Did You Know Blacks Owned Slaves in America? What You Weren’t Taught in History

Did You Know Blacks Owned Slaves in America? What You Weren’t Taught in History

Slavery was one of the greatest evils in American history, and often brings to mind evil white men, bloated with money and careless to the human misery they were forcing on others. But did you know that black Americans owned slaves, too?

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In an 1856 letter to his wife Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee called slavery “a moral and political evil.” Yet he concluded that black slaves were immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically.

The fact is large numbers of free Negroes owned black slaves; in fact, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in society at large. In 1860 only a small minority of whites owned slaves. According to the U.S. census report for that last year before the Civil War, there were nearly 27 million whites in the country. Some eight million of them lived in the slaveholding states.

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The census also determined that there were fewer than 385,000 individuals who owned slaves (1). Even if all slaveholders had been white, that would amount to only 1.4 percent of whites in the country (or 4.8 percent of southern whites owning one or more slaves).

In the rare instances when the ownership of slaves by free Negroes is acknowledged in the history books, justification centers on the claim that black slave masters were simply individuals who purchased the freedom of a spouse or child from a white slaveholder and had been unable to legally manumit them. Although this did indeed happen at times, it is a misrepresentation of the majority of instances, one which is debunked by records of the period on blacks who owned slaves. These include individuals such as Justus Angel and Mistress L. Horry, of Colleton District, South Carolina, who each owned 84 slaves in 1830. In fact, in 1830 a fourth of the free Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves; eight owning 30 or more (2).

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.

That blacks owned slaves as well is not to say that it was or is in any way acceptable; it does, however, show that this was not an issue of race as much as it was one of an institutional evil that was seen as acceptable then, and countless times throughout history. People on every continent and in every time have found it acceptable to own other human beings, and it isn’t an evil that is solely limited to people of just one race.

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