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Black masters: a free family of color in the Old South.

In August 1860, a desperate young woman called on Joseph Dereef, one of the most respectable lumber merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, begging him to tell the authorities that her grandmother had been a free woman, that her mother had also been free, and that therefore she had been born free. Dereef knew all that to be true, but he could not help; as a free person of color, he could not testify in a legal proceeding. The woman, unable to get documentation proving that her mother had not been freed illegally after the 1820 law prohibiting manumission, faced enslavement.

That woman--we do not know her name--was one of the quarter-million freeborn or freed Afro-Americans (mostly of mixed African Ana European ancestry) who shared the South with 4 million slaves and 8 million Euro-Americans. In Slaves Without Masters, Ira Berlin has described the marginal life that most free people of color led. But in a few cities, such as New Orleans, Baltimore and Charleston, and occasionally in the country, they had a firm hold on valuable skilled-labor jobs. With a strong sense of self-worth derived, in part, from a paradoxical pride in their aristocratic slaveholder ancestors, these determined people had established themselves in a position between saveholder and slave. Their existence did considerable damage to the "positive good" doctrine, which maintained that Africans were happiest in bondage.

At the time the young woman visited Dereef, the trustworthy, traditional understandings that had long been sufficient protection for the accepted mulatto class were being broken. Responding to the demands of men like James M. Eason, a successful foundry owner who was determined that white mechanics should have the lucrative skilled jobs held by free people of color, Charleston's Mayor Charles Macbeth had begun aggressively to enforce the letter of the slavery laws. If Dereef's caller had been willing to register as a slave to save her job, she would have received a baged enabling her to work for wages, but she and her children would have lost their most cherished possession, freedom.

In Black Master, their brilliant study of the self-consciously respectable, dignified free people of color, Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark liken the crisis that these Americans faced to the one encountered eighty years later by the Jews of Hitler's Germany. In the nineteenth-century South, too, there were knocks on the door as police came to take people from their homes; the terror was that of "an antebellum Krystalnacht." We have long known that restrictions on manumission curbed the possibilities of freedom fro Southern slaves, that Northern states prohibited the entry of free black people, that free families lived in fear of kidnappers. Until this study, however, no one had fully documented the suffering caused by the systematic, legal re-enslavement of freed people a d the enslavement of those born free. Like Booker T. Washington, with his title Up from Slavery, Americans have preferred a progressive view of race relations to one that comprehends the possibility that things can change for the worse.

Despite Johnson and Roark's almost uncanny ability to match scraps of facts found in seemingly unyielding docuements and re-create these people's lives, we do not know the fate of the young woman who called on Joseph Dereef. We do know, however, that many brown Charlestonian fled north if they could produce papers satisfactory to a ship's captain, leaving behind relatives and untended property. One who contemplated emigration was an upcountry gentleman named William Ellison, who had many business acquaintances and a son-in-law in Charleston. Undeterred by stories of real-estate men standing avariciously outside the Charleston houses of free mulattoes, Ellision stayed, but he did send his grandchildren north to school. Had he gone, he would have left behind more property than a y other refugee; Ellison was the richest freedman in the South.

Born in 1970 and freed, perhaps by his white father, in 1816, April Ellison, as he was then known, learned the craft of cotton gin making. Soon, he was famous as the maker of the best gins in Sumter district, South Carolina, and became a rich man. He went to court to dispose of his slave name, and bought not only the house of a former governor and a pew on the main floor of the Episcopalian church (behind the pews of the white communicants and beneath the gallery where blacks sat) but also slaves to work his plantation and his business. He was even more skilled as a businessman than as a craftsman. The authors, unable to explain just how he amassed his fortune and guessing that thrift did the trick, have probably overlooked a shrewd use of credit. Ellison undervalued his estate for the 1860 census taker; his house, shop, lands and sixty-three slaves were worth more than $100,000. There were richer nabobs in Sumter District, but not many.

Johnson and Roark came to know Ellison through letters found in 1935 by children playing under a house that he had owned. (the letters are collected in No Chariot Let Down, along with notes so rich that they form a fine work wisely decided against a biography of Ellison, who was something of a stick, in favor of the engrossing story of the relationship between the upcountry Ellisons and the community of mulatto people in Charleston. It pains the authors that freed people displayed no discernible concern for their fellows of African descent who remained in slavery, but they do not flinch in the face of unpleasant fact. When their exhaustive search of records suggests that ellison coldbloodedly sold his slaves' female children, presumably because he thought they would not be useful in his business, they tell us so.

The free mulattoes of this study were prosperous tradespeople or were engaged in service pursuits such as categin, but in their perception of themselves and in their deportment, they were starchy aristocrats. They strained to achieve a respectability beyond any possible reproach from their less constrained white neighbors; they distanced themselves resolutely from the slaves. They were snobbish with respect to color, excluding black people from their brown societies. At the same time, they must have lived in terror of slipping from the position of economic and social security they had painstakingly achieved. They firmly adhered to the rule of South Caroline slaveholders, not only by owning slaves if they could afford to do so but by supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War. They were, for a time, rewarded for their loyalty. Members of the slaveholding gentry, some of whom had long been William Ellison's customers, rallied to defeat the enslavement movement and Eason's legislative efforts to prohibit nonwhites from holding skilled jobs.

During the war, William Ellison diverted his efforts from making gins and growing cotton to raising food for the Confederacy. His grandson John Wilson Buckner, light enough to be accepted in the army, was wounded at the siege of Battery Magner. (Other free people of color, the soldiers of the famous Massachusetts 54th, also fought there, on the Union side.) Ellison died in 1861. When the wa^ ended his sons and their families stayed on at Drayton Hall and Wisdom Hall, but nothing the Ellison had done endeared them to their slaves, who, when emancipated, were unwilling to remain and work the farms. No longer planters or gin makers, the younger Ellisons opened a general store tha tdrew white customers. When enfranchised, they registered as members of the antifreedmen Democratic Party.

Black Masters is superb history. The authors' diligence in the archives is matched by their narrative skill. Despite the co-authorship, the voice of the book is clear. In fact, this work is admirable in every respect except its title, which is inaccruate. The subjects of Black Masters were brown. The black/white titles of books that record the fascinating madness of that thing we call race simply codify an absurdity. Our American hues are too rich for such simplicity; chalk on a blackboard won't do it.
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Author:McFeely, William S.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 9, 1985
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