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Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984), 422 pp.

Black slaveowners?  Most people are shocked and amazed to discover that there were black slaveowners.  While always an anomaly, there were 10,000 to 12,000 black slaveowners in 1860, though many of them had purchased family members and continued to hold them in slavery because their state of residence did not allow masters to free slaves.

The exact breakdown of black slaveowners by category does not yet exist; for some insights into the life of at least one black master, Johnson and Roark's book provides a fairly detailed examination of what are necessarily incomplete records.  William Ellison was born a slave in 1790, and developed a skill as a master craftsman, a cotton gin maker.  He bought himself out of slavery, apparently with the active encouragement of his master -- who may well have been his father -- and became, in turn, a slaveowner himself -- and wealthier than 90% of white Southerners.  Indeed, he owned more slaves "than all but the richest white planters." [pp. xi-xii]

As it examines the status of William Ellison, his relationships with white masters, and the social milleu of Charleston, this book also paints an interesting portrait of the three race system of South Carolina life.  While whites considered free mulattoes (those of mixed white and black race) in the same category as pure blacks, the mulattoes insisted on keeping distinctions, one of their "attempts to shape social reality to their sense of themselves as an intermediate class, to give repeated public demonstrations that their social niche had clear racial boundaries and that their racial niche had equally crisp social limits." [pp. 225-226]

The chapter "Masters or Slaves" wanders far afield from William Ellison and his family, but provides some interesting insights into the manner in which working class free whites regarded free blacks and slaves who directly contracted their labor (sometimes with little or no involvement by their masters) as a threat to their economic status, and vigorously sought laws on the eve of the Civil War to prevent blacks from competing on an equal basis in what was essentially a color-blind, free market economy.

Perhaps the most startling part of the book is the extent to which the Ellison family identified with the slaveowners of the Confederacy.  His sons invested heavily in Confederate war bonds, and his grandson John Wilson Buckner was allowed to enlist in the South Carolina Artillery because of "personal associations and a sterling family reputation...." [pp. 305-307]  Of course, once the Civil War was over, this identification with their class, not their race, paid bitter rewards.  The bonds were defaulted, and the Ellison family slaves freed.  Without slaves, and in the subsequent depression, the Ellison family's land became worth far less -- broken as much as many white slaveowners.

Clayton's rating: Well-written, filled with fascinating and at times astonishing information.  Aimed at a well-educated and scholarly audience.

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