|It is commonly believed
that Charleston's first person of African heritage arrived on the same
ship with the first British settlers to the area in 1670. The first black
slaves identified by name arrived later that year along with Colonial Barbadian
immigrants. Carolina was the only English settlement inhabited by slaves
from its inception.
West African immigrants were arriving as slaves at an increasing rate in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They were not as susceptible to the tropical fevers which plagued the port city, and they knew more about rice agriculture than their masters. The first slave law was enacted in 1696 when the slave numbers had grown enough to create uneasiness in the white population. A second slave law, a curfew, was passed in 1701.
During the 1720s, the black population rose dramatically thanks to the increased need for rice laborers on surrounding plantations and to the need for skilled workers in town. 10,000 West African slaves were brought into the Charleston area. When the ratio reached two black persons for every one white, the first slave conspiracies were rumored and discovered. A special town watch force was begun, to patrol the streets of town after dark--a slave patrol.
In a rush to beat the impending import duties, slaves were imported at an increased rate in the 1760s. Rice had become a very lucrative crop for the area, and slaves were the labor force of this crop.
It was not until after the Civil War that interracial marriage was forbidden in South Carolina.
Charleston's brown elite included 500 free mulattoes within a free African-American population of 3000. Many of these free persons owned slaves themselves. This brown elite was created on the basis of status, color, and wealth. Charleston's free black population increased through birth, but also by buying out of slavery or by being freed by white owners. Urban slaves hiring their time acquired enough money to purchase their freedom and freedom for relatives. Charleston became a destination point for free black migrants from other states and from foreign counties as well as a hiding place for runaways. Slaves could be granted their freedom for meritorious services. Many "favorite" slave women were freed on the deathbeds of their masters. Powers writes, "one consequence of the large-scale manumission of children sired by slaveholders is clearly reflected in the demography of the free black population. In 1860, 75 percent of the free black residents of Charleston County were mulattoes. This contrasts sharply with the county's slave population, 8 percent of which was mulatto" (38).
The "Sugar House," on the corner of Magazine and Mazyck streets, was an institution for slave correction. Payment of a fee by slave owners purchased whipping by the workhouse keeper. In addition to straight flogging, the Sugar House also possessed a treadmill on which slaves were required to walk, arms tied above their heads, while drivers flogged them with a cat o' nine tails. While city officials proclaimed the treadmill an improvement in racial control, Sarah Grimke described it as a method of torture.
In 1860, during the secession crisis, Charleston police began a systematic search of Charleston's free Black population. Of the 3,200 free blacks, 122 owned slaves. Those interrogated, who could not provide proof of their emancipation were re-enslaved. Even the mulatto aristocracy, including the Ellisons, Johnsons, and Westons were hounded. The free black community sought to leave Charleston, and the trade class left, selling businesses and property at great loss. However, the aristocracy, fearing loss of careers, and other monetary situations, stayed in Charleston.
Generally, Charleston trusted its free black community, even employing them as firefighters in 1862. In contrast there was a continuous fear of slave insurrection, particularly arsonry, from the moment the black-white population reached 2:1.
There were a couple of attempts to arm slaves in wars such as the Yemassee War and the French and Indian War. Such empowerment of the black population was not received kindly by Charleston residents. Thus the black Union soldier was a particular affront to Charleston natives. During the Civil War, it was understood that no Negro prisoners were to be taken; the African-American regiments suffered particularly heavy casualties.
The African-American population remaining in Charleston welcomed the Union troops. A ceremony was performed in Marion Square, March 3, 1865, in which 13 black women, representing the original 13 colonies, presented Union commanders with a flag, flowers, and a gift for Mrs. Lincoln. That same month (March 29, 1865), there was a great emancipation celebration in Charleston. A parade, including band, the 21st U.S. Regiment, 4000 artisans and tradesmen, and almost 2000 school children, marched through the city center. Artisans and tradesmen included firemen, sailors, and 50 butchers, schoolteachers. At the end of the procession were two floats. The first bore an auction block with an "auctioneer" selling two black women and their children. The second float held a coffin and signs celebrating the death of slavery.
In discussing celebrations in Black Charleston, Hill writes:
The free brown elite continued to maintain their antebellum habits of deference to the white aristocracy and rejection of the common free, now including the newly freed. During a smallpox epidemic in 1865, the Freedmen's Bureau was kept busy insuring care for the new black refugees in the city, particularly susceptible to the outbreaks of disease, contrary to their original resistance to the "tropcial fevers."
Just before the advent of African-American political forces in the state legislature, the all-white leadership enacted a Black Code. [link to document, Crossing Danger Water] In 1867, the U.S. Congress granted the vote to black males. 1867 saw the appointment of a new group of city alderman, including six white and seven black men. The African-American contingent were of the antebellum free brown elite. The socially prominent brown elite, never more than 2% of Charleston's African-American population, such as the Noisettes, McKinlays, and Holloways, began the congregation of St. Mark's Protestant Episcopal Church, the building for which was begun in 1875.
Social organization of white Charlestonians was based on class (money) and family. The white elite's clubs included the St. Cecilia Society, the Charleston Club, the Huguenot Society, and the Carolina Yacht Club. White citizens below the aristocracy could choose from among the Emerald Social Club, the Annex Club, and the Harmony Social Club. In addition to church organizations, African-Americans had fraternal orders such as the Masons, and social clubs such as the Mystic. Community organizations among Charleston African-Americans were highly concerned with education. The Humane and Friendly Society, Friendly Union Brotherly Association, Unity and Friendship, Friendly Moralist Society, Union Assembly, and the Christian Benevolent Society antedated the Civil War. The Brown Fellowship Society had eighteenth century origins.