Lesson Plan: Overview

Black Slave Owners in Charleston

Grade Level: 8th

Black Slaveowners Book

Academic Standards

Standard 8-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Civil War – its causes and effects and the major events that occurred during that time.

8-3.3 Draw conclusions about how sectionalism arose from events or circumstances of racial tension, internal population shifts, and political conflicts, including the Denmark Vesey plot, slave codes, and the African American population majority. (K, L, O, S)

Social Studies Literacy Elements
No literacy elements available for this lesson plan.
Essential Questions

1. How did free blacks in South Carolina, and particularly in Charleston, become slave owners?

2. What were some of the reasons that free blacks owned slaves?

3.Was slaveholding different for free blacks and whites?

Historical Background Notes

The African slave trade was very profitable for everyone involved with the exception of the slaves themselves.  It made money for the slave traders responsible for capturing and loading the slaves in Africa, the shipping companies made money, the slave brokers became rich, and owners of slaves made money in the buying and selling of their own slaves and their offspring.  Slavery was a part of the economy of the area from the beginning of the colony until the end of the Civil War.

From the late 1700’s records show that there were free blacks living in South Carolina (Schweninger, 1990, 20).  By 1860, there were thousands of “free persons of color” living in the state, and hundreds of them owned black slaves.  Why did blacks own slaves?  How and when did this practice begin?

In 1619, 20 Africans were brought to Virginia as indentured servants to work in the tobacco-growing colony.  At the end of their indenture, officials in Virginia decided to enslave some of these people.  Some historians believe that one of these slaves became a slaveholder himself (Abrams, 2001, ix).  This began the long history of blacks owning other blacks.

There are many factors that led to black slaveholding.  One was the desire of free blacks to purchase their family members out of bondage.  Until around 1800, it was legal for white slaveowners to manumit their slaves, for whatever reason they wanted.  However, in 1800 in South Carolina, the legislature began putting restrictions on the manumission of slaves.  Additionally, there were restrictions that required freed slaves to leave the state (Schweninger, 22).  Therefore, free blacks would often purchase their relatives in order to allow them to remain in the state.

Owning slaves offered the opportunity for economic advancement for blacks (Schweninger, 22).  By the mid 1700’s, black artisans and shopkeepers owned slaves in the city, while free blacks also held slaves on farms in the country.  In the city of Charleston, free blacks nearly monopolized the jobs of barbers, bricklayers, shoemakers, tailors and dressmakers.  They prospered in their entrepreneurial jobs and were able to earn the capital needed to purchase slaves. 

Another factor in black slaveholding was the development of a class of citizens referred to as “free persons of color.”  There were relationships between white masters and slave women from the beginning of African slavery in the colonies.  Often these relationships resulted in mulatto children born to the slave women.  In some cases, masters would treat these mulatto children as their own, and they might inherit property at the master’s death.  The mothers of the mulatto children would often be manumitted, or freed for a reason, at the death of the master.  The manumitted mulatto son or daughter would then become a part of the growing group of “free persons of color.”  On one occasion, “the amorous relationship between the slave Tabatha Singleton and her master survived the manumission decree…. He paid the rent for her tenement and eventually conveyed a house, lot, and two slaves to her" (Powers, 1994, 38).  For this reason and for other reasons, there were many female slaveholders in South Carolina, and particularly in Charleston.

From amorous relationships between masters and slaves (and free persons of color) there grew a distinct class of “brown” elites.  There was a difference in the way that whites regarded free dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned blacks.  Light-skinned blacks were considered closer to white in the social stratification in southern society.  A racial stratification developed into a three-tiered model with whites on the top, mulattoes and free blacks (of light complexion, mostly), and slaves.  Slaveholding free blacks were considered at the top of the second tier, the most respected blacks of all in white society.

A third factor in the development of black slaveholding was the desire of “free persons of color” to operate in the economic world of white slaveholders and to be as equal to whites as possible.  By the mid 1700’s to early 1800’s, most free blacks considered themselves more American than they did African, for almost all of them had been born on American soil, free or slave.  They wanted to live the same life as whites, and they saw slaveholding as a way to become more equal with their white counterparts.

An important fourth and final factor in black slaveholding was the economic profitability of using slaves to work in jobs and businesses owned by “free persons of color.”  “In a society that vested the ownership of one many in another, slaves represented another form of property held by free blacks.” (Powers, 1994, 39)  Early on in the colony of South Carolina, mulattoes were often trained as artisans and were able to earn the money to purchase slaves by working.  They were commercial masters who aligned themselves with the white majority in order to preserve the system of slavery. (Koger, 1985, 30)   As this practice progressed, the black slaveholders often had the same incentives as whites to own slaves.

From the article “Black Slaveowners”, there comes the example of Richard Holloway.  Richard Holloway was a black slaveholder in Charleston, and most of his family papers are in the archives at the Avery Research Center for African American History.

“… Richard Holloway, Sr., and free black of Charleston City, bought a slave named Charles Benford in order that the slave might enjoy his freedom.  Yet at the same time, he owned other slaves who were not treated so kindly.  In 1834, for instance, he purchased a Negro woman named Sarah and her two children, Annett and Edward, from Susan B. Robertson for $575.  Within three years after the purchase, he apparently became dissatisfied with the slave family and sold them for $945.  Even though Richard Holloway, Sr., allowed a trusted servant to enjoy a greater degree of freedom, he was still a slaveowner for profit.  So he sold and purchased slaves as an investment even while he held other slaves for benevolent reasons.”

Interestingly enough, slaves reacted to ownership by black masters in the same ways that they did by white masters.  They resisted their owners and were susceptible to dreams of freedom.  The relationships between black masters and slaves were not smoother than those of slaves and white masters.

In conclusion, there were many reasons why free blacks owned black slaves.  There was a new class developing during the 1800’s made up of slaveowning blacks and free light-skinned blacks.  Relationships between masters and slaves were not smooth.  Black slaveowners in Charleston had the same economic desires as whites when it came to being prosperous and owning slaves.


Primary Sources

Charleston Capitation Books: free persons of color, ca. 1852, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864 (microfilm) Publisher: Charleston, S.C.: City of Charleston Records Management Division, 2004.  South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina. Call number: 45-372.

Holloway Family Scrapbook, Box 1 (nos. 22, 30, and 43) and Box 3 (no. 1).  Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Charleston, South Carolina.

Secondary Sources

Abrams, Alan, ed.  Black and Free: The Free Negro in America, 1830. A Commentary on Carter Woodson's "Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830".  Sylvania: Doubting Thomas Publishing, LLC: 2001.

Koger, Larry.  Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

Powers, Bernard E., Jr.  Black Charlestonians: a Social History, 1822-1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Pres, 1994.

Schweninger, Loren.  Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990


Folders for each group containing the following items:

• Copies of the Charleston census documents

• Copies of the Holloway slave documents, see Holloway Family Scrapbook

• Copies of the Document Questions Worksheet

• Copies of Student Info Sheets

Lesson Plans

1. Give the background information in a lecture-type format for about 10-15 minutes.  Explain that students will be examining documents that show aspects of black slaveholding.

2. Pass out the folders for each group containing the lesson plans, copies of the documents (see Tools Section above), and document questions worksheets.

3. Go over the instructions for the lesson.

4. Allow students to work on the examination of the documents for about 20 minutes.

5. Have students report their findings.

6. Use leading questions for the discussion:

  • By examining the documents, how do you know that blacks owned slaves?
  • Are there any indications as to why these slaves were owned?
  • Is there a relationship between how much real estate a person owned and how many slaves he/she owned?
  • Is there a relationship between the job a person had and the number of slaves he/she owned?

Teacher Reflections

I don’t know why I never knew about this topic.  After all, I was born in Charleston, my family has lived here for seems like a million years, and I thought I knew a lot about the history of this community.  Well, this lesson and the research I did for it blew me away.  I learned more from teaching this lesson that the other three lessons I have taught for TAHSC in the last two years.

The idea for this topic came to me as I was doing research on another topic at the SC Historical Society one of the two days we spent there in June.  I was actually researching the Pest House on Sullivan’s Island and not finding much information on that topic.  I was frustrated so just walked around looking on the shelves for another idea.  At lunch we had a break and I walked across the street to the Historic Charleston Foundation gift shop to peruse the books.  There I saw it!  My next, better, topic: black slaveowners.

First, what did I know?  Nothing.  I was actually surprised that once I started doing the research, there was more than ample material available on the subject.  So, I was on a roll.  Luckily, I found many books at SCHS and in the gift shop that day, both events making my research go smoothly.  In addition, once I went online to view information on the topic, I found ample articles on the subject as well, some of which cited the books I was using in my information gathering.  Also at SCHS I found census documents that confirmed the fact that there were many black slaveowners in Charleston before the Civil War. 

Once I had decided on my topic and knew where I was going, I was flying.  The day spent at the Avery Institute was also helpful in gathering more primary sources.  The archivists were helpful in determining where these documents were located and in having them copied for me.  The only problem with this was that the copier at the Avery didn’t copy the documents well and so my copies for students weren’t as clear as I had hoped.

The content instruction helped my teaching because, as in the other lesson I taught this year, it opened up my eyes to a new facet of slavery and of free blacks in the South. I told my students that I was learning as much as they were with the lesson, and this was really true.  In the days leading up to the lesson, I mentioned that they were going to learn about black Slaveowners.  “Black Slaveowners?” “What?” “Huh?”  Without doing much, I was peaking their interest in the topic.  Having the primary sources available showed the students that the free blacks who were also slaveholders were real people, not just some they read about in a book or an article.  They were surprised. I was happy.

The methods I used weren’t unlike some other lessons I have taught during the school year.  Using the primary documents was an additional bonus, however, because I don’t always have the time to do this in-depth research for most lessons.  (Thanks to TAHSC, now I have four lessons in my repertoire.)  Getting students into groups that use and examine materials together is a method I often use.  Reorganizing the folders was useful in making sure that each student saw every document.  This also helped me as I prepared for the next class.  My own organization practices have been helpful in planning this and other lessons.

Collaborating with cultural institutions was invaluable in planning this lesson.  I feel as though the Historic Charleston Foundations should get credit as a cultural institution, too, since I found my topic on the shelf in their gift shop!!  The Avery and SCHS were helpful in making copies and in assisting me in going in the right direction in my research.

The student work I have copied shows that my students really understood what I was teaching them.  By examining the documents and evaluating them on paper, they demonstrated their ability to read and understand a primary document.  They even noted that the documents were hard to read and that the language differences, more formal then, made them difficult to decipher.  In the evaluations, students had to show knowledge and understanding of what the information told them.

All in all, I was pleased with the lesson.  I thought that my research was adequate and that the background information given to students wasn’t too detailed or lacking in detail.  Really, I thought the background information was just enough to give them before they got into the documents themselves.  Some of this background information about slavery was some that they had been given in the first TAHSC lesson I taught back in November.  So, reiterating the information was good in that it reinforced their understanding of the different aspects of blacks in South Carolina in the 18th century.

What could have been better with this lesson?  Well, I should have gone back to the Avery Institute and had the documents recopied.  And, I believe that there were probably more documents of similar subject matter there, but I didn’t go back after we spent one day there in TAHSC.  However, by putting more and more documents in the student folders, it might have been confusing rather than interesting.  If/when I teach the lesson next year, I will add documents to it so that perhaps there can be different folders for different black slaveowners in Charleston.  Then the lesson might have more impact with the students being able to see that there were many of these people here in our community before the Civil War.  Also, perhaps I could find out if there exist any documents about some of the people on the census documents.  Hmmm, another idea.

Thanks again, TAHSC.  

Student Assessment

Include the following words as vocabulary on a test:

  • Mulatto
  • Slaveholder
  • “free persons of color”
  • Social stratification
  • census
  • indentured servants
  • manumission
  • emancipation


Include an essay question from this lesson on a test, for example (but not limited to):

1. How did “free persons of color” fit into white society?

2. Why did black “free persons of color” buy black slaves?

Examples of Students Work

Student Group Documents Analysis Worksheet

Student Group Documents Analysis Worksheet 2

Student Group Documents Analysis Worksheet 3

Student Group Documents Analysis Worksheet 4


Rosamond Lawson
Charleston County School of the Arts
Charleston, South Carolina