2004-2005 Broadcast Season
Broadcast Program Transcripts
Black Slave Owners & Free Slaves
Brown: Natalie Bullock Brown, host
Schweninger: Dr. Loren Schweninger, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Speller: Dr. Ben Speller, President, Historic Hope Foundation
Wood: Peter Wood, Duke University
Marshall: Patricia Phillips Marshall, North Carolina Museum of History
Brown: During the 300 year period of slavery in America, was there such a thing as an empowered slave? We’ll talk about free blacks, artisans, and black slave owners, next on Black Issues Forum.
Voiceover: Funding for this program was made possible in part by UNC-TV members.
Brown: Good evening and welcome to Black Issues Forum. I’m Natalie Bullock Brown. From time to time, within conversations about slavery in America, the issue of free blacks and those who actually owned slaves themselves comes up. And the very existence of free blacks and black slave owners calls into question the idea of empowerment, a concept that is rarely used to identify blacks who lived during the oppression of slavery. Yet there were a small handful of those who were free; those who owned slaves, and those who may have been otherwise empowered through their own enterprise and skill. Now for some in the scholarly community, to emphasize the existence of free blacks upsets efforts to expose and emphasize the true horrors and oppression of slavery. In tonight’s discussion, we’ll address that concern and examine the facts with two North Carolina scholars. But right now let’s take a look at a story about a North Carolinian who embodied all three concepts: Thomas Day was a free black during slavery, owned slaves, and demonstrated his skill as a craftsman and entrepreneur through the art of furniture making.
Wood: Thomas Day is an interesting case because he was born to free parents in southern Virginia, probably mixed race, moved to North Carolina. He’s born at exactly the same time, around the turn of the century, that Nat Turner is born, also in southern Virginia in a slave family. So they are fascinating parallel biographies, that Turner becomes the most violent of revolutionaries and resisting the system, whereas Day floats within it, is not pleased by it, I mean, is a free black in a relatively privileged status compared to those around him, but never, ever fully accommodates to the system. For someone in North Carolina who was not white and who was technically free, maintaining that freedom was a constant chore and a constant challenge, and you could be pulled back into slavery. Sometimes you had to, in the cities you actually had to carry identification papers, there were curfews, you were regulated, you were watched, and your behavior was monitored.
Voiceover: Historians believe that Thomas Day’s father, a moderately successful cabinetmaker, trained his two sons in his craft. Thomas, the younger son, established himself as an able and successful cabinetmaker in Hillsborough while his brother John set up shop in Milton, North Carolina, near Yanceyville. In the early 1820s, Thomas moved to Milton to take over the woodshop his brother would eventually leave to pursue missionary work in Africa.
Marshall: Milton was a very attractive place in the 1820s. I mean, we can go there and say it’s a maybe a one or a two stoplight town now. But Milton was situated very conveniently close to the Dan River which was the main artery of transportation along the North Carolina/Virginia border. So it was also a center of the tobacco trade. The North Carolina General Assembly had designated it a place where people could bring in their tobacco to be graded and traded and it attracted tobacco farmers, it attracted other types of plantation owners. It attracted other tradesmen and craftsmen, as well. So the town was a magnet for maybe a six county area including the counties that were on the other side of the border in Virginia.
Voiceover: As North Carolina began to undergo a great deal of expansion in the first half of the 19the century, and plantation owners began to earn money off of the slavery system, people desired better furniture in their homes. Thomas Day was not only ready and willing to supply custom furniture to the wealthy but he was able to use the advances made possible by the Industrial Revolution.
Wood: He’s getting hold of better tools and he’s able to even follow certain blueprints, if you will, you know, it’s the beginning of, he’s part of the beginning of the North Carolina furniture industry, you know, of really of making things to please a great many people. So some of it was, I don’t want to say mass produced, but he had a group of people, enslaved workers, working with him, whether you can really call him a slave owner or whether he’ simply protecting black workers and operating within the system, anyway he has quite a little operation going in Milton.
Voiceover: Though Thomas day is widely known as a slave holder, debate still exists over his motivation for owning them.
Marshall: Thomas Day’s slave holdings is, I think, one of the hardest things for us today to understand is how someone of the same race can hold someone of their own race in bondage.
Wood: There’s no question that he was a slave owner in some technical sense of the term but that is to say there were blacks who worked for him and were listed as slaves. But that’s a very knotty problem as to what was really going on there. He would have been in trouble probably if he’d been employing a free work force. So it may well be that he’s covering for these people, if you wan to use that phrase, you know, that they’re working for him. They’re getting fed. They are part of this operation. But he certainly wouldn’t have been punishing them and exploiting them in the same ways that a white master would have been.
Brown: We’re talking about empowered slaves on Black Issues Forum tonight and right now I’d like to introduce our guests. Dr. Loren Schweninger is the Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is the director of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project. He has co-authored a book with John Hope Franklin due out in the summer of 2005 entitled In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South.
We also have Dr. Ben Speller, a historic preservationist specializing in the interpretation of the African American experience in plantation life and President of the Historic Hope Foundation in Windsor, North Carolina. Welcome to both of you.
Let’s start off by trying to understand what this whole issue of free blacks is about. How did most free blacks in North Carolina attain their status and I’ll start with you Dr. Schweninger.
Schweninger: There were a variety of means by will and deed and legislative act from the North Carolina General Assembly. You could be freed by your owner. If you were a free person of color and had been freed, if you were a mother of a child, that child would automatically be free because the status of the child took the status of the mother. A slave mother would have a slave child. There were, in North Carolina, Quakers, who freed slaves fairly regularly at least until the 1820s and 1830s. You could gain your freedom by being purchased out of slavery by relatives. A relative could buy you and take you into the family. A mother, a daughter, who was free could buy a mother or a daughter or son.
Brown: How often did that happen?
Schweninger: In North Carolina that was not common but in other states it was more common. Nonetheless, a number of free people of color purchased a loved one, purchased children. Amelia Green in Craven County, for example, was a slave herself who gained her freedom and then was able to purchase two of her daughters out of slavery, Princess and Nancy Green were both purchased by their mother in the 1790s. There was also the ability of some slaves to hire their own time if they were specially skilled and had special talents. And they could save some of their earnings. Their owners permitted them to do this and they could buy themselves out of slavery. This, too, was not common but it did happen. And then lastly, if you ran away, you just left the plantation, and in North Carolina it was very difficult for runaways to mix in a town or a city or to try to blend in because it was such a rural state and so many of the free blacks were in rural areas and everybody knew everybody so it was very difficult, but some runaway slaves made it to Wilmington or made it to Raleigh or made it to even Edenton, though most people in those towns would know who you were and so it was very difficult. But in various ways free black slaves gained their freedom.
Brown: Great. Dr. Speller, let me get you in this conversation and ask you: what did it mean to be a free black? I mean, once you were free, how was your life affected socially, economically, and otherwise?
Speller: That would depend on how you got into North Carolina, the status you had in the community, the skills and so forth that you brought. And like most situations, it was the value that the general public, be it black or white, would have for you there. I’m from eastern North Carolina and most of the slaves that came in free, slaves free and black, that came into the area, came from Virginia. And as was just mentioned, many of them were given their freedom. A large group that came into Warren County, were there because there was a controversy in Virginia because by that time, by the 1790s, in those areas there was concern about race and so forth and the fact that the number of free blacks were increasing because they were being left plantations and so forth in Virginia. There were several families where there were no legal heirs, that is, they had no issue. They would leave the plantation and their properties to the slaves that had been with them for quite a while. Usually in those cases it would be no more than three or four or five well trusted slaves that had been with them 20 or 30 years. So they were welcome into Chowan County into what is now Chowan County, Bertie County, Halifax, Northampton, and so forth and those are the areas where you found a large number of free blacks.
Brown: So if you had, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but if you had a particular skill that was of value to the community that you found yourself in as a free black, then you might have a better life, let’s say, than someone who didn’t necessarily have a skill but yet was free. Is that true?
Speller: Yes, if you were a carpenter, a blacksmith, and also met some of the other skills and so forth that were needed, a lot of what we would call now exceptions were made for you regardless of whether you were free or a black African American.
Brown: Dr. Schweninger, you mentioned that some free blacks were able to buy their relatives out of slavery which brings to my mind the question of black slave owners and how did that even come about? I mean, how was someone like Thomas Day or any other black slave owner able to own slaves?
Schweninger: First, there were no laws in North Carolina history that prohibited free blacks from owning slaves, nor were there any statutes that prohibited free people of color from owning real estate. So if you were skilled, as Dr. Speller had suggested, or if you had been given certain monetary, made certain monetary arrangements with your former owner who had freed you and given you some property or some money, you could keep that as a free person of color. And some of those who became landowners and some of those who became property owners looked to slaves to work for them just as whites looked to slaves to work for them. In North Carolina the number of free blacks who owned slaves was very, very small. And we have fairly good statistics from 1830 that suggest about 191 free black slaveholders owned about 650 slaves in North Carolina. Now that was when you consider in 1830 there were 20,000 free blacks and 250,000 slaves in North Carolina, the number who owned, free black slave owners was tiny. In other parts of the South, that was not the case. In Louisiana and in South Carolina there were contingents of free people of color, mostly people with mixed racial origin, who had been helped by their white fathers, who were given slaves at a young age and owned large numbers of slaves. I should add here, though, that though the number of free black slave owners in North Carolina was very small, North Carolina had the free black who owned more slaves than any other free black in the South. John Carruthers Stanley, who was from New Bern, Craven County, who was the son of an African Ebo woman and a white merchant shipper, John Wright Stanley, and was born on the eve of the American Revolution, and was freed by a friend of his father, and Carruthers was their name and he took the middle name, Caruthers, purchased, he was a barber. He as given some property to begin with and then he began purchasing slaves. And in the teens and twenties, he acquired 163 slaves. He was born a slave, a free black, and he was one of the largest slaveholders in North Carolina—white or black—in the entire state. So there were free black slaveholders. He was highly unusual, and compared with other states in the South, even there, even in Louisiana and South Carolina, there were no slaveholders that owned that many slaves.
Brown: Well, Dr, Speller, even those this particular slave owner in North Carolina who was black, who owned more slaves than anywhere else in the South, even though he had this sort of status, what did it really mean for a black slave owner to own slaves? How was his life changed? Was it equal to that of a white slave owner or was a black slave owner or even a free black for that matter, still on a level that was substandard to that of a white slave owner?
Speller: That would depend on the geographical location and attitudes of the communities where they were. For an example, you can take Thomas Day, the person just mentioned, and in some of the eastern counties they would assign pews in the churches. They would be part of the backing establishment and other things like that. And it would really depend on, as I said before, what they had had, the ability to do to add value in the eyes of the whites to the community. In the county that I grew up in, one free black there actually had the largest number of mortgages on both planters and otherwise, homes and so forth. So he and his children and so forth were treated as if they were white although it was obvious that they were black by their skin color.
Brown: They were treated as if they were white by white and black alike?
Speller: And they were such that their skin colors would make you know that they were black.
Brown: Well, I’m fascinated to think about this particular time in history when slavery is still in existence and we know of the tensions, to say the least, that existed between whites and blacks whether they were free blacks or slaves. And I’m wondering just how accepting the white community, I mean, how accepting could they really be? Because basically it seems to me that a free black or a black slave owner was kind of infringing on their lifestyle.
Schweninger: That’s a very good question. The free blacks were proscribed and their activities were circumscribed by laws and regulations and strictures and local attitudes and values. But as Dr. Speller suggests, the truth of the matter is that a person like Thomas Day, who had such a talent for making beautiful furniture, was able to move around those harsh strictures and was able to maneuver around them. The same with John Sampson in Wilmington, New Hanover County, who was a merchant and a carpenter. When you acquired enough wealth and became, most were slaveholders too, you could petition the county court. You could petition the legislature. You could do a lot of things. And until 1835 in North Carolina, free blacks could vote. And it was one of the only two states in the South where that was the case. And in the Constitutional Conventions of 1835 when the debate came up of whether or not the vote should be taken from blacks and color should be made a qualification and only whites could vote, there was a big debate and the final vote was 61 to 66 in favor of disenfranchising free blacks. And in Craven County free blacks voted for the Federalist Party in the 1820s on a pretty regular basis and one or the arguments was that they hold the balance of power in certain counties and this county was the case. And so how they were treated by whites, John Carruthers Stanley, who was dark skinned, and who observers and later people who heard about his life, noted that he would walk down the street with leading whites in the community, that he was described as gentlemanly, he owned a house in New Bern and three plantations outside and in Craven County, turpentine plantations, and he had 18 slaves in his household in New Bern. His house still stands there, incidentally, as does Amelia Green. Her house that she purchased, acquired in New Bern, still stands and Amelia Green became John Carruthers Stanley’s mother-in-law. Her daughter married Stanley and her daughter was a slave. He freed her and he freed his children since when his children were born in the early 19 th century, they were born into slavery because their mother was a slave and he freed here and freed the children as he went along.
Brown: Well, Dr. Speller, I’m going to probably give you the last word, but Dr. Schweninger brings up an interesting idea that I think we continue to deal with which is this whole idea of skin color in the black community. And he mentioned that the slave that owned the most number of slaves—what was his name again?
Schweninger: John Carruthers Stanley.
Brown: John Carruthers Stanley. He was a dark skinned black. Just how much of a role in whether or not you were a freed black or whether or not you were actually granted freedom or whether or not you were a slave owner, a black slave owner, had to do with the color of your skin. Just how light or dark you were.
Speller: Well, actually the lighter you were, the more freedom you probably had because it was harder to tell and there was less questioning. And we were just discussing some things before we came in here. I’m from an area where if you take all of the surnames of free blacks that are there, they more or less disappeared because by 1860 or 1870, they had found it more to their benefit to blend in with the whites. So in truth many of the free blacks that we could talk about and identify by surname and families, are now considered, their progenitors are now considered white. So your skin color did have a lot to do with that. Also that was what built what African Americans and most people don’t want to talk about, a caste system, really, that still exists in some communities, where there is just a little tension between the fair skinned blacks and their relatives who may have dark skin and so forth. And that’s a reality that you have to deal with.
Brown: Right. So Stanley, the black slave owner, even though he was dark skinned, he was able to enjoy all the privileges of a white person because of the wealth that he had amassed, basically.
Schweninger: That’s right. And in following up with Dr. Speller, the percent of free people of color who were people of mixed racial ancestry in North Carolina was 72%. So as he suggests, the overwhelming number were mixed blood.
Brown: Well, thank you very much to both of you. I’d like to thank Dr. Loren Schweninger and Dr. Ben Speller for coming out tonight. If you’d like a transcript of tonight’s program, information on our guests, or would like to send us a comment, visit us online at unctv.org/bif. You can also reach us by phone at 919-549-7167. Thank you for joining us tonight and every Friday night at 9:30 pm for Black Issues Forum. I’m Natalie Bullock Brown reminding you to be encouraged no matter what. Good night.
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