Selling Poor Steven

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As public opinion turned against free blacks, William Ellison, Jr., a free mulatto whose father owned dozens of slaves, attempted to leave South Carolina in 1860. The agents for a Philadelphia steamer refused Ellison and his children passage, claiming that if they turned out to be escaped slaves, anyone found guilty of helping them leave the South could be executed. They suggested instead that Ellison declare his children slaves—though they were not—and put them in the charge of a white passenger. Sensing danger, he obtained passage for them on another ship by using his influence and financial resources. Clearly even the wealthy mulatto caste had come to feel threatened by the eve of the Civil War.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 struck as much of a blow to commercial black slaveowners as it did to white ones.

Elsewhere in the Deep South the landowning mulatto caste was anxious to prove its loyalty to the cause. Several black slaveowners in the Delta region wrote jointly to the New Orleans Daily Delta in December 1860 that “the free colored population (native) of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defence. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana.” Thus the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 struck as much of a blow to commercial black slaveowners—like the descendants of William Johnson and Andrew Durnford—as it did to their white counterparts. And where owners were compensated for their losses, even those with benevolent motives profited, providing a windfall for people who had been protecting family members. In the District of Columbia, for example, where slavery was abolished in 1862 in advance of the Proclamation, Robert Gunnell received three hundred dollars each for his wife, children, and grandchildren, eighteen people in all.

That black people could have owned slaves at all is a strange irony of American history, one that has led to all manner of theorizing, much of it untenable. It would be a mistake, for example, to think that black slaveholders turned the entire institution of slavery on its head, for even the most powerful black planters could own only people of color, not whites. Though whites were commonly employed as indentured servants in the colonial era, they were never held as slaves as the term is normally used. It is true that free people of color sometimes hired white laborers for temporary work. “I send Noel up to let you know that I will do without dutch people this year,” wrote Andrew Durnford to John McDonogh. But as a Virginia statute from 1670 proclaims: “No negro or Indian though baptized and enjoyned their own freedome shall be capable of any purchase of Christians but yet not debarred from buying any of their owne nation.” The existence of the statute seems to suggest that holding white “slaves”—or servants—was conceivable for a black only in the early years of colonial Virginia. Such a practice, had it endured, would have undermined the entire social foundation of slavery, resting as it did on the oppression of people of color.

Over the, years a number of unconvincing apologies have been offered on behalf of the black slaveholder. The historian Luther Porter Jackson has argued that the 1830 census figures for black slaveowners were inflated, since some of those who appear on the rolls were people of color who had hired slaves, not purchased them. Even so, it’s difficult to claim that people who “hired” others from their owners were not profiting participants in the peculiar institution. It has rightly been noted that many black slaveholders were, at least in their intentions, benevolent, but it’s also clear that not all slaves owned by family members—ostensibly sympathetic masters—were treated with much compassion. Benevolent slaveowning in the Northern states is even more difficult to rationalize, since the act of manumission there was less fraught with legal difficulties. Examined in all its variety, the story of black slaveowners gives powerful evidence that slavery was just as complex an institution for them—as they grappled with economic forces and social realities—as it was for whites.

Anthony Johnson and his spiritual descendants remind us that however much we may generalize, the experience of individuals ranges from the heights of human compassion to the depths of profound greed—and all variations therein. As Andrew Durnford wrote in his will, “I also hereby emancipate and order to be emancipated, the boy of my servant Wainy born the 2d of January 1857 and when the Said boy shall be ten years old I hereby give him two thousand dollars to contribute to give Said boy a good education.” The boy, it turns out, wasn’t just anyone: He was Durnford’s son by a slave mistress. Even after death Durnford was looking out for his own. As the planter himself had once put it in a letter to McDonogh, “self interest is al la mode.”