Black Slave Owners

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Black Slave Owners

Despite the popularity of the novel The Known World (2003) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones, the phenomenon of slaveholding among African Americans, of black people owning other black people as slaves, has not received widespread attention. However, historians and other scholars have discovered records of slaveholding among blacks dating from the colonial period through the antebellum era. Such records include wills in which black slave owners left slave property to family members or friends; deeds of emancipation required when slave owners manumitted their slaves; bills of sale recording the purchase and sale of slaves; court records detailing suits disputing ownership of slave property; and personal papers referring to slave ownership. Some early historians saw free black slave ownership as positive because it meant that free blacks had the economic and legal ability to own slaves. In general, there were two categories of slaveholding by African Americans: benevolent and commercial.

Benevolent slave ownership among African Americans is characterized by the purchase of relatives or friends. For instance, a free African American woman might purchase her husband in order to remove him from the threat of a cruel master. Or a parent might purchase his or her children for the same reason. Because some state legislatures, such as the 1806 Virginia legislature, required emancipated slaves to leave the state, a woman's continued ownership of her spouse, or a parent's continued ownership of his or her children, was often the only way for a family unit to remain intact within the state. Some free African Americans purchased slaves with the understanding that the enslaved person would then purchase his or her freedom over time in installments. Or a slave might accumulate his or her purchase price through the practice of hiring out and approach a free black person to buy him or her with that money with the understanding that the slave would live as a free person. Thus, these African American owners were not necessarily enslaving people for their labor, but purchasing relatives or friends to keep families together or to help people move out of slavery.

Scholars of African American history argue about whether commercial slaveholding was more or less common than benevolent slaveholding among blacks, but all would agree that there were at least some black slaveholders who held slaves for precisely the same reason as their white counterparts—to earn money.

One of the best documented cases is that of William Ellison, a cotton gin maker from South Carolina. Ellison did not consider himself a black man but a man of color, a mulatto. At a time when the vast majority of blacks in the South were slaves and almost all free blacks were poor, Ellison was one of the wealthiest free persons of color in the South and wealthier than most whites. Ellison owned a large cotton plantation and more slaves than any other free person of color in the South outside of Louisiana, even more than all but the richest white planters. In 1840 Ellison owned thirty slaves. By 1847 Ellison's property grew to 350 acres and thirty-six slaves. And on the eve of the Civil War, he owned sixty-three slaves. His slaves toiled in fields and were trained to make and repair cotton gins. They were unlikely to describe their owner as benevolent.


Johnson, Michael P., and James Roark. Black Masters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.

                               Fay A. Yarbrough