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Some Black History You May Have Missed


February is Black History Month. Following our mission of pointing out the unseen, NRR takes this opportunity to note that freed men of color were vastly more likely to own black slaves than white men:

According to federal census reports, on June 1, 1860 there were nearly 4.5 million Negroes in the United States, with fewer than four million of them living in the southern slaveholding states. Of the blacks residing in the South, 261,988 were not slaves. Of this number, 10,689 lived in New Orleans. The country's leading African American historian, Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, records that in New Orleans over 3,000 free Negroes owned slaves, or 28 percent of the free Negroes in that city.

To return to the census figures quoted above, this 28 percent is certainly impressive when compared to less than 1.4 percent of all American whites and less than 4.8 percent of southern whites. The statistics show that, when free, blacks disproportionately became slave masters.

Googling on this topic retrieves some reports of questionable scholarship. But legitimate sources confirm this almost invisible fact of black history.

For example, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina 1790-1860 reports that according to the 1840 Federal Census (the peak year), there were 454 free blacks in possession of 2,357 slaves in South Carolina.

Or from’s description of Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South:

Born a slave, his experience spans the history of the South from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. In a day when most Americans, black and white, worked the soil, barely scraping together a living, Ellison was a cotton-gin maker—a master craftsman. When nearly all free blacks were destitute, Ellison was wealthy and well-established. He owned a large plantation and more slaves than all but the richest white planters.

The introduction to Black Slaveowners explains:

Although the academic community is fully aware that there were Afro-American slave masters, their existence is not common knowledge among the public. Most Americans, black and white, believe that slavery was a system exclusively maintained by whites to exploit black people. But in fact Afro-americans played a small yet significant role in the annals of the peculiar institution as slave masters. Many black Americans of the antebellum period believed that slavery was a viable economic system and exploited the labor of black people for profit. In Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia, free blacks owned more than 10,000 slaves, according to the Federal Census of 1830.

Blacks appear to have bought slaves for the same reasons as whites: for economic value, to keep kin close, and to free them as an expression of moral virtue.

And now, turn your attention toward a related—and oft-unseen—facet of U.S. history. The First Nations (native people) were major slaveowners, too:

By 1860, the Cherokees had 4,600 slaves; the Choctaws, 2,344; the Creeks, 1,532; the Chickasaws, 975; and the Seminoles, 500. Some Indian slave owners were as harsh and cruel as any white slave master. Indians were often hired to catch runaway slaves; in fact, slave-catching was a lucrative way of life for some Indians, especially the Chickasaws.

Black history, which remains essentially a reaction to slavery, is as murky and complicated as the geneology of our current (allegedly) black President.