Charleston's Free People of Color

Charleston's Free Persons of Color occupied a precarious position, living as they did in a city long a bastion of African American slavery. Caught between a slave majority on one side and a white minority of slave owners on the other, they had to navigate between these disparate worlds, in neither of which they truly belonged. They had some rights and privileges: free people of color could own property, including slaves. They sometimes purchased family and friends to protect those who could not be freed; sometimes, however, free blacks bought and sold human beings as their white neighbors did. Free men and women of a certain age had to pay taxes, but they could not testify in a court of law against a white person. As time passed and the Civil War drew near, laws restricting their freedom and movement became more stringent and many were forced to flee.

The members of this group never comprised more than two per cent of the state's black population. Of the 1,801 free blacks present in South Carolina in 1790, 950 men, women and children lived in the Charleston District; the local population of free blacks reached a peak of 3,861 in 1850. In 1860, while only three percent of the state's enslaved population lived here, 33% of South Carolina's free blacks did. In urban areas, the free persons of color were often laborers, skilled artisans, carpenters, masons, and the like, with women, generally the larger percentage of the free population, often working in domestic trades and with their needles. Though small in number, they nevertheless indelibly stamped the city, creating a culture that can be traced in various locations.


Those interested in learning more about the free persons of color of Charleston can consult these sources.

Print Sources:

Berlin, Ira, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York, Pantheon, 1974.
Fitchett, E. Horace, "The Free Negro in Charleston, SC". Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1950.
Johnson, Michael and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: Norton, 1985.
Johnson, Michael and James L. Roark (eds.), No Chariot Let Down: Charleston's Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of NC Press, 1984.
Koger, Larry, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790 - 1860. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Wikramanayake, Marina, A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of SC Press, 1973.

Manuscript/Digital Sources:

The Holloway Family Scrapbook, compiled in the early 20th century by the descendant of a free persons of color family, documents their world before (and after the Civil War.) Part of the collections of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, it has been digitized and is part of the Lowcountry Digital Library. Access the manuscript here.

For an interpretive article about the scrapbook:

Greene, Harlan and Jessica Lancia, "The Holloway Scrapbook: The Legacy of a Charleston Family". South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 111, nos. 1 - 2 (January - April 2010), 5-33.

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Charleston's Free People of Color
Project Author: Harlan Greene
Technology Coordinator: Lindsay Barnett

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