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Earning a Living as a Free Black in Charleston, South Carolina

South Carolina SC African-Americans Free Blacks in Charleston Earning a Living as a Free Black in Charleston

E. Horace Fitchett observed in his 1940 study of free blacks in Charleston, published in The Journal of Negro History, that early in the eighteenth century continuing into the very early nineteenth century, "there emerged in Charleston a relatively economically independent group of free Negroes." In 1819 they were listed in thirty different occupations, including 11 as carpenters, 10 as tailors, 22 as seamstresses, six as shoemakers, and one as the owner of a hotel. By 1849 there were 50 different types of work listed - including 50 carpenters, 43 tailors, 9 shoemakers, and 21 butchers. By 1860, Charleston's free black men engaged in at least 65 different occupations, although 10 occupations provided employment for almost half of them and 81% of all skilled free black workers.

In spite of the many artisans, one of the most important black jobs was barbering - requiring little capital, the number grew steadily during the antebellum. Berlin, however, observes:
The most common black enterprises were small cookshops and groceries, which usually doubled as saloons and gambling houses where free Negroes, slaves, and occasionally whites gathered.
Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, in their book, No Chariot Let Down: Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War, describe the skill[ed] free blacks as the:
working aristocracy, an aristocracy with callouses. Their wealth was only a fraction of that of Charleston's white aristocrats, and, unlike the white aristocracy, it did not consist of lush tidewater plantations or gangs of slaves. Instead, it was largely in the form of urban real estate, an outgrowth of their quest for economic security.
In spite of their skill and efforts, free black workers still faced many problems in a slave-holding society. For example, Charleston's City Council attempted to fix the wages of free blacks at $1 per day or 12 an hour. In addition, many whites were hostile to the high skill levels of free blacks. While many whites avoided "black jobs," there was increasing competition for jobs by the late antebellum and this increased the hostility of many whites against African-Americans.

In 1848 Charleston enacted a law that required free blacks to obtain and wear a tag - which ironically was decorated with a liberty cap [see example at right].

In Charleston, if not elsewhere, it appears that freedom and especially the aristocracy, was linked with light skin. Johnson and Roark observe that while mulattoes made up only 5% of South Carolina's slaves, they comprised nearly three-quarters of the state's 9,914 free persons of color just before the Civil War. They also note that Charleston's free colored elite was "uniformly brown, even though about a quarter of the city's 3,237 free Negroes were black."

The free brown and black artisans, craftsmen, and tradesmen in 1860 could be divided into three economic groups - the first paid taxes on property ranging in value from $1,000 to $5,000 and had an average of .54 slaves each. The second paid taxes on property ranging in value from $5,000 to $10,000 and owned what averages out to 3 slaves each. The final group - the very wealthiest - paid taxes on property valued at $10,000 to over $40,000 and owned an average of six slaves each. One individual in this class owned as many as 14 slaves.

Where did these slaves owned by other blacks come from? and why? Some authors have remarked that black proprietors, shop owners, and craftsmen were little different from their white counterparts and, when help was needed, they turned to the most available labor supply - African-American slaves. While some purchased family members or friends in order to protect them from the terror of slavery, not all were motivated by humanitarian interests. Fitchett observed that the behavior of at least the brown elite "was a replica of that class in white society which they aspired to be like." More importantly, he explains that:
It is fair to say that the upper caste free Negro served as a custodian of the [white] system. He interrupted plans which the detached, discontented, underprivileged Negroes designed to overthrow or to offend the mores of the system.
The practice of the elite free blacks owning slaves increased the social distance between the two groups and greatly increased slave suspicions of the free group. This was reinforced by the difference in skin colors - while slaves were largely a black group, the free black ranks were dominated by mulattoes. These factors made it much more difficult for the elite free persons of color and freed black slaves to forge a united front after the Civil War. Fitchett observed in 1940 that, "one of the characteristics of the free Negro of Charleston . . . is that it was a class-conscious group; and identified its interest, loyalties, and manners with the upper cast members of the society in so far as that behavior did not offend or disturb the status quo." We shouldn't, however, judge these free blacks harshly. They lived in a hostile society where blacks were assumed to be slaves and freedom was tenuous. Regrettably, this gulf between the "average" free person of color and the "brown elite" has not been well studied by historians or archaeologists.

It's important to remember that more than 75% of Charleston's free African Americans were propertyless and only about one out of six heads of household owned property worth $2,000 or more. There was a broad economic - and likely societal - gulf between Charleston's free black aristocracy and the vast majority of the "free persons of color."
Ira Berlin, in Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, notes that, "while many free Negroes made a comfortable living, most were pushed into dismal poverty, forced to live and work under conditions barely distinguishable from those of the mass of slaves."

Berlin notes that most black women worked at "menial, servile occupations," since Southern cities such as Charleston offered few opportunities for employment of women, regardless of color. He comments that:
Like poor white women, most free Negro women worked as cooks, laundresses, housekeepers, and peddlers. But many more free Negro than white women were forced to work. The social imbalance of the free Negro caste in the cities placed many black women at the head of their household, and even when a man was present, his income was often insufficient to support the family.
This was made a more pressing problem by the disparity in the sexes. In 1861 there were 56 free black men for every 100 free black women.

Since the vast majority of the free persons of color were little better than slaves themselves, many formed strong bonds with the slave community. In particular, Charleston's African Church was especially important for bringing the two groups together.


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