment under wraps. While he expressed considerable compassion for his slaves, the only one who ever escaped from him was helped to freedom by a man he called “a white scoundrel.” Johnson was murdered in 1851, apparently by a mulatto whose race the courts had difficulty ascertaining. Baylor Winn—who claimed Indian and white ancestry—was never found guilty of murdering Johnson because it could not be proved that Winn was a “Negro.” Mississippi law forbade the testimony of black witnesses against white people, and as the only witnesses for the prosecution were people of color, Winn was never convicted.

Andrew Durnford, a free man of color in nearby Louisiana, was a sugar planter who owned seventy-seven slaves at his death in 1859. In his correspondence Durnford describes his 1835 visit to a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia. “I went to see a family of four children, father & mother for 1800$ of yellow complexion,” he wrote to a Louisiana friend. “I acted and played the indifferent saying they were too high. An other family of a father & mother with two children for 1200$. I was requested to make an offer, butt would nott do it as I find that some of the farmers … don’t like to sell to Negro traders butt will, to anybody that buys for their own use.”

In fact, Durnford was buying for his own use on the sugar plantation he called St. Rosalie, thirty miles south of New Orleans. A man of business, he lamented the high cost of slaves, complaining that Alabamians had bid too high and driven up the market price. “I could have bought some cheaper but, they are what I call rotten people.” After buying twenty-five slaves, he encountered some difficulty getting them home. “I wrote in Baltimore to get a passage on board of the brig Harriet cleared for New Orleans, but the captain would not agree to take Blacks.”

Durnford’s correspondence is richly revealing of the complicated lives led by antebellum mulatto planters. His letters from Richmond are addressed to John McDonogh of New Orleans, a white friend and creditor who later served as a vice president to the American Colonization Society, which resettled freed slaves in Liberia. McDonogh, an unusual master by any standards, sent eighty-five of his slaves to this African republic and later provided in his will for the manumission of many others. Durnford was not so sanguine about the prospects of manumission, though he did free four slaves during his life. “Self interest is too strongly rooted in the bosom of all that breathes the American atmosphere,” he wrote in 1843. “Self interest is al la mode.” Paternalism and cruelty went hand in hand at Durnford’s plantation. “Jackson has just left here,” he wrote of a runaway in 1836. “I ordered five rounds to be given him yesterday for cutting my cane and corn. He is a wicked fellow. Was he not a relic I would gett clear of him.”


s the Civil War approached, more restrictions were imposed on black slaveowners, and the abolitionist press made white Southerners warier still of this unusual group in their midst. As Northern cries for manumission grew stronger, certain states denied free blacks property rights. In 1860 the North Carolina legislature formally forbade blacks to “buy, purchase, or hire for any length of time any slave or slaves, or to have any slave or slaves bound as apprentice or apprentices.”