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Free Persons of Color in Charleston Before the Civil War

South Carolina SC African-Americans Free Blacks in Charleston Before the Civil War

Charleston SC Free Blacks – Where They Came From, How They Obtained Freedom

Since many urban slaves were allowed to hire their time out, some saved sufficient sums to purchase their own freedom. Charleston, as one of the busiest seaports in the region, was a focal point for blacks immigrating to the region. A few were even granted their freedom for service to the state or their local community. For example, Moses Irvin received his freedom for his service to General Francis Marion, South Carolina's Swamp Fox, during the American Revolution. Another, unnamed slave, was immediately freed for saving Charleston from a huge fire. And, of course, children of freed slaves were also free persons of color.

Most free blacks, however, gained their freedom by the last will and testament of their owners. Sometimes "faithful service" was rewarded by freedom after the master's death. Often masters freed their mistresses and illicit offspring. The historic documents are full of such situations and the impact of slave owners siring children by slave mothers is clearly seen in the demographics of the free black population. By 1860, fully three-quarters of the free black residents of Charleston were mulattoes.

At first, it was fairly easy for masters to emancipate slaves. But slowly this changed. Remember that society not only accepted slavery, it even thought that it was a positive good. Consequently, free blacks became viewed as increasingly odd. In 1800, in an effort to reduce the number of blacks freed by their masters, the state required that candidates for manumission prove their capacity for self-support before a court. In 1820 it became even more restricted and a law was passed that allowed slaves to be emancipated only by an act of the legislature. It also forbade free blacks from immigrating to South Carolina, and those already in the State had their rights of movement severely restricted.

©1997 by Chicora Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transcribed in any form without permission of Chicora Foundation, Inc except for brief quotations used in reviews.


A Demographic Overview
Before the Civil War
Earning A Living as a Free Black
Where Free Blacks Lived
Free Blacks During the Civil War
Exploring Free Persons of Color
More Information
The Chicora Foundation


Understanding Slavery
Free Blacks in Charleston
Preserving Black Cemeteries
Mitchelville Experiment
Quash Stevens Letters