Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Were African American Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploitative? A Quantitative Approach

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Were African American Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploitative? A Quantitative Approach

Article excerpt

THE OWNERSHIP OF AFRICAN AMERICAN SLAVES BY OTHER AFRICAN Americans was surely one of the most peculiar features of the peculiar institution. Yet, in the antebellum South free black people did indeed own enslaved black people. Why that was so has been a matter of dispute. Most historians have emphasized benevolence as the motivation for slaveholding by blacks, but others have emphasized exploitation. This paper seeks to contribute to that debate using a quantitative approach, drawing upon census data in order to investigate the extent to which the pattern of slaveholding by blacks was or was not similar to that of slaveholding by whites.

The first scholar to make an intensive study of black slaveholders was Carter G. Woodson, the pioneering African American historian. In his 1924 book Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, Woodson wrote that most black slave owners acquired their slave property to preserve family ties. For example, a husband who was born or had managed to become free might buy his wife from the white person who owned her. The husband would thereafter possess his spouse as a slave, not because he wished to keep her in bondage but because the laws of the slave states often made manumission difficult or impossible. Thus African Americans held other African Americans in a kind of pseudo-slavery rather than in genuine servitude, and the owners' motivation for possessing their slave property was benevolent rather than exploitative. Woodson did acknowledge that there were black slaveholders who bought slaves for the same reason that whites did--to gain economic advantage from their forced labor--but he believed that such exploitation of blacks by blacks was relatively rare, as "the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy." (1)

Woodson's claim appears plausible, for there were indeed many impediments to manumission in the South--and thus many reasons for blacks to own relatives and loved ones rather than to buy them and then simply set them free. In 1830 a master who wished to emancipate a slave could do so without significant legal constraint only in the states of Maryland and Missouri and in the Arkansas Territory. Everywhere else there were barriers. In Delaware and Kentucky, the master had to post a bond in order to ensure that the freed slave would not become a public charge. Virginia demanded that all slaves who were freed must either move out of the state within a year or be re-enslaved. North Carolina allowed manumission only as a reward for meritorious service and by permission of a county court. Tennessee had a procedure similar to North Carolina's but allowed its courts more discretion. In South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, slaves usually could be emancipated only by a special act of the legislature, which was not easily obtained. Alabama, for example, freed an average of only twenty slaves a year between 1819 and 1829. Florida Territory prohibited manumission altogether until 1829 and thereafter required removal from the territory within thirty days. (2)

Moreover, even if the legal hurdles could be surmounted, obtaining freedom was not necessarily advantageous to an African American who wanted to remain in the South. Many oppressive laws and regulations applied not only to slaves but also to free blacks. In most states, they could neither vote nor testify in court against whites, they were forbidden to own guns, their freedom of movement was regulated by patrols, and they could be whipped for being disrespectful to whites. In 1829 Georgia made it a criminal offense to teach free blacks to read and write. (3) Furthermore, both state and local authorities often saddled free blacks with additional burdens that did not apply to slaves or to whites. Free blacks were required to register annually and to pay a fee to do so. They were banned from practicing certain trades and were required to purchase expensive badges and licenses in order to engage in others. …

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