Unspoken Reality: Black Slaveholders Prior to the Civil War

Yuliya Tikhomirova and Lucia Desir*

Mercy College


The popular opinion regarding slavery in the United States is that it was a simple matter of racial oppression of blacks by whites. However, the presence of black slaveholders in North America prior to the Civil War shows that slavery was not based solely on color but on economics. Black slave owners, for the most part, were complicities in support of the institution deriving from it wealth and privileges denied to other groups.

In 1944, Trinidadian historian, Eric Williams, wrote "slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro" (1966, p. 5). The same argument can be made for slavery in the United States, for the popular opinion regarding slavery is that it was a simple matter of racial oppression of blacks by whites. However, if this is the case, how then does one account for the presence of black slaveholders in North America before the Civil War? If both blacks and whites owned slaves, can we not assume that slavery was not just a matter of racial hatred? Even if the percentage of black masters was much smaller than that of white masters, does this make insignificant their participation in a system that was cruel and inhumane1? How can this phenomenon be explained? This is a topic that has largely been ignored and which warrants study. This paper is a preliminary examination at the seemingly aberrant circumstance of black slave ownership.

Slavery has been a universal phenomenon throughout human history. In some periods it has flourished with many civilizations climbing to power and grandeur on the backs of slaves, while at other times its scope and economic impact has been less significant. Moreover, slavery is still in existence in our modern world.

Color or "race"2 was not always a determining factor in slave status until the advent of the European Transatlantic Slave Trade. Men, women, and children from all parts of the ancient world were enslaved. Slavery existed in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, in Europe, in Asia, as well as in Africa. Warriors, pirates, and slave dealers were not concerned with the color of the skin or the physical characteristics of their captives. They enslaved both blacks and whites, young and old, poor and rich. A slave could be peasant or patrician, illiterate and unskilled, or someone of technical or professional accomplishments. Thus slaves' social origins as well as skin color and physical characteristics were diverse.

All faiths, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, took part in the trade in slaves during the Middle Ages. Not until the thirteenth century did the Church forbid Christians to trade in Christian slaves, but allowed the traders to continue to engage in the buying and selling of slaves of other faiths (Meltzer, 1993; Kenny, 2001).

The Portuguese explorers and traders of the fifteenth century ushered in the modern era of African bondage. However, up to the 16th century slavery also involved Africans. "Slaves and slavery, without distinction of color, were a recognized and often lucrative part of international commerce in which both Europeans and Africans regarded themselves as equals" (Knight, 1974, p. 187). Moreover, a number of northern Africans, both slaves and free, were present in Spain and Portugal. Some of these were among the first to arrive in the New World accompanying the early Spanish expeditions (Knight, 1974). A Portuguese raid in 1441 on the coast of Senegal brought back black captives as gifts to Prince Henry the Navigator. The Pope "granted, to all of those who shall be engaged in the said war [capturing Africans], complete forgiveness of all their sins" (Meltzer, 1993, p. 1). Thus the traffic in human cargo was sanctified.

Through various means Europeans were able to secure the participation of Africans in the procurement of slaves. In 1491 the Portuguese reached the Bantu people in the Congo and after proper baptism of Chief Nzinga Knuwa, now given the title of John I, engaged his services in supplying slave labor for the Portuguese sugar plantations in the northern coast of Africa. A year later, Columbus reached the New World and instituted a colonization process heavily dependent upon slave labor (Meltzer, 1993). The subsequent profitability of the sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations of the New World required an abundant labor supply, and slaves fulfilled this need.

Africans were not the first to be enslaved. The Portuguese and other Europeans first enslaved the indigenous people living on the Caribbean islands, whom they misnamed Indians. After the Indians, European convicts and others were sent out under various labor arrangements such as indentured servitude and even kidnappings (Williams, 1966). Finally, it was the availability of an abundant supply of labor that could be acquired cheaply from the western coast of Africa that determined the choice of that continent as supplier for the enterprise of colonizing the Americas.

Slavery was not new to Africa (Kenny, 2001; Meltzer, 1993; Franklin, 1988; Berry & Blassingame 1982). Domestic slavery was common practice and an internal trade in slaves had been going on long before the arrival of the Europeans to their continent. The Africans, like other people throughout the world, had practiced slavery since prehistoric times (Baepler, 1999). The medieval Europeans sold slaves even of their own faith or nation, as did the Africans. As early as the 12th century, Africans had toiled as slaves on sugar plantations along the Mediterranean (Knight, 1974). The early Church owned large numbers of slaves. As one historian of the subject has stated, speaking of all those involved in the trade, neither continent was a stranger to the slave trade: Africa as well as Europe had accepted and practiced slavery for a very long time (Meltzer, 1993). It was accepted practice, throughout, to take prisoners in war as well as criminals and force them into domestic service.

Slavery in Africa, however, differed significantly from New World slavery. Meltzer (1993) points out that, "there was, then, fluidity in society that made it possible for a captive to move up the ladder from vassal to free man and even to chief. He was not a man permanently imprisoned in servitude, with little or no hope of liberation" (p. 23). Berry and Blassingame comment, "The condition of servitude did not follow a man or woman as doggedly in Africa as in other societies. Once a bondsman [or bondswoman] obtained his freedom, people would not publicly refer to his slave origin" (1982, p. 6). As time passed, the difference in status between free and slave became less clear. Black captivity in Africa was in no way a yardstick of inferiority, nor was being African synonymous with inferior status.

The first Europeans who ventured down the western coast of Africa did not perceive its inhabitants as natural slaves. The Europeans encountered strong states and strong rulers. Meltzer (1993) observed, "there was no reason for the whites to consider the Africans their inferiors"(p.23). In their encounters with African kings in West Africa, European slave traders were respectful. "They dealt with African merchants as equals, and sometimes took their sons to Europe for education, treating them as members of their own families" (Curtin, 1974, p. 19). In addition, the diplomatic missions creating alliances for the purposes of carrying out trade did not make distinctions in terms of shades of skin.

Modern day bondage has not been confined to blacks. Contradicting the popular belief that race hatred or white racism (Van Deburg, 1984) was the basis for slavery, are the numerous accounts of Christian-Americans held in slavery by North Africans during the time of the European colonization of America. Baeplar's (1999) collection of Barbary captivity narratives recounts the suffering and humiliating conditions suffered by white slaves. Barbary slaves, however, were not born into captivity nor stolen from their homelands. Their captivity resulted in the course of travels while engaging in mercantile or military enterprises. Barbary slavery was not tied to skin color but as Baeplar makes clear, it was the result "of a legacy of mutual hostility between North Africa and the West" (1999, p. xi). In the Americas, it was not until the "end of the eighteenth century, [that] the words 'slaves' and 'Negroes' began to be interchangeable" (Knight, 1974, p. 186).

According to Meltzer (1993) the European immigrants who come to the United States probably share with black Americans a history of ancestors yoked in slavery.. Most of the people, no matter what their color or where in the world they came from, have ancestors who at one time or another were slaves, or who enslaved others. In addition, according to this same author, many were both slaves at one time and masters at another (1993). Popular view to the contrary, slavery was not a system exclusively maintained by whites to exploit blacks.

Perhaps too narrow a view of slavery served to give such a simplistic view of its history. It was the pioneering work of black historians writing between 1913 and the 1940s that helped to shape a more nuanced understanding of slavery and to expand our knowledge about what it was like to be a slave. From historians like Eric Williams from Trinidad, C. L. R. James from Jamaica, Carter G. Woodson, Luther P. Jackson, John H. Russell, John Hope Franklin, James H. Johnston from the United States, among others, we learned that slaves were not just victims but that many found a way to exercise agency over their lives even to the point of becoming slavemasters themselves. These historians were instrumental in "establishing the usefulness and purpose of exploring the black past" (Van Deburg 1984, p. 131). According to Schwartz , 1987, they focused on Black Americans as worthy objects of study instead of imitating the work of white historians who concentrated on slaveholders to the exclusion of blacks. In looking at evidence gleaned from slaves themselves, black historian, John W. Blassingame determined to show "that the Afro-American slave was a multidimensional human being" (Van Deburg, 1984, p. 137).

This new historiography opened up new veins of research. Subjects previously neglected such as family life in the slave quarters (Blassingame) or the differences in slave status (field slaves vs. house slaves) or elite slaves (slave drivers) revealed that slavery was not a monolithic institution and that slaves were more than helpless victims. It was now possible to learn about the life of slaves and blacks in general.

The picture that emerged was one that allowed blacks to be full human beings. Among the things that were uncovered was the capacity of blacks to be as avaricious as whites and to be willing to enslave their own brethren for personal gain. Slave ownership of blacks by blacks dates back to Columbus' arrival. Johnson & Roark (1984) state that blacks accompanied the early explorers as adventurers, sailors, and settlers. Many blacks, like their white counterparts, became landowning farmers and participants in the local affairs of society. A few black masters owned slaves in West Africa and transported their slaves to the New World (Johnson & Roark, 1984). Although such cases were rare, they serve to reaffirm that slavery initially was not based on skin color.

Other black masters were former slaves who were emancipated for meritorious military duty, faithful service, saving a life, and other such reasons (Halliburton, 1976; Koger, 1995). Some slaves were able to buy their freedom and that of their relatives or friends by spending years working on Sundays and doing extra work after their "normal" working hours.

The rights of blacks to own slaves were always a matter of contention and depended upon place and time. In some instances being unable to manumit their loved ones, some black masters were forced to hold their kinsmen and friends as nominal slaves (Koger, 1995). In 1833, a Supreme Court decision settled the matter regarding the rights of free Blacks to own slaves. Judge Daniel speaking for the Court rendered the following decision: "By the laws of this State [North Carolina] a free man of color may own land and hold land and personal property including slaves…." A good number of black slave owners obtained the capital to buy slaves through their own industry and their work as artisans, entrepreneurs, and even as unskilled laborers. Selective manumission, absence of large-scale European immigration to the slave states and long-standing reliance on black slave labor produced a highly skilled free black population that enjoyed a higher economic standing than those in the free states. Some of these free blacks purchased slaves and moved into the planter class (Koger, 1995, p. 88).

Miscegenation was another way for slaves to obtain freedom. According to Koger (1995), "from the early eighteen century until the prohibition of private manumission in 1820, the pattern of interracial intimacy appears to have been the most common means of gaining liberty in South Carolina" (p. 31). The freed slave women and their offspring often received not only their freedom but also slaves. In many instances, the female slaves and their children received their freedom by deeds of manumission. Still in other instances, they had to wait until the death of their owners. Once emancipated, some females continued to live in the household of their former masters, exercising not servant-master roles, but those of a husband and wife.

However, not every freed woman agreed to live with the former master. According to Salzman, Smith, & West (1996), many of them established independent plantations on the land, expanding their economic assets by purchasing slaves. Women slaveholders were in the majority in urban areas. As Vogeler (1997) points out the reason for dominance of black women slave masters can be explained by the fact that the majority of all adult manumission were of females.

Many students of black slaveholding, and even Woodson (1968), who base their findings on United States census figures only, maintain that the dominant slaveholding pattern developed among blacks was benevolent and based primarily on kinship. However, by researching and cross-referencing tax records, bills of sale, mortgages, wills with census records, Koger (1995) paints a different picture of black slaveholding. It seems quite evident that black slaveholding was linked to a kind of "pigmentocracy." He affirms that a survey of the local documents and of the census of 1850 shows 83.1 percent of the black masters were mulattoes and 90 percent of their slaves were of darker skin. To him, this pattern does not support the assertion that black slave ownership was merely benevolent. He further states that because mulattoes primarily married other mulattoes, the black slaves that were owned by light-skinned blacks were rarely kin and were instead overwhelmingly held as laborers. Woodson (1968) holds a contrary view; he reasons that almost all black slave owners purchased slaves to make their lot easier by granting them their freedom for a nominal sum, or by permitting them to work it out on liberal terms. Halliburton (1976), however, notes that the majority of black masters [no mention is made of skin color] never knew the dehumanization of slavery because they had been born of free black parents. In terms of commercialism, there was no distinction between the colored slave masters with 1 or 2 slaves and the large plantation with 100s. Koger (1995) argues that a great many freemen became slave masters themselves for the same reason as whites, to make use of slave labor for the sake of profits. He writes, "by and large, Negro slave owners were darker copies of their white counterparts." His research led him to conclude, "clearly the dominant pattern of the commercial use of slaves recorded in the documents indicates that black slaveholding was primarily an institution based on the exploitation of slaves rather than a benevolent system centered upon kinship or humanitarianism" (p. 101). Some colored masters registered mortgages using their slaves as collateral to secure loans. For many black slaveholders, slaves were merely property to be purchased, sold, or exchanged. The fact that free black men and women owned slaves, beyond the necessity of securing the freedom of a spouse, children, or other dear ones, demonstrates that for some blacks, just as for whites, greed has no boundaries. It is well to keep in mind, however, the vicissitudes of slavery, so that whereas: "there may not have been much objection to the ownership of one's own family by a free Negro; …when one undertook to acquire slaves to improve his economic status, there were those who looked upon it as a dangerous trend, the legality of which was seriously questioned" (Franklin 1995, p. 155). Again, free blacks had rights as long as whites recognized those rights. Those rights could be abrogated at any time. At the beginning of hostilities between North and South, for example, a law was passed in North Carolina "to prevent Negroes from having the control of slaves" (Franklin, 1995, p. 156).

Notwithstanding the uncertainty and volatility in the laws and individual states rules regulating the rights of blacks to own property, those blacks that had slaves for profit had socioeconomic interests in common with white holders of chattel. As many historians reveal, free Negroes who acquired their bonds people the same way they gained their own free status, that is, as gifts of inheritance from white slave owners, were especially likely to have the same socioeconomic interest in their human property as did white slave owners (Schwarz, 1987; Koger, 1995; Clayton, 1993, Vogeler, 1997; Halliburton, 1976). Scholars including Woodson, point out that up to the 1860's, having economic interests in common with the white slaveholders, black owners enjoyed the same social standing: attended the same churches, same private schools, and places of amusement. They frequently lived on the same streets as white families. Slaves represented an important status symbol, but also an inexpensive source of help in the workplace or in the home. Most of the blacks who held slaves solely for profit were farmers or plantation owners (Woodson, 1968).

Throughout the time that slavery was in existence, the kinds of slaves that could be owned changed according to time, place, and prevailing laws. Free black ownership was not too complicated at first. Black slave masters were allowed to own (in addition to blacks) white, Christian, and European Americans (Schwarz, 1987). In Virginia in 1670, the legislature prohibited this "freedom" of ownership of Christian whites by blacks, and in 1723 it sharply curtailed the opportunity for bonds people to be emancipated. The number of free black slaveholders would start to rise again only after legislation in 1782 allowed emancipation by deed or will. According to Schwarz (1987), legal and political conditions changed dramatically by 1806, making it necessary for many free blacks to hold slaves to assure their own continued residence in Virginia. Anxious over the increasing presence of unenslaved and harder to control blacks, legislators decided that future beneficiaries of emancipation would have to leave the commonwealth within twelve months of their change of status or else be reenslaved and sold for the benefit of the poor whites. This forced the former slaves to acquire new skills for doing business on their own, which obliged some of them to buy a work force in the form of slaves (Schwarz, 1987). After 1832, blacks could acquire no more slaves except spouses, children or those gained by descent. The Code of 1849 added parents to these exceptions, but in 1858, "acting in an atmosphere of sectional crisis and perhaps emboldened by the United States Supreme Court's pronouncement against black citizenship in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), the legislature took away what little security free blacks might hope to give to relatives in the future" (Schwarz, 1987, p. 332). Thus black Virginians could no longer buy family members. These changes occurred throughout the United States with some differences by state.

Despite changes in the law, blacks continued to hold slaves through the Civil War. Koger (1995) refers to the fact that "in 1860, some 3,000 blacks owned nearly 20,000 black slaves [in the southern states]. In South Carolina alone, more than 10,000 blacks were owned by black slaveholders." Thus, black slave ownership was dependent upon the prevailing atmosphere of the times. During certain periods and in certain areas blacks had no restriction as far as ownership of property and slaves, in others they were only permitted to own family members. At least in the case of Virginia in 1806, slave owning assured free blacks continued residency and even their own freedom.

Still, black slave owners like their white counterparts were also guided by economic exigencies. Koger (1995) states that black slave owners were not more likely to grant slaves their freedom. Ways of controlling slaves depended on the economic and personal situation of the master. Slave owners, both black and white, faced a difficult economic choice when contemplating manumission. Schwarz (1987) reveals: "Emancipation of slaves might require not only payment of wages to workers who were now free, but also financial guarantees of support in accordance with the law of manumission." He concludes, "No matter what their opinion on the morality of slavery, free blacks had to face these economic factors" (p. 324). According to the Act of 1800 manumission was legal only when a court of magistrates and freeholders completed an investigation of the capacity of the slave to function as a freeperson and then endorsed the deed of manumission (Koger, 1995). Black slaveowners appeared to be no more caring of their brethren than were white slaveowners. Koger (1995, p. 35) writes, "undoubtedly, during the period before the legislation was passed, several masters freed their old, infirm slaves who could no longer be used as laborers, thereby ridding themselves of an added expense."

Black slave masters were no better disposed than whites to providing good treatment to their slaves even in the case of their own family members. Woodson (1968) cites cases of husbands-masters who were not anxious to free their purchased slave-wives. The "benevolent" husbands put their wives on probation for a few years for training/educational purposes. If during this period the woman's behavior was not one acceptable to her husband, she was sold to another master (Woodson, 1968). As one can see, ownership by a black slave master did not always bode well for one who was a woman as well as a slave.

Black slaveholders were no more benevolent than whites in their treatment of slaves. Although many kept their slaves in decent conditions, some were tough and tight-fisted masters. They did not waste money on clothing and fed slaves the cheapest food available, which often accounted for their poor health, and treated them severely to get them to do their duties (Daudert, 1999). In many cases black slaveholders raped, inflicted bites, and withheld food from their slaves. The black masters believed that punishment was a necessary instrument to control their slaves and preserve a sense of authority. Like white slave owners, black masters placed disobedient slaves in the city jail or the workhouse as punishment for their servants. After their slaves were released from the workhouse, it was not unusual for their black masters to give them a flogging for their disobedience (Koger, 1995; Johnson & Roark, 1984; Daudert, 1999). Being owned by a black slave master did not offer any advantages as far as treatment and conditions of servitude. Cruelty was a common tool of social control.

Black slave ownership was not confined to any one region or any one kind of economic enterprise. Many black masters were from the Lower South and engaged in planting large quantities of cotton, rice, and sugar cane and owned a large number of slaves (Koger, 1995). The majority of the large Negro planters lived in Louisiana and planted sugar cane. However, not all black slave owners were planters, nor were they all from the South. Koger (1995, p. 2) refers to the fact that "in 1830 the city of New York had eight black slave owners who owned 17 slaves. The institution of black slave owning was widespread, stretching as far north as New York and as far south as Florida, extending westward into Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri."

Great fortunes were amassed from slave labor and here too color was secondary. According to Salzman, Smith, & West (1996, p. 603), "eight of the wealthiest antebellum black entrepreneurs were slaveholders from Louisiana who owned large cotton and sugar plantations." The trajectory of Marie Metoyer, also known as Coincoin, from daughter of African-born slaves to wealthy slave owner is a case in point. After being granted freedom from her white master, she established an independent plantation in Louisiana, expanding her economic assets by purchasing slaves and additional acreage. Her offspring expanded on her holdings, making them the largest African-American slaveholding family in American history with holdings of 20,000 acres of land and 500 slaves. The widow C. Richards and her son P. C. Richards owned 152 slaves and a large sugar cane plantation. Another black slave magnate with over 100 slaves was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at $264,000, when the mean wealth of southern white men for that year was $3,978 (Grooms, 1997). Grooms points out that in 1830 a fourth of the free black slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves. Moreover, eight of the black slaveholders owned 30 or more slaves. Grooms, citing research from African American historian and Duke University Professor John Hope Franklin, points to the fact that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves, or 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city. Such numbers force one to question the traditional view of black slaveholding in the United States.

Free black ownership of slaves shows that opportunities to make money by exploiting their fellow blacks were available to some free people of color. Urban black businessmen and women in Louisiana owned productive slaves, which allowed them to amass their wealth. CeCee McCarty of New Orleans, a merchant and money broker, accumulated $155,000 from her business activities using her slaves as a traveling sales force. In the same way, namely by using slaves, Albin and Bernard Soulie accumulated over $500,000 as merchants and brokers. Another wealthy black, Francis La Croix, a tailor and real estate speculator and Julien La Croix, a grocer and real estate speculator, reported assets totaling $300,000 and $250,000 respectively (Salzman, Smith, & West, 1996). These black masters seemed to have had no qualms about exploiting the labor of their fellow blacks.

One of the wealthiest free persons of color in the South and wealthier than nine out of ten whites, was a slave who purchased his freedom, William Ellison. He was a cotton gin maker and master craftsman. Johnson & Roark (1984, p. 12) refers to the fact that "Ellison owned a large cotton plantation and more slaves than any other free person of color in the South outside Louisiana [Charleston, 1820-1830s], even more than all but the richest white planters." Ellison was so successful that many of his white competitors went out of business (Johnson & Roark, 1984). Such accounts discredit the impression that whites dealt only with other whites. Where money was involved, it was apparent that neither Ellison's race nor former slave status was of any particular importance.

The most interesting fact in terms of slave ownership is that some blacks, while being slaves, were able to acquire fortunes. Anthony Weston profited significantly from the construction industry, building rice mills and improving the performance of rice-thrashing machines. While a slave, he purchased $40,075 in real estate and slaves in his wife's name, since she was a free black. Being able to amass fortunes while a slave, certainly conflicts with the notion that racism was the original basis for slavery. In the words of Caribbean historian Eric Williams3, "a racial twist has…been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery" (Williams 1966, p. 7).

One can say that black slaveholders were the exception, but so, too, were white ones. According to McGrath (2001, p. 1) "only a small minority of Southern whites owned slaves, little more than five percent of the white population if calculated by individual owner, or some 20 to 25 percent if all members of the slave owners' families are included." This means that 75 percent or more of white Southerners neither owned slaves themselves nor were they members of slave owning families. This is not to imply that black slave owners were equal to their white counterparts in terms of power and control of the system. What seems clear is that black slave owners came to identify with their white counterparts in terms of ownership of slaves to such an extent that they had a vested interest in the system.

Illuminating the complexities of slavery allows us to look at this institution as the product of human invention and not as an aberration, a characteristic of a particular "race." The phenomenon of black slave ownership supports the contention that slavery was not based on color but on economics. Black slave owners, for the most part, were complicitous in support of the institution deriving from it wealth and privileges denied to other groups.

1It is impossible to make general comments about slavery and its practitioners and victims that holds true for all times, peoples and places. The institution of slavery in the United States lasted more than 200 years and its character was dependent upon, among other things, demographic, geographic and economic particularities. Individual personalities and idiosyncracies of slave masters as well as slaves had an effect upon relations that developed between free and enslaved. Slavery was nowhere a monolithic institution. The status of slave was not the same everywhere. At first, individual colonies and subsequently states established their own laws regarding the conduct of the system. Thus, ownership of slaves by free Negroes up to the Civil War was allowed in various places (Genovese , 1974, p. 407). But black slaveownership was an anomaly everywhere. "Freedom was a privilege, not a right; and free blacks could not assume the legal certainty in their property or in their security that whites took for granted" (Huggins, 1977, p. 194).

2The use of quotation marks indicates that while race is a social construct without biological validity it is, nevertheless, of great social consequence.

3For contrary views see: Degler, C. (1959). Slavery and the genesis of American race prejudice. Comparative studies in society and history, 2, 49-67; Jordan, W. D. (1973). White over black: American attitudes toward the negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina


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