Buying Freedom

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Buying Freedom

As stated by the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1833:

Multitudes of [our free colored brethren] have risen spontaneously from the lowest depths of slavery, have bought their freedom by years of toil, have risen amidst unmeasurable reproach and obloquy to an eminence that has extorted the admiration of their oppressors." (The Abolitionist 1833, p. 124)

Slaves were often allowed to work for people other than their owners, which allowed them to earn income, save money, and purchase their freedom several years later. A North Carolina slave and "fine blacksmith" named Tom was allowed to hire his time out. He eventually bought his freedom circa 1820 "at a price far below his worth; he was a very valuable man" (Wilson 1912, p. 491).

Slaves not only used money earned from hiring themselves out to purchase their own freedom, but they often purchased the freedom of loved ones. A Washington, DC, slave named Sophia Browning, for instance, used the proceeds of her market garden to purchase her husband's freedom for $400. Mrs. Browning's husband subsequently purchased her freedom. In 1818, Alethia Tanner purchased her own freedom for $1,400. Ms. Tanner then bought the freedom of her sister Laurena Cook and five children in 1826.

Even when slave owners demanded prices slaves deemed exorbitant, no price was too high for the right of freedom. In one such case, a slave owner demanded $500 from a slave who wished to purchase his freedom. The slave thought the price too high, "considering he was an elderly man." However:

Shortly afterwards…, he came to his employer again, and said that although he thought his owner was mean to set so high a price upon him, he had been thinking that if he was to be an old man he would rather be his own master, and if he did not live long, his money would not be of any use to him at any rate, and so he had concluded he would make the purchase. (Olmstead 1861–1862, pp. 148-149)

Slaves were also purchased by friends, relatives, sympathizers and abolitionists. Harriet Jacobs, who was ambivalent about the prospect of having her freedom purchased, was one such slave. In her autobiography, Jacobs said:

I received letters from the City of Iniquity, addressed to me under an assumed name. In a few days one came from Mrs. Bruce, informing me that my new master was still searching for me, and that she intended to put an end to this persecution by buying my freedom. I felt grateful for the kindness that prompted this offer, but the idea was not so pleasant to me as might have been expected. The more my mind had become enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to consider myself an article of property; and to pay money to those who had so grievously oppressed me seemed like taking from my sufferings the glory of triumph. I wrote to Mrs. Bruce, thanking her, but saying that being sold from one owner to another seemed too much like slavery; that such a great obligation could not easily be cancelled; and that I preferred to go to my brother in California. (1861, p. 300)

After her freedom was purchased, Jacobs said of the bill of sale given in exchange for payment of her:

I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his. (1861, p. 301)

Jacobs' resentment at being reduced to chattel—even for benevolent purposes—weighed little in comparison to the relief and confidence her new-found freedom had imbued in her. Ms. Jacobs wrote:

I had objected to having my freedom bought, yet I must confess that when it was done I felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from my heavy shoulders. When I rode home in the cars I was no longer afraid to unveil my face and look at people as they passed. (1861, p. 301)

Many former slaves moved to other states after their freedom was purchased, including Moses Grandy who wrote: "I have lived in Boston ever since I bought my freedom, except during the last year, which I have spent at Portland, in the state of Maine" (1844, p. 32). Slaves also moved to the African country of Liberia.

Former slaves who bought their freedom often became quite successful. As Edward Needles stated, for those who

… bought their freedom with the hard-earned fruits of their own industry, the love of liberty often imparts a desire for improvement and a consciousness of their own worth as men, that invigorate all their powers and give energy and dignity to their character as freemen. (1849, pp. 7-8)

After buying his freedom, the North Carolina slave named Tom became so successful that he bought two or three slaves. Paul Cuffee was another successful former slave.

Paul Cuffee was the youngest son of an honest and enterprising African, who was stolen from his home and sold into slavery, near New Bedford, Massachusetts. He purchased his freedom, bought a farm of one hundred acres, and married an Indian woman. Paul was really talented; and having chosen the mercantile profession, he pressed on through innumerable difficulties until he became possessed of competence, and thus able, in some degree, to indulge his benevolent affections. Some idea may be formed of his great mental capability, by the fact that he attained such a knowledge of navigation in two weeks as enabled him to command a vessel in several voyages, which he afterwards made to a number of different ports in the United States, Africa, England, Russia, and the West Indies." (Green 1858, p. 319)

According to an 1869 article in the Cleveland Daily Herald, another slave bought his freedom in 1851 and "working hard, early and late, soon was able to buy his wife. He has been prospering since, and he now owns the finest livery stable and back-stand in the State, and is said to be worth fifty thousand dollars" (July 8, 1869, p. 4) This slave later provided medical care and a home for his former owners when they returned to Richmond after the Civil War. Upon his former master's death, the former slave paid for his funeral, burial and tombstone, and gave his former mistress a home.

Martha Pettiford, another former slave, asked a Mr. Jeptha Dudley to purchase her from her owner and to give her permission to work and pay for herself. Dudley did buy Pettiford and gave her a passport to go where and as she pleased. Pettiford

… Hired herself to captains of large steamers [traveling] between Louisville and New Orleans, and served in the capacity as chambermaid on a number of those steamers for several years, always reserving a certain proportion of her wages for her owner. In due time, and long before the war, she was a free woman (St. Louis Globe-Democrat February 11, 1881, p. 9)

After she purchased her freedom, Pettiford worked as a wet nurse. Pettiford later married and paid $600 for a home. Pettiford lived the rest of her days in that home, and was "liberal in her donations to her children and grandchildren, laid by a certain sum for the dreaded rainy day and won the good opinion of both the white and black people of the community by her exemplary conduct." It was said of Mrs. Pettiford that "[w] hen she dies her race may refer to her history with some pride, and emulating her honesty, industry, economy and regularity of habit, say of her, 'She did not live in vain.'" The same is equally true of the many other slaves who toiled and saved for many years to purchase what should have been free—their freedom.


The Abolitionist, or, Record of the New-England Anti-Slavery Society. Boston: New England Anti-Slavery Society, 1833.

The Daily Cleveland Herald, July 8, 1869; pg. 4; Issue 162; col F.

Grandy, Moses. Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Formerly a Slave in the United States of America. Boston, 1844.

Green, Frances Harriet. Shahmah in Pursuit of Freedom, or, The Branded Hand. New York, 1858.

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston, 1861.

Needles, Edward. Ten Years Progress or, A Comparison of the State and Condition of the Colored People in the City and County of Philadelphia from 1837 to 1847. Philadelphia, 1849.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations On Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States: Based Upon Three Former Volumes of Journeys and Investigations by the Same Author, vol. 1. New York, 1861–1862.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, "Aunt Martha" Incidents in the Life of One Who Bought Her Freedom and Piloted a Judge Through the Milky Way. February 11, 1881. pg. 9, Issue 256, col G.

Wilson, Calvin Dill. Negroes Who Owned Slaves. New York, 1912

                                        Jodi M. Savage