CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – In this week’s Good Question, Kelly wondered “Were badges, worn by enslaved Africans in the 1800’s, only uses in Charleston?” We went to the experts to find out.
“The history of slavery in Charleston is extensive to put it mildly.”
Grahame Long, Senior Curator for The Charleston Museum said Charleston played a significant role in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to North America. The laws on slavery first appeared here at the turn of the 18th century.
“One of the main ports they were brought – not just in South Carolina, but in the nation – they were brought over in bondage in volumes that are centered here and then dispersed through the southeast.”
And, while slavery is not unique to the Lowcountry, these are: so-called slave badges – several are on display at the museum.
“Slave badges are unique to Charleston. At least the metal ones are. This sort of slave higher system, what these badges represent, goes on in other cities like Wilmington, Richmond, New Orleans… but Charleston is the only city to issue metal identification badges for these hired out slave workers.”
Essentially, owners would hire out their slaves for money. The badge identified that person’s skill and allowed them movement around town to do that specific work.
“Beginning in 1800’s these badges were starting to be disbursed among white owners to be worn in some fashion by the slave to give them the “liberty” of walking around or going from one job to the next and making supplemental income.”
While this badge granted some liberties to enslaved Africans, some were even able to keep a portion of their income. The feelings definitely mixed by the ones who were forced to wear them.
“In some instances, there’s a notation that there is some self-worth, in other cases it is just one more sign of oppression that you are now – besides being enslaved in one place – you are being pushed out to be enslaved somewhere else. The balance of that scale tilts very far both ways.”
The badges disappeared in 1865 after the end of the Civil War, but Grahame said they still received badges from different parts of the country.