Thursday, 28 August 2014


                BLACK          SOCIAL       HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

 Did Black People Own Slaves?

Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root,
One of the most vexing questions in African-American history is whether free African Americans themselves owned slaves. The short answer to this question, as you might suspect, is yes, of course; some free black people in this country bought and sold other black people, and did so at least since 1654, continuing to do so right through the Civil War. For me, the really fascinating questions about black slave-owning are how many black “masters” were involved, how many slaves did they own and why did they own slaves?
The answers to these questions are complex, and historians have been arguing for some time over whether free blacks purchased family members as slaves in order to protect them—motivated, on the one hand, by benevolence and philanthropy, as historian Carter G. Woodson put it, or whether, on the other hand, they purchased other black people “as an act of exploitation,” primarily to exploit their free labor for profit, just as white slave owners did. The evidence shows that, unfortunately, both things are true. {snip}
In a fascinating essay reviewing this controversy, R. Halliburton shows that free black people have owned slaves “in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery,” at least since Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary went to court in Virginia in 1654 to obtain the services of their indentured servant, a black man, John Castor, for life.
And for a time, free black people could even “own” the services of white indentured servants in Virginia as well. Free blacks owned slaves in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783; by 1790, 48 black people in Maryland owned 143 slaves. One particularly notorious black Maryland farmer named Nat Butler “regularly purchased and sold Negroes for the Southern trade,” Halliburton wrote.
Perhaps the most insidious or desperate attempt to defend the right of black people to own slaves was the statement made on the eve of the Civil War by a group of free people of color in New Orleans, offering their services to the Confederacy, in part because they were fearful for their own enslavement: “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 defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana … They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815.”
These guys were, to put it bluntly, opportunists par excellence: As Noah Andre Trudeau and James G. Hollandsworth Jr. explain, once the war broke out, some of these same black men formed 14 companies of a militia composed of 440 men and were organized by the governor in May 1861 into “the Native Guards, Louisiana,” swearing to fight to defend the Confederacy. Although given no combat role, the Guards—reaching a peak of 1,000 volunteers—became the first Civil War unit to appoint black officers.
When New Orleans fell in late April 1862 to the Union, about 10 percent of these men, not missing a beat, now formed the Native Guard/Corps d’Afrique to defend the Union. {snip}
So what do the actual numbers of black slave owners and their slaves tell us? In 1830, the year most carefully studied by Carter G. Woodson, about 13.7 percent (319,599) of the black population was free. Of these, 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves, out of a total of 2,009,043 slaves owned in the entire United States, so the numbers of slaves owned by black people over all was quite small by comparison with the number owned by white people. {snip}
{snip} So why did these free black people own these slaves?
It is reasonable to assume that the 42 percent of the free black slave owners who owned just one slave probably owned a family member to protect that person, as did many of the other black slave owners who owned only slightly larger numbers of slaves. {snip}
{snip} Halliburton concludes, after examining the evidence, that “it would be a serious mistake to automatically assume that free blacks owned their spouse or children only for benevolent purposes.” {snip} In other words, most black slave owners probably owned family members to protect them, but far too many turned to slavery to exploit the labor of other black people for profit.
If we were compiling a “Rogues Gallery of Black History,” the following free black slaveholders would be in it:
John Carruthers Stanly—born a slave in Craven County, N.C., the son of an Igbo mother and her master, John Wright Stanly—became an extraordinarily successful barber and speculator in real estate in New Bern. As Loren Schweninger points out in Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, by the early 1820s, Stanly owned three plantations and 163 slaves, and even hired three white overseers to manage his property! He fathered six children with a slave woman named Kitty, and he eventually freed them. Stanly lost his estate when a loan for $14,962 he had co-signed with his white half brother, John, came due. After his brother’s stroke, the loan was Stanly’s sole responsibility, and he was unable to pay it.
Antoine Dubuclet and his wife Claire Pollard owned more than 70 slaves in Iberville Parish when they married. According to Thomas Clarkin, by 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, they owned 100 slaves, worth $94,700. During Reconstruction, he became the state’s first black treasurer, serving between 1868 and 1878.
Andrew Durnford was a sugar planter and a physician who owned the St. Rosalie plantation, 33 miles south of New Orleans. In the late 1820s, David O. Whitten tells us, he paid $7,000 for seven male slaves, five females and two children. He traveled all the way to Virginia in the 1830s and purchased 24 more. Eventually, he would own 77 slaves. When a fellow Creole slave owner liberated 85 of his slaves and shipped them off to Liberia, Durnford commented that he couldn’t do that, because “self interest is too strongly rooted in the bosom of all that breathes the American atmosphere.”

Most of us will find the news that some black people bought and sold other black people for profit quite distressing, as well we should. But given the long history of class divisions in the black community, which Martin R. Delany as early as the 1850s described as “a nation within a nation,” and given the role of African elites in the long history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps we should not be surprised that we can find examples throughout black history of just about every sort of human behavior, from the most noble to the most heinous, that we find in any other people’s history.
The good news, scholars agree, is that by 1860 the number of free blacks owning slaves had markedly decreased from 1830. In fact, Loren Schweninger concludes that by the eve of the Civil War, “the phenomenon of free blacks owning slaves had nearly disappeared” in the Upper South, even if it had not in places such as Louisiana in the Lower South. {snip}