ELLISON, WILLIAM (1790–1861), South Carolina, cotton gin maker, repairer, planter.
Born in Fairfield District, South Carolina, and originally named April, by his death, William Ellison was one of the richest African Americans in the South, perhaps the richest outside Louisiana. According to the 1860 census, his assets amounted to $68,000. At that time he owned 63 slaves, some 800 acres of land, and a thriving cotton gin business. After his death Ellison’s family made a considerable fortune selling provisions to the Confederate government, suggesting that the family at that point was more southern than black.
Ellison’s mother was an unknown slave, and his father was either William Ellison or his son Robert, both white planters. In 1802 William Ellison apprenticed him to a master ginwright, William McCreight, with whom he worked until 1816, when he purchased his freedom from William Ellison and moved to Stateburg, in the Sumter District of South Carolina. In 1817, he purchased the freedom of his wife Matilda (d. 1850) and a daughter Eliza Ann. Ellison had four other children. His daughter Maria (b. 1815) remained a slave throughout Ellison’s life, although he purchased her in 1830. Manumission was difficult, requiring special permission from the state assembly, and manumitted slaves were required to leave the state, unless special permission was obtained from the legislature. Maria, however, lived as a free black in fact if not in law.
Ellison established himself as a cotton gin repairer and manufacturer soon after his manumission and achieved great success. By 1820 he owned two male slave artisans. In 1822 he spent the exorbitant sum of $375 to purchase an acre of land on a crossroads location where he founded a cotton gin manufacturing