Many of antebellum Charleston’s free black population owned slaves, and the Brown Fellowship of that city was organized in 1790 by black commercial slaveowners who saw no need to emancipate their black brethren. In 1796, Samuel Holman, a mulatto slave trader from Rio Pongo, West Africa was admitted to that colored society, which preserved the distinction between free persons of color and slaves. On the eve of war in Wilmington, North Carolina, the labor utilized in erecting Dr. John D. Bellamy’s mansion included free black carpenter with slave workers who underbid white carpenters. The latter petitioned the legislature in the mid-1850s to increase the tax on slaves so white workers could find work.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Charleston’s Colored Masters
“Many prominent citizens like Christopher Gustavious Memminger, an influential lawyer and politician of Charleston County, believed that the free black community served a useful role and protected the interest of slaveholders.
Since many of the well-to-do colored persons were slave masters and landholders, the whites concluded that the free black elite would join them in support of the institution of slavery. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the lines were drawn by the free black populace and the views of white supporters of the colored community seemed accurate.
On April 12, 1861 . . . the black masters saw the opportunity to affirm their commitment to South Carolina and sided with the white slaveowners. A group of free blacks from Charleston City, including a number of colored slaveowners, issued the following statement:
“. . . [Our] attachments are with you, our hopes and safety and protection from you . . . our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense, we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”
The sentiments of the Charleston black slaveowners were shared by the black slaveowners of other counties. For example, William Ellison, a cotton planter and the owner of 63 slaves, offered his aid to the Confederate Army in Sumter County.
As the Confederate Army began to make successful advances in the summer of 1862, the black masters continued their farming operations with slave labor. As the war raged on, shortages of meat and other foodstuffs were not the only dilemma faced by the colored masters. Even the wealthiest colored masters could not always purchase clothing for their families and slaves. Quite often the slave masters employed their female slaves to make homespun clothing.
[After 1863, many black masters] sought to liquidate their human chattel . . . before the Union Army forced them to emancipate their slaves. As the war continued to worsen for the Confederacy, other colored masters probably attempted to sell their slave property but could not find a willing buyer because the Union Army was advancing towards South Carolina.
Yet even as the Confederacy was falling into disarray, many of the black masters refused to sell their slaves, while others chose not to grant their servants nominal freedom. As late as 1865, there were 81 colored slave masters who owned 241 slaves in Charleston City. Many of these slaveowners used their slaves as workers and did not intend to emancipate them.
Among the invading troops [at Charleston in early 1865] were the Twenty-first US Colored Troops. When they reached the city, a crowd of jubilant free blacks and slaves greeted the soldiers; but the colored masters of Charleston perceived the invasion as apocalyptic destruction rather than salvation.”
(Black Slaveowners, Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860; Larry Koger, University of South Carolina Press, 1985, excerpts, pp. 189-192)