The roots of the myth that slavery was primarily a white Southern institution were planted three decades prior to the War Between the States by the abolitionists in New York and New England. This myth also included the idea that those same abolitionists of the 1830s had introduced the freeing of slaves in America. Actually, however, the first seeds of emancipation were sown in 1688 when the Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued a “Petition Against Slavery” which urged the abolishment of slavery in all Quaker communities. That was followed in 1775 when Anthony Benezet, a Quaker educator in Philadelphia, founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. A decade later the group changed its name to the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery with Benjamin Franklin as its president. It took well over a hundred years for the idea of emancipation to finally take hold at a far broader level but contrary to what is universally taught and thought today, the first true anti-slavery movements began not in the North in the 1830s, but over thirty years earlier in the South.
In the period from the late 1700s to 1830, while those in the North, with the exception of the Quakers, remained generally indifferent to the idea of freeing the slaves, many in the South, particularly clergymen, were seriously debating the problem. As early as 1792, a Kentucky minister, David Rice, gave a speech at Kentucky’s Constitutional Convention in which he called slavery an “injustice” and described slaveholders as “licensed robbers.” Rice then urged the Convention to “resolve unconditionally to put an end to slavery in this State.” Other voices in the South, like those of clergymen David Barrows and John Paxton in Virginia, echoed such sentiments. Paxton felt that slavery was a “mortal evil” and that it was the duty of all Christians to aid in freeing the slaves. In 1818, Paxton took part in the Kentucky Presbyterian Assembly’s official denouncement of slavery. Another Kentuckian who fought for the rights of slaves was James Briney, a former slaveholder who fully embraced the South’s growing anti-slavery sentiment in the 1820s. Briney helped enact early legislation to improve slave conditions, as well as calling for an end to the importation of African slaves and the abolishment of slave auctions.
North Carolina was another area where the anti-slavery movement became active in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. In 1816, a town commissioner from New Salem, Moses Swain, was the founder and first president of the North Carolina Manumission Society and twenty years later he was appointed as clerk of the Randolph County Superior Court. Within ten years, the Society had three thousand members in fourteen chapters throughout the State, as well as forty-five affiliated groups. Some of its members, like Swain, were also appointed or elected to public office in the State prior to 1861.
The North Carolina group also worked closely with the American Colonization Society that had been founded in 1817 in Washington, D. C., by Dr. Robert Finley just prior to his becoming president of the University of Georgia. The Society advocated the relocation of freed slaves to Liberia, a colony the Society had established in West Africa in 1822. Most anti-slavery groups in the South, as well as a number of slaveholders, supported the idea and cooperated with the Society. After the start of the Northern abolitionist movement in the 1830s, many of its members, as well as others like Abraham Lincoln, strongly urged the shipping of all blacks back to Africa and by 1860 about twelve thousand had been sent there.
In 1831, however, public opinion in the South turned against the region’s anti-slavery groups when the Southhampton Insurrection took place in Virginia. The slaves in the revolt led by Nat Turner murdered over sixty mostly white, men, women and children and while the uprising was suppressed within a few days, it caused a great deal of consternation throughout the South which led to more stringent judicial rulings and legislation in regard to slaves. The latter included the anti-education acts that ended the black schools which had been created by the Southern anti-slavery societies . . . and by the mid-1830s, except for a few “stations” that remained on the Underground Railroad, the anti-slavery movements in the South had virtually come to an end.
One of the earliest and most influential abolitionist groups that were later formed in the North was the American Anti-Slavery Society that was started in 1833 in New York City by William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. However, as there was by then almost no black slavery left in the North, the Northern abolitionists turned their sights on the slaves in the South. In this, one of their most potent weapons was the spreading of anti-Southern propaganda via the printed word. Two years before founding his society in New York, Garrison had started publishing a weekly abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator” in Boston which ran from 1831 to 1866. His Society also had its own publication, the weekly “National Anti-Slavery Standard,” as well as the annual “Anti-Slavery Almanac” that, in addition to regularly condemning Southern slavery, also contained some accounts of the more lurid anti-black incidents that had taken place in other parts of the country.
Then, in 1847, Linnaeus P. Noble of New York, along with poet John Greenleaf Whittier, began publishing an equally widely-read abolitionist weekly in Washington. D. C., “The National Era.” One of this paper’s greatest propaganda efforts was the initial 1851 publication in serial form of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional and highly distorted vision of slavery in the South, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Prior to Garrison’s and Noble’s newspapers, a black minister and leader of New York City’s free black community, Samuel Eli Cornish, published America’s first black abolitionist newspaper, “Freedom’s Journal” in 1827. Twenty years later, Frederick Douglass who had helped start the American Anti-Slavery Society, began publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, “North Star,” in Rochester, New York. What the Northern abolitionists and their publications omitted in their attacks on Southern slavery though was the fact that slavery and the slave trade had flourished in the North for more than two centuries, as well as the inconvenient truth that blacks in the South also owned many slaves.
While slavery had been officially ended in the Northern States during the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, it was still a practice in many areas until the mid 1800s, with some of the largest concentrations being in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. In New York, even the family of Lincoln’s abolitionist Secretary of State William Seward had owned slaves, as well as did Lincoln’s uncle Mordecai Lincoln in Kentucky. In New England, one of Connecticut’s leading families, the Saltonstalls, had been deeply involved in the African slave trade. In the mid to late 1700s, ships owned by the family sailed from New London to West Africa to purchase slaves from Arab or black slavers and then returned to sell their human cargoes at various ports in the Caribbean and the South, as well as carrying some back to New England for sale. During America’s colonial period there were as many as five thousand slaves in Connecticut alone and a few still remained in bondage there as late as 1840. While many others in New England were involved in the slave trade, the largest perhaps was United States Senator James DeWolf of Rhode Island who at one time was the second wealthiest men in America. It is estimated that from 1769 to 1820, the DeWolf family brought about twelve thousand black slaves from Africa to the Americas, both legally and illegally.
In New York, over seven percent of the population in the late Eighteenth Century were black slaves, with the last slave being freed there in 1827. In Rhode Island, over six percent of the population were enslaved and the practice there lasted until 1842, New Jersey, however, had the highest number, almost eight percent, and the latest date for total emancipation, 1865. At slavery’s height in the North prior to 1790, there were approximately forty thousand blacks in bondage. This, of course, represented only one percent of the almost four million slaves in the South in 1860, but there the large plantations required far greater numbers of field and domestic workers than the smaller farms and households in the North . . . and slavery is still slavery regardless of the numbers involved.
The matter of black slaveholders is also one that has generally been disregarded in the effort to place the onus of slavery exclusively on white Southern slave owners. In fact, one of the first actual slaveholders in America was a free black named Anthony Johnson. In the 1650s, Johnson was a tobacco farmer in Virginia who owned two hundred and fifty acres of land and had five indentured servants, four white and one black. The black servant, John Casor, claimed he was being held illegally but the local court decreed that Casor was “owned for life” by Johnson and thus became the first legally sanctioned black slave in America. In the next century, the Pendarvis family of free blacks in Colleton County, South Carolina, owned one of the largest rice plantations in the State that was worked by over a hundred twenty black slaves. By 1830, the census figures showed that there were well over three thousand free blacks in the South and that they owned more than twelve thousand slaves. Two such people in South Carolina were Justius Angel and his partner known as “Mistress Horry” who owned a hundred sixty-eight slaves, as well as holding slave auctions.
Four decades later, there were a hundred and seventy-one black slaveholders in South Carolina alone, with one wealthy black plantation owner and cotton gin manufacturer, William Ellison, owning the largest number, 63. Ellison, a former slave himself, was not only noted for cruelty to his slaves but also for the breeding of slaves, a practice that was illegal in most Southern States. Another black slave trader that was known for a different type of cruelty towards slaves was former slave Nathaniel Butler of Maryland. After he obtained his freedom, Butler purchased a farm in Aberdeen and bought a few slaves to work on it. His primary source of income, however, was both slave trading and the bounty hunting of runaway slaves. Any escaping slaves who mistakingly sought refuge at Butler’s farm were kept there until Butler found to whom they belonged and would then return them for the reward. If the bounty was too small, however, Butler would buy and and then resell them further south for a higher price.
Statistics show that by 1860, while both whites and free blacks in the South owned an average of one to five slaves, the number for black slaveholders in New Orleans was much higher. There, a third of the free blacks owned at least six slaves each, with some having more than sixty. One such person was a free black named Antoine Dubuclet who had inherited a small sugar plantation called Cedar Grove from his free black father. The plantation had only a few slaves then but by 1860, Cedar Grove had become one of the larger plantations in the State with over a hundred slaves. At the same time, a free black woman in New Orleans named Richards and her son had over a hundred fifty slaves working on their sugar plantation. The black woman with the most slaves in Louisiana, however, was Marie Thérèse Metoyer. She had met and married a Frenchman in Africa but when they relocated to Louisiana, State law decreed that she had to be listed as his slave. Years later, her husband Claude returned to France and remarried, but he had given Marie her freedom and left she and their six children his large tobacco plantation. By 1830, Marie owned two hundred eighty-seven slaves, the most in Louisiana’s Natchitoches Parish at that time.
Perhaps one of the oddest accounts of a free black woman owning a slave involved Dilsey Pope of Columbus, Georgia. She had purchased a male slave and while she later married him, Dilsey still hired him out to work on nearby farms. Once, after the couple had a heated argument, Dilsey spitefully sold her husband to a white neighbor but soon regretted the action and tried to buy him back, The neighbor, however, refused and he was was upheld by the local court. Then, of course, there is the case of Native-Americans and the thousands of black slaves they owned. In 1838, when the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes were moved west to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, they brought with them about three thousand five-hundred black slaves.
The perversion of slavery’s history that began with the Northern abolitionists almost two centuries ago has grown exponentially over the years. Today virtually all children have been taught for generations that slavery is a sin of the South alone and that the North went to war in 1861 only to break the chains of slavery on Southern blacks. Erased has been the true history of both emancipation and slavery which clearly shows that the North had slaves for over two hundred years and that the practice did not fully end there until shortly before the War Between the States . . . or that non-whites too had a long and sometimes sordid history of slave ownership. What has also been ignored is the fact that it was Northerners, not Southerners, who ran and profited mostly from the African slave trade, or that it was Southerners, not Northerners, who actually started the movement to end slavery in America. It is certainly time to clear away the clouds of mythology on these subjects and begin to present what actually took place during America’s long and painful journey through slavery in both the North and the South.