For black women in antebellum Charleston, freedom was not a static legal category but a fragile and contingent experience. In Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers analyzes the ways in which black women in Charleston acquired, defined, and defended their own vision of freedom. Drawing on legislative and judicial materials, probate data, tax lists, church records, family papers, and more, she creates detailed portraits of individual women while exploring how black female Charlestonians sought to create a fuller freedom by improving their financial, social, and legal standing.
In the following excerpt from Forging Freedom (pp. 176-177) we are introduced to a family of free black women who managed to acquire considerable wealth and autonomy, despite social structures designed to limit such opportunities for them.:
In 1842, Barbara Tunno Barquet became ensnared in the legal battles of a wealthy South Carolina couple. That year, Elizabeth Heyward Hamilton, a member of a powerful planter family, sued her husband, James, for violating their marriage contract. Elizabeth brought an estate worth $100,000 into her marriage, and she and her husband agreed to place this property in a trust estate for Elizabeth’s “sole and separate use.” By law, James could not use the entrusted property to guarantee or pay his own debts. But he did just that. A land speculator and gambler, James, who had himself appointed guardian of his wife’s estate, almost bankrupted the trust. In 1842, with creditors closing in, Elizabeth initiated a lawsuit to have James removed as guardian of her estate. She also named several of her husband’s creditors, all of whom were seeking payment out of the trust, as codefendants in her suit. Seven of the debts were mortgages James had taken out on his wife’s entrusted real estate. The holder of one such mortgage, in the amount of $5,178, was Barbara, a free black woman from the city of Charleston.
How did Barbara, an affluent black woman, get caught up in the affairs of Elizabeth and James, members of South Carolina’s white plantation elite? Considering the Old South’s public commitment to racial and gendered hierarchies of power, how do we make sense of a court case wherein a powerful white man was financially indebted to a free black woman? What does the lawsuit teach us about Barbara as an individual, and about the broader experiences of free black women in Charleston and throughout the antebellum South? In order to answer these questions, and provide a wider historical context for the suit, we must step back from the 1842 legal action and examine the women in Barbara’s family, including her mother, Margaret Bettingall, and her half sister, Hagar Cole.
It is important to note that Margaret, Hagar, and Barbara were different from the majority of Charleston’s free black women. Wealthier than most of the city’s free women of color, all three owned real estate and were slaveholders. Additionally, they were members of a racially mixed family and had access to white men of influence. The family also left records allowing us to resurrect their stories, fragmented though these documents may be. Finally, these women navigated an unjust social landscape in ingenious ways and acquired certain privileges thought to be outside the reach of both free blacks and women. They are thus worthy of study partly because their lives were, in some ways, exceptional. Rather than providing an example of the experiences that were “common” among free blacks, their stories more fully reveal the range of black female life and behavior in the Old South and challenge assumptions about what it meant to be a typical free black woman during the slave era. Indeed, the desire to define the “average” free black experience obscures the complexity of the world in which antebellum black women lived, a complexity these women’s lives illuminate.
Although these three women were unique in some ways, the constraints they faced in their quest for a life of their own design, and the strategies they utilized to survive and succeed, were representative of the city’s larger community of black women. In particular, Charleston’s women of color understood that men were both a hindrance and a help in their efforts to secure greater liberty for themselves. The circumstances of black women’s lives meant that men were the gatekeepers to the expanded freedom they sought, so they engaged in a multitude of relationships with men, both black and white, in order to attain the privileges these affiliations offered them, even as they struggled against the constraints these same men placed on them. The records of this one family thus allow us to delve into topics ranging from interracial sexual relations, to black female wealth, autonomy, and power, to the access that black women had to justice in the Old South. In particular, these women’s experiences illuminate how Charleston’s social, economic, and legal structures were designed to limit the freedom of black women, and how black women worked from within this inequitable system and reshaped it to better fit their own definitions of freedom and justice.
Excerpt from FORGING FREEDOM: BLACK WOMEN & THE PURSUIT OF LIBERTY IN ANTEBELLUM CHARLESTON by Amrita Chakrabarti Myers. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Amrita Chakrabarti Myers is assistant professor of history at Indiana University-Bloomington.
- For a detailed examination of the lawsuit, see Crane, “Two Women.” On marriage contracts, see chap. 4.↩
- Much of the information in this chapter comes from the TFP, seven folders of documents within the Langdon Cheves Legal Collection, held at the SCHS. Documents from the collection are referenced as TFP, Folder #. See Elizabeth M. Hamilton per pro ami Henry D. Cruger v. General James Hamilton et al. (Hamilton v. Hamilton), in Charleston Court of Equity Records Bill 105 (1842), at SCDAH; William Harper’s Report, in Court of Equity Reports, 1839-45, vol. 40 (3 March 1842), at SCDAH. Harper was ordered to discover the amount, nature, and order of precedence of all liens against the estate. The report listed $155,000 in debts, almost $50,000 of which was mortgages on Rice Hope Plantation and $30,000 in mortgages on Pennyworth Plantation. Barbara held the third mortgage on Rice Hope.↩