The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

By Dylan C. Penningroth | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
Slavery’s Other Economy

September 30, 1799, was Denmark Vesey’s lucky day. Just as thousands of middling and poor people did sometimes, he bought a ticket for one of Charleston’s lotteries; like everyone else, he probably put it in his pocket and barely gave it a second thought. But thirty-nine days and several drawings later, number 1884 came up and lottery commissioners promptly put $1,500 into Denmark Vesey’s hands. His master and mistress drove a hard bargain, but when he paid them their price, they signed his freedom papers without any fuss.1 Denmark Vesey led an extraordinary life—after all, he not only won the lottery, he also was accused of plotting the biggest slave insurrection in American history. But there is something in the mundane details of his otherwise unusual life that raises a fascinating question about American slavery, and about southern society as a whole: why did the lottery pay $1,500 to a slave?

The “cardinal principle of slavery,” according to one 1827 summary of southern law, was “that the slave is to be regarded as a thing,—is an article of property,—a chattel personal.”2 Because they were property, slaves could not legally own property. A slave could “acquire and hold personal property” but only “by the consent of his master,”3 who granted it as a “favor.”4 In the eyes of the law, “[w]hatever he [the slave] may accumulate by his own labor becomes immediately the property of his master.”5

Yet Denmark Vesey was not the first enslaved American to own property,

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