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Self-Purchase: The Price of Freedom from Slavery
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Can you put a monetary value on your freedom? This philosophical question was once a legitimate query in South Carolina. Our early laws described enslaved people as property, trapped in lifetime of legal servitude without hope of advancement. By exploiting loopholes in that dark framework, however, a small number of enslaved people managed to generate sufficient cash to purchase and free their own bodies. Today we’ll explore this curious process and review a few cases of hard-working men and women whose hope and perseverance unlocked the yoke of slavery.
In the two previous episodes, I’ve described two legal mechanisms by which enslaved people could legally escape the organized system of forced servitude that constrained the lives of the majority of the population in early South Carolina. Public or government manumission was a rare and exceptional act that followed some instance of remarkable service, while private manumission was much more commonplace, especially in urban Charleston. A third legal path leading from slavery to freedom, which I’m calling “self-purchase,” was a variant form of private manumission, but far less common. As the name implies, self-purchase refers to the act of an enslaved person (whom the law regarded as chattel property) paying money to his or her owner in order to secure legal control of his or her own person. The laws of early South Carolina did not prohibit such a transaction, but the general legal fabric of slavery did make it very difficult for enslaved people to earn and accumulate a private fund of savings. In order to understand how enslaved people could generate sufficient cash to purchase their own freedom, we need to review a few of the basic mechanisms of the practice of slavery.
During the first 195 years of South Carolina’s existence, enslaved people were exploited as a form of unfree labor. The legal owner of an enslaved person received and owned all of the fruits of his or her labors. In return, the slave owner provided food, clothing, shelter, and a modicum of healthcare to his or her enslaved servants. In most cases, enslaved people lived and worked on premises belonging to their respective owners and did not receive any direct compensation for the work they performed. No cash changed hands between the parties, and enslaved people generally lacked opportunities to accumulate private savings. This bipartisan relationship between the owner and the subject formed the baseline or normal condition of the practice of slavery in early South Carolina and characterized the lives of the vast majority of the state’s enslaved population.
In contrast to the normal two-party labor dynamic, a small proportion of the enslaved people in early South Carolina labored for, and in some cases lived with, someone other than their legal owners. This triangular form of slavery, commonly called “hiring out,” was perfectly legal as long as it was done with the permission of the owners of the enslaved people in question. If a slave owner had no immediate need for the labor of a man or woman he or she legally possessed, for example, the owner could rent or lease that enslaved person to anyone willing to pay for his or her labor. Such third-party work was always temporary in nature, ranging from just a few hours to as long as several months in duration. The practice of “hiring out” was very common in early South Carolina, but it was almost always confined to densely-populated urban areas like Charleston where one might find a surplus of labor resources and a concentration of enslaved people possessing specialized skills.
We could talk for hours about the details of the slave-hiring system, its legal regulation, and its impact on the culture and economy of early Charleston, but we’ll defer that sort of in-depth analysis for a later conversation. For the present, let’s consider just a few scenarios to illustrate the nature of this alternative market of unfree labor. Enslaved women of child-bearing years, for example, were frequently hired out as “wet nurses” to breastfeed the children of white mothers. Enslaved carpenters, bricklayers, painters, and other skilled tradesmen were commonly leased to white building contractors. An enslaved man with known talents on the violin might be hired to perform at an impromptu dancing assembly for white folks. Enslaved washerwomen often did extra laundry at neighboring households, and enslaved porters routinely transported goods around Charleston for a variety of customers. To use a twenty-first-century term, this was a sort of enslaved “gig economy” prevalent in early South Carolina.
Whether it involved short-term or long-term work, the practice of “hiring out” included the payment of cash or some other form of valuable compensation in exchange for labor. Beginning in the summer of 1701 and continuing well into the nineteenth century, the South Carolina General Assembly tried to regulate this common practice by requiring the party hiring an enslaved laborer to deliver all of his or her wages directly to the owner of the said slave. In spite of this long-standing law, the surviving records of individual cases (such as advertisements for slave sales and runaways, as well as manumission documents) provide copious evidence of alternative practices. Persons hiring slave laborers frequently paid the wages directly to the enslaved person, who was then obliged to deliver the money to his or her owner. In a similar fashion, some slave owners directed their chattel property to go out and work as what we might call a “day laborer,” and return with a specified sum of money.
In all such cases where hired-out enslaved people received direct payments of cash or some other form of compensation, the opportunity for fraud was omnipresent. To ensure that an enslaved person would deliver the wages to his or her owner, or that they would return at all, most slave owners recognized the necessity of offering some sort of incentive. The nature of the incentive might vary according to the circumstances of individual cases, but many slave owners simply permitted their hired-out property to keep a portion of the wages they generated. In this manner, the enslaved men and women who participated in the triangular labor system enjoyed the potential to earn personal cash and even to accumulate a fund of private savings.
The frequency of newspaper complaints of drunken slaves demonstrates that some hired-out laborers used their “allowance,” as we might call it, to purchase (illegally) intoxicating spirits to numb the pain of their wretched lives. In contrast to such impulsive, self-destructive behavior, some more disciplined men and women labored with uncommon zeal to earn cash for long-term goals. By working industriously while simultaneously conforming politely to the prejudicial confines of their social station, enslaved people could even receive gratuities, or tips, that further increased their private savings. In this manner, a minute portion of the tens of thousands of South Carolinians trapped in the toxic web of slavery managed to accumulate a fund of private wealth that was equal to the market value of their lifetime of servitude.
We have no record of the first enslaved person in early South Carolina to purchase his or her own freedom from slavery, but I suspect that the practice probably started in the late seventeenth century. As with other aspects of the institution of slavery, the early settlers of this province were likely familiar with the concept of “self-purchase” from the experience of other, more mature colonies like Virginia and Barbados. The temporal roots of this practice might remain shrouded by the mists of time, but we can use our imaginations to consider how such a transaction might have unfolded. Logic dictates that the process of purchasing one’s own freedom during that remote era involved a certain degree of negotiation between the owner and the enslaved person. I know of no records that document how such a conversation began, but we might imagine that it was preceded by some expression of trust.
If, for example, the owner of an enslaved person allowed him or her to “hire out,” and furthermore to keep a portion of his or her wages, that enslaved person might interpret these small liberties as a demonstration of a sort of trust or mutual respect between the parties. Based on this conclusion, the enslaved man or woman might summon the courage to ask a simple, but potentially incendiary question: How much am I worth to you? Some slave owners of a more selfish nature might interpret such a question as a disrespectful affront and respond angrily, perhaps even with violence. Others, of a more genial temperament, might give the question a moment or three of earnest thought and respond, eventually, with a specific figure. The slave owner might even jump to the implied conclusion and offer to sell the enslaved party to him- or herself for a certain sum. In either case, the enslaved person might respond by proposing a schedule of payment to be made over some period of time, in the same manner that you or I might purchase a bicycle or a washing machine on layaway. If the owner was amenable to the terms and the price, the two parties made an oral contract that might eventually mature into a formal purchase.
As with the two other legal pathways from slavery to freedom that I described in previous episodes (public manumission and private manumission), I’m not aware of any historian who’s made a systematic search for documentary evidence of instances of self-purchase. In my own personal browsing through the voluminous extant public records of early South Carolina, I’ve encountered fewer than ten cases. I haven’t made concerted effort to compile a comprehensive list, however, so I’m sure there are more surviving examples to be found. I also suspect that many cases of successful self-purchase in eighteenth-century Charleston were never properly recorded, and the details of which are therefore lost forever to modern researchers. Nevertheless, I think this is a fascinating aspect of our community’s history that merits serious attention. To demonstrate all of these points, let’s consider a few examples, some of which are more familiar than others.
In early October of 1770, Susanna Fairchild Mason and her husband, lawyer William Mason, sold an enslaved man named Leander to a German-born butcher named Jacob Williman for the considerable sum of £900 South Carolina currency (approximately £128 sterling). The document recording this transaction described Leander as “a mustee or Negroe fellow,” meaning that he appeared to be a mestizo, or person of mixed African and Native American ancestry. Three days after this rather unremarkable sale, however, Jacob Williman privately freed Leander and recorded his manumission in a legal document filed with the Secretary of the Province of South Carolina. The text of that surviving document reveals that Leander’s emancipation was not simply an act of selfless generosity. Rather, Williman released from bondage an industrious assistant who had actually generated the £900 used to secure his own purchase from Mr. and Mrs. Mason. The Masons had evidently “hired out” or leased Leander to the white butcher over a period of some years. Williman, who had arrived in Charleston in the mid-1760s, was one of several men authorized to carry on the butchering of “small meats” (lamb, goats, calves, and hogs) at the town’s waterfront “Lower Market” (1750–1799) at the east end of Tradd Street. In May of 1766, Williman was among a number butchers at that site who gave public notice promising to all “who may be inclinable to send us their stock, such as calves, sheep, hogs, or beef, that they may depend on having them sold for the usual price they generally allow to Negroes for killing and selling.” Like many of his colleagues, Williman hired enslaved men like Leander to perform most of the dirty work of his trade. In the document releasing Leander from slavery, Williman explained that the £900 he paid to the Masons had actually been delivered to him “from time to time” by Leander, “as monies which he had by his great care[,] diligence and industry in his business trade or occupation of a butcher for several years past got together.”
The documents recording the sale and manumission of Leander, who adopted the surname Fairchild, include no hint of the conversations and human drama that must have preceded these rather sterile transactions in 1770. Nevertheless, we can use our imagination to reconstruct a plausible scenario. At some point, Mr. and Mrs. Mason must have discussed with Leander the parameters of his freedom to work outside their house. The Masons negotiated Leander’s wages with Mr. Williman, and then determined with Leander what percentage or sum he was expected to bring home to them. Leander then demonstrated his ability to slaughter and butcher small animals at the east end of Tradd Street with such diligence as to generate income above and beyond Williman’s expectations. Having thus pleased his proxy master, Leander negotiated with the German butcher to hold some portion of that extra income in trust for his future benefit. At some point, Leander or perhaps Jacob Williman discussed with Mr. and Mrs. Mason the market value of the enslaved man’s services and settled on the sum of £900 currency. After “several years” of working with “great care[,] diligence and industry,” Leander succeeded in generating sufficient income to meet that goal. Mr. Williman executed the purchase from the Masons and then formally emancipated Leander, but the surviving documents don’t tell us whether or not the Masons were complicit in the plan to help the enslaved butcher gain his freedom. In either case, we know that Leander Fairchild path’s out of slavery was paved by hard work and at least one white ally. To ensure that the community would acknowledge Leander’s freedom henceforth, he carried documents memorializing his self-purchase to the Secretary of the Province to have them legally recorded.
In the spring of 1793, Nathaniel Russell, an eminent merchant of Charleston, visited the Secretary of State to record a similar series of transactions on the public ledger. About fourteen years earlier, during the American Revolution, said Mr. Russell, a “free Negro Woman” named Silvia Stone died owing a large debt of money to a white merchant named William Hopton. Silvia also owned an enslaved woman named Chloe, and had “always wanted and intended” to manumit her. Before Silvia died, she had expressed a desire that if Chloe could earn the money to satisfy her debt to William Hopton, then Chloe should be emancipated. In other words, the free woman of color, Silvia Stone, mortgaged the enslaved woman, Chloe, to Mr. Hopton as security for a debt due to the prosperous white merchant, and hoped some white witness would one day honor her wish to free Chloe. William Hopton died in 1786, but in his lifetime never formally acknowledged whether or not Chloe had satisfied Silvia’s debt. As Hopton’s son-in-law, and the executor of his estate, Nathaniel Russell testified in March 1793 that Chloe had indeed “fully paid the debt” several years earlier. As far as he and anyone else was legally concerned, Chloe and her five-year old son, Moses, were free people. She had successfully purchased herself out of slavery, and the issue of her body, Moses, legally followed her in that transition. Through her own hard work and perseverance, and with the assistance of a sympathetic white ally, Chloe was able to cross the legal threshold into a state of freedom.
In a similar, but less complicated manner, an enslaved man named Jehu Jones purchased his own freedom in 1798. Jones was as a mulatto man (of mixed African and European ancestry), born around the year 1769, who worked as a tailor alongside his owner, Christopher Rogers. The enslaved man apparently sewed clothing with such skill and dispatch that, over a number of years, he managed to accumulate a significant private savings. After receiving £100 sterling from Jehu in January 1798, Christopher Rogers recorded a formal acknowledgement of the payment and declared Jones henceforth to be free “from all manner of bondage and slavery whatsoever, and to hold such manumission and freedom unto the said mulatto man named Jehu Jones forever.” In the early years of the nineteenth century, Jones continued to prosper in Charleston. He purchased a large house on Broad Street and, with the help of a growing free family, became a fixture in the city’s cultural life. Jones’ Hotel or Jones’ Establishment, as it was commonly known, stood for many decades as Charleston’s most respectable accommodations for white visitors to the Palmetto City.
As a final example of the phenomenon I’m calling “self-purchase,” I’ll mention a character even more familiar than the celebrated Jehu Jones. In the late 1790s, an enslaved man of Caribbean origin named Telemaque worked in Charleston as a house carpenter. He was owned by a free woman of East Indian descent named Mary Clodner and her common-law husband, Captain Joseph Vesey. We don’t know much about the nature of the relationship between these three parties, but we do know that Telemaque enjoyed sufficient liberty as a skilled tradesman to generate at least some personal income. In October 1799, he purchased a $6 ticket in a lottery scheme organized by the City of Charleston to generate revenue for the construction of a seawall to protect what is now called East Battery Street. (To learn more about that lottery scheme, check out Episode No. 54 from early 2018.) When his ticket number was drawn for the grand prize of $1,500 cash, Telemaque suddenly became an enslaved man endowed with a sizeable fund of disposable income. At some point after learning of this windfall, he must have initiated a conversation with Mary Clodner about purchasing his emancipation from slavery. We have no details of that negotiation, but we know the two parties settled on the sum of $600 as the price of freedom. In a single paragraph of emotion-free text executed on December 7th, 1799, Mary Clodner simply stated that in consideration of the sum of $600 paid directly to her, she had released Telemaque from the yoke of slavery forever. Telemaque took the name Denmark Vesey, and went on to leave a lasting imprint on the history of South Carolina.
Enslaved people who purchased their own freedom joined the ranks of the other “free people of color” who formed a small minority of South Carolina’s population. Like their brothers and sisters who benefitted from public and private forms manumission, they enjoyed a limited number of civil liberties that placed them in an amorphous position between the more easily identifiable poles of black and white. They were free to earn money and to purchase and accumulate property, including enslaved people of African descent. Like white citizens of South Carolina, free people of color were also legally empowered to manumit privately their enslaved property, if they so desired. But that’s an entirely separate rabbit hole of a topic that I’ll politely avoid for the moment.
My purpose in constructing this and the two previous episodes was to highlight the three legal pathways from slavery to freedom that were available to the people of early South Carolina. Each of these narrow paths was constrained by legal and cultural parameters that prevented most of the enslaved population from escaping the bonds of slavery. Nevertheless, the state’s population of “free persons of color” grew dramatically in the second half of the eighteenth century, especially in urban Charleston, as formerly-enslaved people found partners and reared families in freedom. Even after the state legislature effectively blocked the future manumission of any enslaved people in 1820, free colored folk continued to exert a considerable influence on the culture and economy of South Carolina. The arrival of general, unconditional emancipation in the spring of 1865 eradicated the traditional distinctions between enslaved people and free non-white people, however, and the venerable phrase “free person of color” was soon forgotten by most of the population.
As Black History Month draws to a close, I’ll reiterate my theme for the past few episodes. The widespread practice of slavery for the first one hundred and ninety-five years of South Carolina’s history exerted a powerful negative influence on the development of our society, vestiges of which continue to ripple through our community today. Rather than dwell on the damage of the past, however, I’ve tried to draw attention to a less familiar side of slavery that isn’t quite as dark and depressing. Yes, slavery was awful, but a handful of courageous men and women managed to follow a path out of slavery into a better life. As we remember the anguish and discrimination of the past, let’s also pause to celebrate the small victories of freedom that might inspire hope for our collective future.
 South Carolina’s slave act of 1701 was not included in the published compilation of the state’s laws. See L. H. Roper, “The 1701 ‘Act for the better ordering of Slaves’: Reconsidering the History of Slavery in Proprietary South Carolina,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. 64, No. 2 (April 2007), 414–15 (of 395–418). For the continuation of this measure, see section 28 of Act No. 314, “An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes and Slaves,” ratified on 7 June 1712, in McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 352–65. The regulation of hired slaves was repeated and amended in the 29th paragraph of the 1722 slave law (Act No. 476), the 26th paragraph of the 1735 slave law (Act No. 586), and the 34th paragraph of the long-enduring 1740 slave law (Act No. 670). For a general overview of the slave-hire system and its associate badges, see Harlan Greene and Harry Hutchins Jr., Slaves Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783–1865 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2004).
 South Carolina Department of Archvies and History (hereafter SCDAH), Miscellaneous Records of the Secretary of State (main series), OO: 385, 387, 398.
 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 27 May 1766.
 SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records of the Secretary of State (main series), OO: 387, 398 (8 and 11 October 1770).
 The biography of Leander Fairchild includes further documentation of his wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, which I’ll eventually publish as a part of a larger project.
 SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records of the Secretary of State (main series), CCC: 276 (23 March 1793).
 SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records of the Secretary of State (main series), HHH: 442–43 (22 January 1798). See also South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Jehu Jones: Free Black Entrepreneur (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1989).
 SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records of the Secretary of State (main series), MMM: 427–28. Some historians assert that Telemaque was freed on 31 December 1799, but his manumission is clearly dated 7 December. After that date, the manumission contract was presented to the Secretary of State and recorded or copied into a volume of the secretary’s records on 31 December. The execution of the contract and its recording are two separate events.