Antebellum Class Differentiation: Property Ownership within the White and Black Elite Classes

Slavery was and is a complex system of power relations and hierarchies
Slavery was and is a complex system of power relations and hierarchies

Scholar and Civil Rights Activist Earl Ofari estimated that in 1830, there were 3,777 Black slave masters in the United States.  Of course, it is more complicated than a simple fact.  Some of these purchases were actually to free family members.  Others hired out their slaves for profit.  Presumably these slave-owning Blacks were free themselves.  Legally, a slave was classified as property.  A slave owning a slave would be a curious case of property owning property (and I am sure there are cases of this). In Louisiana, a class of wealthy Black and mixed-race planters (all of whom never exerted the same influence or possessed the same wealth as their White counterparts) rose to prominence.  According to historian Manning Marable, in 1936 in New Orleans free Blacks (about 800 total) owned property and private businesses worth just under $2.5 million.  By 1860, this number increased to over $9 million.    The Black (freedmen) elite had a clear advantage over the freemen in the post-Civil War, Reconstruction Era.  All were constrained within the White economy of the South, but the wealth-holding families were likely better able to weather the storms of economic devastation and currency devaluation.  Newly emancipated freemen entered a devastated economy, a near-defunct job market.  Economic downturn hampered the efforts of freemen to exercise their freedom as landowners and independent farmers (thus crop liens, tenant farming and share-cropping, and the accompanying cycles of debt (credit is evil).)  Freedmen already had a foothold in the economy, and they already operated in the Southern economy.

And let’s not forget that about 2/3 of Southern White households did not own slaves.  The planter class was the elite wealth-holding class.  Those less well-off might hire slave labor at a profit to the slave’s master.  Those too poor labored on their own farms and lived in relative poverty (“poor White trash”)  Paradoxically, those who swelled the ranks of the White poor and working class comprised the Patrols who monitored slave activity and bolstered the system of subjugation imposed upon the slaves.  This was an affirmation of Whites’ privileged position in relation to that of Blacks’ in Southern Antebellum society.  Also, the Patrollers served to support, protect and thus maintain the planter class’ wealth by controlling the behavior of their ‘property.’  In any case, class differentiation in the Antebellum South could be understood in terms of property ownership.

– Just a thought


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