Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston

Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston

Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston

Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston

Synopsis

For black women in antebellum Charleston, freedom was not a static legal category but a fragile and contingent experience. In this deeply researched social history, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers analyzes the ways in which black women in Charleston acquired, defined, and defended their own vision of freedom.

Drawing on legislative and judicial materials, probate data, tax lists, church records, family papers, and more, Myers creates detailed portraits of individual women while exploring how black female Charlestonians sought to create a fuller freedom by improving their financial, social, and legal standing. Examining both those who were officially manumitted and those who lived as free persons but lacked official documentation, Myers reveals that free black women filed lawsuits and petitions, acquired property (including slaves), entered into contracts, paid taxes, earned wages, attended schools, and formed familial alliances with wealthy and powerful men, black and white--all in an effort to solidify and expand their freedom. Never fully free, black women had to depend on their skills of negotiation in a society dedicated to upholding both slavery and patriarchy. Forging Freedom examines the many ways in which Charleston's black women crafted a freedom of their own design instead of accepting the limited existence imagined for them by white Southerners.

Excerpt

Sometime between 1800 and 1820, a black female Charlestonian by the name of Catherine petitioned the South Carolina General Assembly and asked the assemblymen to ratify her freedom. Originally the enslaved laborer of one Peter Catanet, Catherine was sold to a man named Dr. Plumeau for $300, “a sum far below her value,” in order to enable “the wench to purchase her freedom.” Catherine and Dr. Plumeau then entered into a contract, witnessed by Peter and his wife, which stated that Catherine would be manumitted when she had repaid Plumeau her purchase price of $300. Catherine hired herself out and eventually turned over the required sum to Plumeau, but when the good doctor died without mentioning the arrangement in his will, her troubles began.

Upon his death, Plumeau’s beneficiaries claimed to have no knowledge of the contract between Catherine and the deceased and tried to take possession of Catherine, who was already living as a free woman. She, in turn, initiated a lawsuit in the Court of Equity to avoid being returned to slavery. According to the petitions Catherine’s guardian filed on her behalf with the courts and the state legislature, Plumeau “was capable of so despicable a transaction as defrauding this negroe [sic] of her rights.” Plumeau, it seems, had a habit of obtaining “prime slaves” for low prices under false pretenses: he promised the original owner that he intended to free the said servant and then reneged on the deal, thereby defrauding both the original owner and the laborer. Catherine was fortunate that several white witnesses, including her former owner, testified on her behalf. This persuaded the court that enslaved people had the right to enter into a contract as long as they had the permission of their owner. The court thus declared that Catherine’s freedom contract was valid and, since she had fulfilled the terms of said contract, she was legally manumitted. Her freedom was then ratified by the South Carolina General Assembly.

Catherine’s lawsuit is not unique: my research on Charleston uncovered similar legal dramas dating back to the 1790s. Indeed, a steady stream of the city’s black women defended their rights as they perceived them, from the days . . .

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