Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"They Are Supposed to Be Lurking about the City": Enslaved Women Runaways in Antebellum Charleston

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"They Are Supposed to Be Lurking about the City": Enslaved Women Runaways in Antebellum Charleston

Article excerpt

BETWEEN 1851 AND 1862, FOUR ENSLAVED FEMALES REPEATEDLY ran away from William R. Taber in Charleston. Trained as cooks, laundresses, and seamstresses, these women took advantage of the unique opportunities available to them in the city to secure employment and refuge, and they evaded capture for years at a time. Emboldened by the value of their marketable skills in a city dependent upon the work of enslaved women, they took ownership of their labor and used it to lead autonomous lives away from their owner. Their actions shed light on the fact that rather than escaping to the North, some enslaved women found freedom in southern cities, where they could assert control over their bodies and labor while maintaining kinship ties.

A mulatto woman with "black hair rather straight and usually oiled and smooth," Celia first ran away from Taber in January 1851 at the age of twenty-two. Taber assumed that she was "harbored in Coming-street, near Morris-street, by some colored people." A "fine seamstress," Celia doubtlessly obtained work to support herself for the four months she was apart from Taber. She ran away again in December 1852 and was presumably caught a short time later. Although Taber described her in a newspaper advertisement as a "short, fat, clumsy looking Mulatto girl... [with a] fat and projecting mouth and nose... bad teeth and not a pleasant face," Celia caught the eye of another slave, fell in love, and ran away in May 1853 to be near her husband, "a fellow named John, belonging to Mr. Blum, in St. Philip street." Since she had become "well known by most of the Policemen" during her previous escapes, Celia applied her skills as a "tailoress and seamstress" to create costumes that disguised her identity. Nearly two years after she escaped, Taber got word that Celia wore "men's clothes when she appears in the streets. " During the time that Celia was away from Taber, she and John had a child and enjoyed a degree of family life together. On June 15, 1855, after Celia had been gone for more than two years, Taber advertised for her one final time on the front page of the Charleston Mercury, offering a reward of one hundred dollars for her capture (see figure 1). It is impossible to determine whether she was caught shortly thereafter or Taber simply tired of the cost of searching for her.* 1

In December 1854, when Celia had been gone for a year and a half, fourteen-year-old Nelly ran away. In an advertisement that ran for less than a month, Taber described the girl as having an "ugly face" but "good height and figure." Taber had purchased her from a tinner in the city, separating the young girl from her family. She undoubtedly tried to reunite with loved ones during her brief escapes. Nelly ran away a second time in the first days of 1856 and was seen "often about the Market." No matter what punishment Nelly faced upon capture, it was not enough to deter thirteen-year-old Cynthia from running away a few months later. She remained on her own for nearly a month, going "frequently about the Market, King-street, and Half Moon Battery. " Taber was particularly unkind in his description of Cynthia, saying in an advertisement that her "lower lip hangs down more than usual" and calling her "a very homely girl." The girl would become a habitual runaway. When she left Taber again three years later, he mentioned her marketable skills and the work experience that would enable her to stay out for the next eight months: "She is a good washer and is supposed to be about Hampstead, or somewhere else in the upper part of the city, and most probably engaged in the yard of some washer, as she has been before." Cynthia ran away again around the age of nineteen and by then had become a "very good Seamstress, Washer and Cook." Employing her extensive artisanal skills to find a job and a place to live, she avoided capture for several months, despite being "seen almost every day about the streets wearing a jockey hat."2

Taber owned another cook, washer, and seamstress named Frances who was ten years older than Cynthia. …

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