Slavery was an abominable institution, but we cannot ignore the fact that it shaped the people and early culture of South Carolina. By exploring the surviving documents found in archives and libraries across the South Carolina, however, one can find stories of people who escaped slavery and found a path to freedom. I believe such stories reveal the hope that many enslaved South Carolinians held for a better tomorrow.
As a historian I spend a lot of time looking at old records, and in the course of my research I’ve identified four different paths to freedom in early South Carolina.
The first I’ll call “government manumission.” Manumission is a term for the act of setting someone free, derived from the verb “to manumit.” That word may be unfamiliar to modern readers, but it’s similar to the verb “to emancipate,” from which we get the word “emancipation,” as in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In a government manumission, the agent manumitting the enslaved person was the South Carolina General Assembly.
A second path to freedom was “private manumission,” in which a private citizen who owned a slave voluntarily released that person from the bonds of slavery. This practice was the most common, and the most secure path to freedom in early America. No one has ever made an inventory of private manumissions in South Carolina, but I would estimate that perhaps as many as one thousand South Carolinians were emancipated by this method before 1820. In December of that year, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law requiring an act of the legislature to manumit any slave. As you can imagine, this new law effectively ended the practice of private manumission.
A third path was for an enslaved person to purchase his or her own freedom. Many enslave people in South Carolina were given opportunities to generate income in their “spare time,” and some enslaved people were “hired out” to work beyond their masters’ property. In such cases, the enslaved people were allowed to keep a percentage of the revenue they generated. After years of hard work, an enslaved person might be able to earn enough money to purchase his or her freedom, as well as the freedom their own family members.
And finally, when there were no other options, an enslaved person might simply run away from his or her owner and attempt to forge their own path to freedom. As you can imagine, this was a pretty bold and desperate act of defiance, and the thousands of South Carolinians who chose to run away from slavery faced a multitude of dangers. Most were not successful, and the consequences of failure were sometimes fatal.
If you’d like to hear examples of each of these paths to freedom, please take a look at the video version of this program from September 2015:
If you’d like to learn more about escaping slavery in early South Carolina, click on this link to download a PDF copy of a suggested reading list.