What do you mean, they owned slaves?

In the previous post, I mentioned one thing that made the members of the mixed-race Gibson family “not Negroes” in the eyes of South Carolina’s Governor: the fact that they owned slaves.   Friends to whom I mention this fact sometimes react with shock and disbelief.  How could people whose ancestors had been subject to the evil of slavery inflict such degradation on other people of their own race?

Apparently, it wasn’t difficult.  Slave ownership was common among the small group of prosperous free African Americans, from the time of the the first captured Africans right up to the Civil War.  For most of the first century of settlement, the most important social distinction was not between white and black, but between free and enslaved.   White indentured servants were treated as harshly as slaves during the period of their indenture.  The children of white women and black men, even if they were “bound out” until adulthood, eventually passed into freedom.

By the beginning of the 18th century mixed-race people like the Gibsons, who had been free and acculturated for generations, did not feel any strong sense of kinship with the newly arrived African slaves.  In spite of Virginia’s increasingly restrictive laws, and the increasingly close identification of dark skin with slave status, they fought to see themselves, and to be seen by others, as free people rather than as black.  In order to succeed economically in a slave society, they made use of whatever means were available to them, without questioning the justice of the system any more than their white neighbors did.

The farther you went towards the frontier, the easier it was to establish your status on the basis of wealth and respectability.  Intermarriage between white and free black people was more common in border areas, where traditional social restrictions were less strong, and after one or two generations color lines were often blurred.  During South Carolina’s Regulator Rebellion it was suggested that one way to cripple the uprising would be to declare its leader, Gideon Gibson, a Negro, making him subject to  the “Negro Act” of 1740, which provided  for summary execution in cases of slave rebellion.  The motion was defeated in the Assembly after Henry Laurens, a prominent slave trader,  argued that Gibson was in fact whiter than many members of the Assembly.

In South Carolina race was determined, when necessary, by a combination of your skin color and your standing in the community.  As the 18th century went on, that determination became more and more important, as free people who were identified as “Negro” became subject to extra taxes and other harsh restrictions, including the inability to testify against whites in court.  “A man of worth,” wrote one judge, “should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond with the same degree of admixture should be confined to the inferior caste.”  And what better way to prove your worth, and to demonstrate your allegiance to the white community,  than by ownership of slaves?

It was left to the 19th century to shut that door.

Further reading: Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South,  a very readable book by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, follows one family of black slaveowners over the course of several generations.

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