Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South
by Michael P. Johnson, by James L. Roark
Norton, 422 pp., $22.50
No Chariot Let Down: Charleston’s Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War
edited by Michael P. Johnson, edited by James L. Roark
University of North Carolina Press, 174 pp., $16.95
Born a slave in 1790, William Ellison purchased his freedom when he was twenty six, and by the time of his death in 1861 he had acquired a fortune. In the numbers of slaves he owned he ranked among the top 1 percent of all slaveholders. He also became a large landowner and planter. Compared with the mean wealth of whites in the South, Ellison’s was fifteen times greater. That did not make him the richest free man of color, for there were a half dozen richer in Louisiana, but he was probably the richest who started life as a slave. On the backs of slaves he built his fortune and founded his freedom.
Ellison lived his entire free life in the small aristocratic village of Stateburg, South Carolina, a community of great planters and plantations in the High Hills of the Santee about a hundred miles inland from Charleston. One measure of his status was that a pew was granted for him and his family in 1824 by the vestry and wardens of the Holy Cross Episcopal Church. That made him the only person of color privileged to worship on the same level as the white gentry, though he was seated to their rear. All other colored parishioners, free or slave, sat in the gallery upstairs. Another symbol of rising status was the house he bought in 1835. This had belonged to the illustrious Stephen D. Miller, former governor and recently retired senator of the state. In this house, incidentally, Miller’s daughter Mary Boykin Chesnut, the famous diarist, grew up. Ellison named it “Wisdom Hall.” It was underneath this house that the Ellison papers, on which the two books under review are based, were discovered just a century afterward. More about them later.
Ellison was not attracted to Stateburg by its aristocratic society, from which he was excluded by his origins and color. He was drawn there by the richest market available for the products he made and sold—the cotton gin and its hundreds of delicate parts. He had learned the trade as a slave apprenticed to a skilled craftsman by his master, who was probably his father and may have been preparing him for the freedom he later bought with overtime earnings. His skills and reliability in making and servicing gins were in great demand at the time, in the midst of the Piedmont cotton boom, and few minions in the court of King Cotton were as indispensable as the gin master. His shop and his growing force of slave workers had all the business they could handle. In four years he made more money than most southern whites did in a lifetime.
Vital as were the skills of his craft, he knew that his reputation for “respectability” was just as essential, and he worked as hard at that as he did at his trade. Everything depended on white perceptions. The very year he moved to Stateburg extensive plans for a slave insurrection were uncovered …