Why Neo-Confederate Claims about Black Slaveholders Are So Misleading

Neo-Confederates insist that the many statues of Robert E. Lee commemorate only southern “heritage,” and that the revered “Lost Cause” had nothing to do with slavery. Among their favorite proofs of the latter proposition is the claim that southern blacks were also slaveholders, which is somehow thought to make the Confederacy’s “peculiar institution” appear more even-handed or benign. The most recent iteration of this dubious storyline comes in the form of a widely-circulated internet image asserting that “What your history books [don’t] tell you is that 3000 blacks owned a total of 20,000 slaves” in 1860.  Signed by “A Proud Southern Deplorable – Southern Rebel,” the point of the meme is evidently that blacks and whites were both responsible for slavery.  Although the 20,000 figure is probably fairly accurate, as determined by the website Politifact, it represents only one half percent of the 4 million enslaved African Americans on the eve of the Civil War.

There were certainly black plantation owners in the South, some of whom had substantial human “property,” but many of the black-held slaves were actually family members, whose nominal enslavement was a consequence of the harsh restrictions placed on free African Americans in the southern states.

Under the prevailing law in many of the slave states, newly-emancipated blacks were required to leave the state within a short period of time, ranging from 30 to 90 days.  Thus, husbands and wives were sometimes compelled to “own” their spouses and children in order to keep their families intact and evade the harsh demands of the racist law.

That is what happened to Allen and Temperance Jones who, as I explain in my book The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry, had been the “property” of a North Carolina slaveholder named Jeffreys in the early nineteenth century. An accomplished blacksmith, Allen had been allowed, as was common, to take on extra work in the evenings and on Sundays, from which he eventually accumulated the $685 necessary to purchase his own freedom.  Jeffreys, however, turned out to be a swindler, who took the money while denying that Allen had rightfully earned his wages.  Undeterred, Allen continued to labor and, this time with the help of some Quakers, successfully bought his freedom.

Now able to work full time, Allen managed to accumulate the $3000 necessary to free Temperance and their three sons. But there was a catch.  Allen could hardly trust the perfidious Jeffreys to fulfill his part of the bargain and, in any case, North Carolina law would have required Temperance and the boys to leave the state following their manumission. He therefore had no choice but to buy them himself, thus becoming the “owner” of four slaves.

Intra-family ownership could be perilous in the antebellum era, as slaves, even when held by spouses or parents, were always subject to seizure in satisfaction of debts.  Allen therefore took the extraordinary step of retaining counsel to petition a court for an order of emancipation for his wife and children.  Filed in late 1829, the court papers recited his ownership of “several negro slaves to wit: Tempe, Munro, Betheny, and Burnham,” explaining that they were his wife and children, and vouching for Tempe’s “upright character.”  Temperance’s earlier service to Jeffreys was described as “dutiful, faithful, and highly meritorious,” and the petition ended with a prayer “for the liberation of his said slaves.”

There was no question that the petition would be granted, as it had been drafted and submitted by Thomas Ruffin, a large-scale slaveholder who was perhaps the most well-connected lawyer in the state.  Only a few months later, Ruffin would be appointed Chief Justice of North Carolina, and he soon established a reputation as one of the most ardently pro-slavery jurists in the South. Before the end of the year, Ruffin would author the opinion inState v. Mann, holding that a master could not be prosecuted for shooting a recalcitrant slave.  In Ruffin’s words, “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.”

In law practice, however, Ruffin evidently took scrupulous care of his clients without regard to race. Thus, the Jones petition pointedly included that language about Temperance’s “dutiful, faithful, and highly meritorious service,” which provided one of the few exceptions to the law requiring her to depart North Carolina following her emancipation. (It appears that Allen had obtained a “meritorious service” clause in his own emancipation papers from Jeffreys, but he obviously had not trusted the slaveholder to provide the necessary provision for Temperance.)

Allen and Temperance were not content to remain living in a slave state.  By 1843 they had decided to remove themselves to Ohio.  In one of the many cruel ironies of slavery, they were again required to seek authorization from the white authorities, this time to leave the state where they had first needed permission to stay.

The Joneses resettled in Oberlin, Ohio, which was then the most integrated and anti-slavery community in the U.S.  The entire family became active in the abolitionist movement, often providing shelter to fugitive slaves.  Allen opened a smithy, and he could often be heard at his forge, singing songs of liberation in time to his pounding hammer.  All four of their sons – including the aptly named Elias Toussaint, who had been born free in 1834 – graduated from Oberlin College, thus making the Joneses one of the most educated African American families in the entire antebellum era.

Not every black slaveholder was wholly altruistic, and many profited handsomely – although often with mixed emotions – from enslaved labor.  One example was Matthew Leary, a free North Carolina “mulatto” who claimed descent from a Revolutionary War soldier named Jeremiah O’Leary.  A contemporary and acquaintance of the Joneses, Leary was a prosperous saddle-maker who lived in a fine house and provided private tutors for his children.  He was known to purchase slaves at auction, sometimes owning two or three at a time. Leary was known to treat his slaves imperiously, but he also assigned them wages that they could use to “work out their purchase money” toward manumission. Three of Leary’s children also ended up in Oberlin, where they participated in abolitionist activities alongside the Joneses. The youngest of them, Lewis Sheridan Leary, joined John Brown at Harpers Ferry, where he was killed in the fighting.

I discovered the Jones petition accidentally during research on a different family in the North Carolina archives, and as far as I can tell, no one since 1829 had ever been told the embarrassing details of Temperance’s complicated route to freedom. There is no mention of it in the many remembrances, memoirs, and articles by the Jones children and their descendants – all of which discuss the family’s origins in slavery – nor was it included in the long profile of Allen in an 1856 issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard.  Perhaps, as an ardent abolitionist, Allen was discomfited by his experience as a slaveholder; perhaps Temperance never wanted to reveal the indignity of once having been enslaved to her husband.

The “Proud Southern Deplorable” seems to think that there is some exoneration of the Confederacy in the small number of slaves owned by black people, but in fact that was just one of the many traumas imposed by the slave system. The Jones family story actually illustrates precisely the opposite: African Americans would do virtually anything necessary to free their loved ones from enslavement.

Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He is the author of The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery, which includes more details and sources about the Jones and Leary families.