America’s Black Slave Owners

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Slavery, the original sin of the American nation, has long been a stain on our land’s storied history.

In 2017, it’s hard to imagine that the original authors to the words that declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” believed it was acceptable for one human being to own another; unfortunately, they did.

Thanks to our upbringing, slavery is simply one of those things that we’ll never understand, and it should be that way.  It was indeed a peculiar and evil institution.

With this being said, it is intriguing to realize just how little we actually do know about slavery in the American South.  And there are few aspects of this wicked system more overlooked and forgotten than the reality that in several instances, African-Americans owned black slaves in America’s Deep South.

According to the Internet rumor detecting website Snopes.com, the statement, “In 1830 there were 3,775 free black people who owned 12,740 black slaves” is “approximately true”.

“According to historian R. Halliburton Jr.: ‘There were approximately 319,599 free blacks in the United States in 1830. Approximately 13.7 per cent of the total black population was free. A significant number of these free blacks were the owners of slaves. The census of 1830 lists 3,775 free Negroes who owned a total of 12,760 slaves.'”

If you received the same type of education I did, coming face to face with the above reality will almost have you falling out of your chair…  In 1830, nearly 4,000 free blacks owned nearly 13,000 black slaves?  How could this be?  Who were these black slave owners and how were they able to own slaves?

Though we do not know the stories of all 3,775 black slave owners, we do know the life’s stories of several of them, including William Ellison, a machinist, and blacksmith in South Carolina.

Given the name “April” by his slave owner at the time of his birth around the year 1790, William Ellison, was born into slavery on a plantation near Winnsboro, South Carolina.

At the age of 10, April apprenticed to a cotton gin maker, William McCreight of Winnsboro. This would provide him with a valuable, highly skilled trade to make a living as an adult. Cotton gins were in demand throughout the South and having the opportunity to learn how to make the machine would prove to be an invaluable wealth of knowledge.

After six years, April completed his apprenticeship and continued to work at the shop as a hired hand, with his earnings going to his master — April was a slave who was “hired out.”

Ellison, however, was somehow able to earn additional money thanks to his exceptional mechanical knowledge, and ultimately was successful in purchasing his own freedom on June 8, 1816, at the age of 26.

According to an 1800 law, five free men had to appear with his master in court to attest to April’s ability to support himself in freedom.  On that date, April took the name of his former master and became William Ellison, Jr.

After purchasing his freedom, April continued to work in the shop, learning the trade of a blacksmith.

In the years ahead, Ellison would one by one buy his family out of slavery.  First his wife (so that their future children were born free) and then his children.

In 1817, Ellison moved to Sumter County, South Carolina, where he launched his own cotton gin factory. At first he paid for the labor of slave artisans who had been “hired out” by their masters. Within two years, however, he had purchased two artisan slaves to work in his shop. By 1830 he held four artisan slaves.

By 1840 he held a total of 8 slaves who worked in his cotton gin business. They were both skilled and unskilled, as the latter cut wood from his land for the gins. By the 1850s, he also operated a blacksmith shop with artisan slaves.

Eventually, Ellison earned enough money to purchase land: starting with more than 50 acres and by 1850 he had increased his holdings to 386 acres and established his own cotton plantation. By that time, he owned 32 slaves.

The Ellison family joined the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg. As a mark of his status, on August 6, 1824, William Ellison was the first free person of color to install a family bench on the first floor of the church, which was usually reserved for wealthy white families who could afford to pay for a bench.

In 1852, Ellison bought Keith Hill and Hickory Hill plantations, bringing his total of land holdings to more than 1,000 acres. He gave each of his sons part of the properties, as they were all working with him in his business. In 1850 the sons each held slave women who worked as domestic servants for their families.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, in 1861, Ellison offered labor from his 53 slaves to the Confederate Army. He converted his cotton plantation to mixed crops to supply food to the cause. His sons also supported the Confederacy and tried to enlist, but were refused because of their race.  They donated money, and bought Confederate bonds; with defeat, these bonds became worthless and they lost their investments, becoming destitute by the end of the war like many formerly successful whites.

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