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.
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Charleston’s Free People of Color
Project Author: Harlan Greene
Technology Coordinator: Lindsay Barnett
Special Collections Research and Content Assistance: Annika Liger