Lesson Plan: Overview

Slavery, Manumission, and Freedom: Free Blacks in Charleston before the Civil War

Grade Level: 8th

Link to Manumission of Jehu Jones

Academic Standards

Standard 8-1: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the settlement of South Carolina and the United States by Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans.
8-1.4 Explain the growth of the African American population during the colonial period and the significance of African Americans in the developing culture (e.g., Gullah) and economy of South Carolina, including the origins of African American slaves, the growth of the slave trade, the impact of population imbalance between African and European Americans, and the Stono Rebellion and subsequent laws to control the slave population.
Standard 8-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Civil War—its causes and effects and the major events that occurred during that time.
8-3.1 Explain the importance of agriculture in antebellum South Carolina, including plantation life, slavery, and the impact of the cotton gin.
8-3.3 Draw conclusions about how sectionalism arose from events or circumstances of racial tension, internal population shifts, and political conflicts, including the Denmark Vesey plot, slave codes, and the African American population majority.

Historical Background Notes

The conquerors and the conquered are a key part of nations clashing against nations.  Those captured as the spoils of the victor become the reward.  But even those that are conquered keep alive hopes, dreams, ambitions and desires to be free again.  They want to be a people that are not owned by another human being.  Slavery has been around since man came into his own understanding of conquering or be the one conquered.  Not all slave owners were comfortable though with owning another human being.  A few slaveholders chose to give some they enslaved, their freedom.  One way this was done was through a process of manumission.  Manumission is the liberating of a slave from bondage.  It is the formal act of freeing one from slavery.  In South Carolina, as with several other states in the Deep South, slaves could be manumitted by one of two ways.  Manumission could be given privately by an individual or it could be done officially by state law.

Private manumission was rare in most states, and was restricted, but it did happen from time to time.  Some slaves in South Carolina gained their freedom through the last will and testament of their owners, for faithful service, or from masters freeing their slave mistresses and children borne from their sexual relations.

The first documentation of free blacks in America was in Northampton County, Virginia in 1662.  History records that by 1776 over 60,000 African Americans, making up eight percent of the United States population, were free (Vogeler).  The number was up to 186,446 by 1810.  Whites in favor of slavery, especially in the South, feared these steadily rising numbers.  The largest number of free blacks lived in the North – seventy-five percent.  Ten percent lived in the Upper South and only four percent lived in the Deep South. 

Attaining freedom in the Deep South was not easy and by 1810 it was almost impossible to manumit slaves.  Most slaves yearned for freedom, but very few obtained it.  Those that attained this freedom achieved it through one of three means: manumission, through a last will and testament, or legislative laws.  A small number were even able to hire themselves out for pay after the workday for the master ended and earn enough money to buy their freedom.   These avenues were very rare though and discouraged in the Deep South (Poole 1994).

By 1800, in South Carolina, it became difficult to manumit slaves.  The State made it harder to manumit because it supported and thrived on the institution of slavery.  In 1820 laws were passed that stated slaves could only be emancipated by a Legislative act.

The 1790 census taken in Charleston, South Carolina found that 586 free blacks lived in the city of Charleston.  By 1861 that number was up to 3,341, (7.8 percent of the population).  While not all “free people of color” lived in the city, 89 percent of them did by 1850.  Blacks could obtain greater opportunity by living in the city.  The class lines were clearly drawn even within the races, yet, whites, free blacks, and slaves lived together within the city of Charleston, South Carolina.  They lived together before, during and after the Civil War.  From 1810 to 1850 Charleston was in some ways an African American city (Poole 1994).  Slaves made up around fifty percent of the population.  Free people of color made up between five to eight percent of the population during that forty year period.  Slaves filled the labor shortages left by whites and played a key role in the life of Charleston.


Primary Sources

"Deed of James Pearson of Sumter buying and freeing his son 1813."  Slave Data Collection.  Available online from AfriGeneas at http://www.afrigeneas.com/slavedata/Pearson-SC-1813.html

"Manumission of a Villein, 1278."  Available online from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook at Fordham University.

Manumission of Jehu Jones.  Secretary of State.  Recorded Instruments. Miscellaneous Records (Main Series). Volume 3Q, pp. 140, 286-287.  S 213003. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

Secondary Sources

Berlin, Ira.  Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South.  New York: New York University Press, 1974.

Brown, Alfonzo.  "The Last to Leave: McLeod's Plantation."  Available online from Gullah Tours at Gullah Tours.

The Chicora Foundation. "Free Persons of Color in Charleston, South Carolina, Before the Civil War." SCIWAY: South Carolina’s Information Highway.  Available online at http://www.sciway.net/hist/chicora/freepersons.html.

Copp, Roberta. Jehu Jones: Free Black Entrepreneur. Public Programs Document Packet no. 1.  Columbia, S.C.: South Carolina Department of Archives, 1989; reprint 1991.

Poole, James.  "On Borrowed Grounds: Free African American and Life In Charleston, South Carolina, 1810-1861." Essays in History. Vol. 36.  Cochran Department of History, Univ. of Virginia, 1994.

Trinkley, Michael and Debi Hacker. The Other Side of Charleston.  Archaeological Survey of the Saks Fifth Avenue Location, Charleston, South Carolina.  Research Series 45. Columbia, S.C.: Chicora Foundation, Inc., 1996.

Vogeler, Ingolf."Free Black Slaveowners in South Carolina." Available online at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


Lesson Plans

This series of three lessons explores the topic of manumission.  It includes a discussion of the system of slavery, the process of manumission, and the free Black population. Lesson One takes two class periods of 90 minutes, Lessons Two and Three each take one class period. 

Teacher Reflections

Lesson One:  Manumission

If I share the best thing that happened in the lesson, it would be the true fire of learning that was lit.  The lesson on Manumission was a springboard into all other kinds of discussions.  ...

The questions students asked forced us to dig deeper into the whole birth of manumission in this country.  The majority of the students were shocked to learn that free blacks lived in South Carolina, and especially in the Charleston area.   Some of these blacks lived where the students travel through and have family members living today.  This lesson generated a whole new list of vocabulary words that the students were not familiar with.  We had to do background research on words like divers, manumission, emancipate, aforesaid and enfranchise, just to name a few.  …

As students accepted the fact that free blacks lived in Charleston, the prize was watching their faces as they learned that some of these blacks owned businesses and some even owned black slaves.  ...  We studied several primary documents before they would accept what I said as truth.  The students took this fact home with them and it was discussed at many of their dinner tables that evening.  Parents even sent me a few of their own questions.

Teaching students about manumission in the state and more specifically, in the Charleston area was like watching kids in a candy store.  On the day of our discussion, a couple of my classes did not want to leave for their next class when the period came to an end.  They asked to stay and continue our discussion.  When we stared working with authentic documents of letters of manumission, students perked up.  We talked about the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and how they could go to Columbia and research information housed there.  We visited the web site and just explored some of what could be found at the SCDAH.  On a couple of the documents, and in the list of names of free blacks that lived in Charleston that we developed from research, some students noted immediately that there were people listed that had the same last names as they did.  What an avalanche of questions this caused!  Students with those names were curious as to rather or not the free persons of color listed could be relatives.  A few students went home and shared the lesson with their parents so we will now be doing a lesson, at a later date, on how to trace one’s family tree.  We also discussed the class system that existed within the black culture during this time.  Students were surprised and some disappointed to learn about the discrimination that “free persons of color” showed toward “free blacks”.  We discussed what those differences were.  They were stunned to figure out that some of them still harbor, and act on some of the same discriminations today.  Several black students in the class, with mixed parentage, shared with the class comments peers often make about them when they are talking.  …A few students were even able to see the correlation of their behavior now to the ways blacks treated one another during this period in history…

The help of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History was invaluable.  Mr. Steve Tuttle gathered some of the documents on manumission housed in the Archives and sent them right away.  Ms. Karen Stokes, at the South Carolina Historical Society emailed several sources cataloged at the Historical Society that were useful in carrying out the lesson on manumission.  The authentic documents brought the slaves and free blacks to life for the students in a way that just talking about them never could have.  I would change very little in this lesson because it surpassed my expectations.  One thing I would adjust though is the amount of time I allowed for the discussions leading up to the lesson.  It took longer than I had originally planned.  I would also love to invite a speaker from the SCDAH to come and talk with my classes about how students might use the information stored by the Archives.  The next time I teach this lesson, I will also have students visit the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston. 

Lesson Two:  Freedom through Manumission and Beyond

…The second lesson created a stronger understanding of the importance of manumission for someone that was fortunate enough to receive it.  Students, through their research, came to the realization that no matter how kind, or safe a owner might have tried to make a slave feel, no human being wanted to be owned by another.

As students wrote their skits, I had to remind them time and time again that they could not just free large numbers of slaves.  It just was not done that way.  The students often tried to free entire families through manumission.  We had to go back and talk about the importance of male slaves over female slaves, especially on plantations and the fact that there were many more free females than males.  The skits students developed gave additional opportunities to me to clarify our study of this period in history.

…The ways in which manumissions actually occurred were revisited.  By the time students finished these two lessons, they understood why manumission was hoped and prayed for by many, if not by every slave held in bondage.  I knew students had made the connection to this fact when a student in class asked if I thought this was why a slave turned Denmark Vesey in and exposed Vesey’s plot of rebellion.  The students and I had a wonderful, lively discussion with that question.  I asked them to share their thought on that question and believe me, they had a lot to say.  There were so many wonderful moments in these two lessons where I wished I had videotaped the students.

… Most African American students living in Charleston refer to it as “Chuck Town.”  This a pet name and shows respect for the place in which they live.  They have also given pet names to their neighborhoods.  Some said that they have a greater respect for Chuck Town after learning about manumission and the number of free blacks that lived in the city.  They said they feel more like they truly belong, because some of those free blacks were probably their ancestors.  I told them that they were probably right.

…  I would also like to believe that more family bonding and communication took place when some students made inquiries into their family tree.

The next time I conduct this lesson, I will schedule more time to see all of the groups perform the skits they created.  While all groups wrote their skits, not all groups had time to perform the skits.  The time frame I established did not give me the flexibility I needed.  Student questions and our discussions ate up a lot of the time set aside for the plays.  But you know, this is what learning is all about.  We monitored and adjusted and allowed curious learning to flow naturally.  The lesson exceeded my expectations.  

Student Assessment

Each lesson will be assessed separately:
  • For Lesson One, the letter of manumission created by the group will be used to assess understanding.
  • For Lesson Two, the performance created by the group and presented to the class assesses the students understanding. 
  • For Lesson Three, the finished letter will be graded for accuracy of data incorporated. 

Examples of Students Work


Odessa Wilson
North Charleston High School, South Carolina