DIXIE'S CENSORED SUBJECT -
By Robert M. Grooms
In an 1856 letter to his wife Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee called
slavery "a moral and political evil." Yet he concluded
that black slaves were immeasurably better off here than in Africa,
morally, socially and physically.
The fact is large numbers of free Negroes owned black slaves;
in fact, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in
society at large. In 1860 only a small minority of whites owned
slaves. According to the U.S. census report for that last year
before the Civil War, there were nearly 27 million whites in the
country. Some eight million of them lived in the slaveholding
The census also determined that there were fewer than 385,000
individuals who owned slaves (1). Even if all slaveholders had
been white, that would amount to only 1.4 percent of whites in
the country (or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more
In the rare instances when the ownership of slaves by free Negroes
is acknowledged in the history books, justification centers on
the claim that black slave masters were simply individuals who
purchased the freedom of a spouse or child from a white slaveholder
and had been unable to legally manumit them. Although this did
indeed happen at times, it is a misrepresentation of the majority
of instances, one which is debunked by records of the period on
blacks who owned slaves. These include individuals such as Justus
Angel and Mistress L. Horry, of Colleton District, South Carolina,
who each owned 84 slaves in 1830. In fact, in 1830 a fourth of
the free Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more
slaves; eight owning 30 or more (2).
According to federal census reports, on June 1, 1860 there were
nearly 4.5 million Negroes in the United States, with fewer than
four million of them living in the southern slaveholding states.
Of the blacks residing in the South, 261,988 were not slaves.
Of this number, 10,689 lived in New Orleans. The country's leading
African American historian, Duke University professor John Hope
Franklin, records that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes
owned slaves, or 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city.
To return to the census figures quoted above, this 28 percent
is certainly impressive when compared to less than 1.4 percent
of all American whites and less than 4.8 percent of southern whites.
The statistics show that, when free, blacks disproportionately
became slave masters.
The majority of slaveholders, white and black, owned only one
to five slaves. More often than not, and contrary to a century
and a half of bullwhips-on-tortured-backs propaganda, black and
white masters worked and ate alongside their charges; be it in
house, field or workshop. The few individuals who owned 50 or
more slaves were confined to the top one percent, and have been
defined as slave magnates.
In 1860 there were at least six Negroes in Louisiana who owned
65 or more slaves The largest number, 152 slaves, were owned by
the widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards, who owned a large
sugar cane plantation. Another Negro slave magnate in Louisiana,
with over 100 slaves, was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose
estate was valued at (in 1860 dollars) $264,000 (3). That year,
the mean wealth of southern white men was $3,978 (4).
In Charleston, South Carolina in 1860 125 free Negroes owned
slaves; six of them owning 10 or more. Of the $1.5 million in
taxable property owned by free Negroes in Charleston, more than
$300,000 represented slave holdings (5). In North Carolina 69
free Negroes were slave owners (6).
In 1860 William Ellison was South Carolina's largest Negro slaveowner.
In Black Masters. A Free Family of Color in the Old South, authors
Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roak write a sympathetic account
of Ellison's life. From Ellison's birth as a slave to his death
at 71, the authors attempt to provide justification, based on
their own speculation, as to why a former slave would become a
magnate slave master.
At birth he was given the name April. A common practice among
slaves of the period was to name a child after the day or month
of his or her birth. Between 1800 and 1802 April was purchased
by a white slave-owner named William Ellison. Apprenticed at 12,
he was taught the trades of carpentry, blacksmithing and machining,
as well as how to read, write, cipher and do basic bookkeeping.
On June 8, 1816, William Ellison appeared before a magistrate
(with five local freeholders as supporting witnesses) to gain
permission to free April, now 26 years of age. In 1800 the South
Carolina legislature had set out in detail the procedures for
manumission. To end the practice of freeing unruly slaves of "bad
or depraved" character and those who "from age or infirmity"
were incapacitated, the state required that an owner testify under
oath to the good character of the slave he sought to free. Also
required was evidence of the slave's "ability to gain a livelihood
in an honest way."
Although lawmakers of the time could not envision the incredibly
vast public welfare structures of a later age, these stipulations
became law in order to prevent slaveholders from freeing individuals
who would become a burden on the general public.
Interestingly, considering today's accounts of life under slavery,
authors Johnson and Roak report instances where free Negroes petitioned
to be allowed to become slaves; this because they were unable
to support themselves.
Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (University
Press of Virginia-1995) was written by Ervin L. Jordan Jr., an
African-American and assistant professor and associate curator
of the Special Collections Department, University of Virginia
library. He wrote: "One of the more curious aspects of the
free black existence in Virginia was their ownership of slaves.
Black slave masters owned members of their family and freed them
in their wills. Free blacks were encouraged to sell themselves
into slavery and had the right to choose their owner through a
lengthy court procedure."
In 1816, shortly after his manumission, April moved to Stateburg.
Initially he hired slave workers from local owners. When in 1817
he built a gin for Judge Thomas Watries, he credited the judge
nine dollars "for hire of carpenter George for 12 days."
By 1820 he had purchased two adult males to work in his shop (7).
In fewer than four years after being freed, April demonstrated
that he had no problem perpetuating an institution he had been
released from. He also achieved greater monetary success than
most white people of the period.
On June 20, 1820, April appeared in the Sumter District courthouse
in Sumterville. Described in court papers submitted by his attorney
as a "freed yellow man of about 29 years of age," he
requested a name change because it "would yet greatly advance
his interest as a tradesman." A new name would also "save
him and his children from degradation and contempt which the minds
of some do and will attach to the name April." Because "of
the kindness" of his former master and as a "Mark of
gratitude and respect for him" April asked that his name
be changed to William Ellison. His request was granted.
In time the black Ellison family joined the predominantly white
Episcopalian church. On August 6, 1824 he was allowed to put a
family bench on the first floor, among those of the wealthy white
families. Other blacks, free and slave, and poor whites sat in
the balcony. Another wealthy Negro family would later join the
first floor worshippers.
Between 1822 and the mid-1840s, Ellison gradually built a small
empire, acquiring slaves in increasing numbers. He became one
of South Carolina's major cotton gin manufacturers, selling his
machines as far away as Mississippi. From February 1817 until
the War Between the States commenced, his business advertisements
appeared regularly in newspapers across the state. These included
the Camden Gazette, the Sumter Southern Whig and the Black River
Ellison was so successful, due to his utilization of cheap slave
labor, that many white competitors went out of business. Such
situations discredit impressions that whites dealt only with other
whites. Where money was involved, it was apparent that neither
Ellison's race or former status were considerations.
In his book, Ervin L. Jordan Jr. writes that, as the great conflagration
of 1861-1865 approached: "Free Afro-Virginians were a nascent
black middle class under siege, but several acquired property
before and during the war. Approximately 169 free blacks owned
145,976 acres in the counties of Amelia, Amherst, Isle of Wight,
Nansemond, Prince William and Surry, averaging 870 acres each.
Twenty-rune Petersburg blacks each owned property worth $1,000
and continued to purchase more despite the war."
Jordan offers an example: "Gilbert Hunt, a Richmond ex-slave
blacksmith, owned two slaves, a house valued at $1,376, and $500
in other properties at his death in 1863." Jordan wrote that
"some free black residents of Hampton and Norfolk owned property
of considerable value; 17 black Hamptonians possessed property
worth a total of $15,000. Thirty-six black men paid taxes as heads
of families in Elizabeth City County and were employed as blacksmiths,
bricklayers, fishermen, oystermen and day laborers. In three Norfolk
County parishes 160 blacks owned a total of $41,158 in real estate
and personal property.
The general practice of the period was that plantation owners
would buy seed and equip~ ment on credit and settle their outstanding
accounts when the annual cotton crop was sold. Ellison, like all
free Negroes, could resort to the courts for enforcement of the
terms of contract agreements. Several times Ellison successfully
sued white men for money owed him.
In 1838 Ellison purchased on time 54.5 acres adjoining his original
acreage from one Stephen D. Miller. He moved into a large home
on the property. What made the acquisition notable was that Miller
had served in the South Carolina legislature, both in the U.S.
House of Representatives and the Senate, and while a resident
of Stateburg had been governor of the state. Ellison's next door
neighbor was Dr. W.W. Anderson, master of "Borough House,
a magnificent 18th Century mansion. Anderson's son would win fame
in the War Between the States as General "Fighting Dick"
By 1847 Ellison owned over 350 acres, and more than 900 by 1860.
He raised mostly cotton, with a small acreage set aside for cultivating
foodstuffs to feed his family and slaves. In 1840 he owned 30
slaves, and by 1860 he owned 63. His sons, who lived in homes
on the property, owned an additional nine slaves. They were trained
as gin makers by their father (8). They had spent time in Canada,
where many wealthy American Negroes of the period sent their children
for advanced formal education. Ellison's sons and daughters married
mulattos from Charleston, bringing them to the Ellison plantation
In 1860 Ellison greatly underestimated his worth to tax assessors
at $65,000. Even using this falsely stated figure, this man who
had been a slave 44 years earlier had achieved great financial
success. His wealth outdistanced 90 percent of his white neighbors
in Sumter District. In the entire state, only five percent owned
as much real estate as Ellison. His wealth was 15 times greater
than that of the state's average for whites. And Ellison owned
more slaves than 99 percent of the South's slaveholders.
Although a successful businessman and cotton farmer, Ellison's
major source of income derived from being a "slave breeder."
Slave breeding was looked upon with disgust throughout the South,
and the laws of most southern states forbade the sale of slaves
under the age of 12. In several states it was illegal to sell
inherited slaves (9). Nevertheless, in 1840 Ellison secretly began
While there was subsequent investment return in raising and keeping
young males, females were not productive workers in his factory
or his cotton fields. As a result, except for a few females he
raised to become "breeders," Ellison sold the female
and many of the male children born to his female slaves at an
average price of $400. Ellison had a reputation as a harsh master.
His slaves were said to be the district's worst fed and clothed.
On his property was located a small, windowless building where
he would chain his problem slaves.
As with the slaves of his white counterparts, occasionally Ellison's
slaves ran away. The historians of Sumter District reported that
from time to time Ellison advertised for the return of his runaways.
On at least one occasion Ellison hired the services of a slave
catcher. According to an account by Robert N. Andrews, a white
man who had purchased a small hotel in Stateburg in the 1820s,
Ellison hired him to run down "a valuable slave. Andrews
caught the slave in Belleville, Virginia. He stated: "I was
paid on returning home $77.50 and $74 for expenses.
William Ellison died December 5, 1861. His will stated that his
estate should pass into the joint hands of his free daughter and
his two surviving sons. He bequeathed $500 to the slave daughter
he had sold.
Following in their father's footsteps, the Ellison family actively
supported the Confederacy throughout the war. They converted nearly
their entire plantation to the production of corn, fodder, bacon,
corn shucks and cotton for the Confederate armies. They paid $5,000
in taxes during the war. They also invested more than $9,000 in
Confederate bonds, treasury notes and certificates in addition
to the Confederate currency they held. At the end, all this valuable
paper became worthless.
The younger Ellisons contributed more than farm produce, labor
and money to the Confederate cause. On March 27, 1863 John Wilson
Buckner, William Ellison's oldest grandson, enlisted in the 1st
South Carolina Artillery. Buckner served in the company of Captains
P.P. Galliard and A.H. Boykin, local white men who knew that Buckner
was a Negro. Although it was illegal at the time for a Negro to
formally join the Confederate forces, the Ellison family's prestige
nullified the law in the minds of Buckner's comrades. Buckner
was wounded in action on July 12, 1863. At his funeral in Stateburg
in August, 1895 he was praised by his former Confederate officers
as being a "faithful soldier."
Following the war the Ellison family fortune quickly dwindled.
But many former Negro slave magnates quickly took advantage of
circumstances and benefited by virtue of their race. For example
Antoine Dubuclet, the previously mentioned New Orleans plantation
owner who held more than 100 slaves, became Louisiana state treasurer
during Reconstruction, a post he held from 1868 to 1877 (10).
A truer picture of the Old South, one never presented by the
nation's mind molders, emerges from this account. The American
South had been undergoing structural evolutionary changes far,
far greater than generations of Americans have been led to believe.
In time, within a relatively short time, the obsolete and economically
nonviable institution of slavery would have disappeared. The nation
would have been spared awesome traumas from which it would never
1. The American Negro, Raymond Logan and Irving Cohen New York:
Houghton and Mifflin, 1970), p.72.
2. Black Masters. A Family of Color in the Old South, Michael
P. Johnson and James L. Roak New York: Norton, 1984), p.64.
3. The Forgotten People, Gary Mills (Baton Rouge, 1977); Black
4. Men and Wealth in the US., 1850-1870, Lee Soltow (New Haven,
5. Black Masters, Appendix, Table 7; p.280.
6. Black Masters, p. 62.
7. Information on the Ellison family was obtained from Black
Masters; the number of slaves they owned was gained from U.S.
8. In 1860 South Carolina had only 21 gin makers; Ellison, his
three sons and a grandson account for five of the total.
9. Neither Black Nor White: Slaveiy and Race Relations in Brazil
and the United States, Carl N. Degler (New York, Macmillan, 1971),
p.39; Negro Slavery in Louisiana, Joe Gray Taylor (Baton Rouge,
1963), pp. 4041.
10. Reconstruction, 1863-1877, Eric Foner (New York; Harper &
Row, 1988), p. 47; pp. 353-355.