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Reported by April V. Taylor
Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently wrote an article for the Root where he examined the history of free African-Americans owning slaves. According to his research, free blacks in the United States owned slaves from at least 1654 on through the Civil War. According to African American historian John Hope Franklin, most black slave owners “had some personal interest in their property.” Many were family members or friends who they sought to protect. While this was the case often, there were still African-Americans who owned slaves purely for the economic interest.
In a study done by Carter G. Woodson, it was found that in 1830, 13.7 percent of the black population was free, which amounted to some 319,599 people. Of those people, 3,776 African Americans owned 12,907 slaves. The total number of slaves at that time was around 2,009,043, so this represented an extremely small fraction. The majority of black slave owners, around 94 percent, owned one to nine slaves each, and 42 percent owned only one slave. Many black slave owners who owned only one slave most likely owned a family member in an attempt to protect them. Woodson stated in Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830 that “The census records show that the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy. In many instances the husband purchased the wife or vice versa…Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported to the numerators.”
Not all instances of black slave ownership were quite so benevolent. As John Hope Franklin points out, “Without doubt, there were those who possessed slaves for the purpose of advancing their (own) well-being…these Negro slaveholders were more interested in making their farms or carpenter-shops ‘pay’ than they were in treating their slaves humanely.”
Another surprising fact about black slave ownership in America is that not all black slave owners were men. There were multiple women who owned significant numbers of slaves. While black slave ownership may be a sensitive subject, it is important to acknowledge the role it has played in American history.