In the year 1830, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade, there were an estimated two million people enslaved in the United States. In the vast majority of cases, they were Africans or the enslaved descendants of Africans, forced to work on plantations owned by wealthy, white individuals. But this wasn’t always the case. The history books also show that some slaves were owned by people of color. More specifically, according to the historian Carter G. Woodson, in 1830, 3,775 freed former slaves owned 12,100 slaves between them, a tiny fraction of America’s enslaved millions.
In many cases – and, perhaps in the majority of cases – people of colour with slaves only owned one or two individuals. And even this was for personal, rather than business reasons. Upon earning their own freedom, they would purchase enslaved relatives in order to be close to their loved ones. But in some cases, freed slaves were every bit as business-minded, entrepreneurial and even ruthless as white plantation owners. Indeed, a handful of people of color not only managed to buy their own freedom, but they went on to amass small fortunes. Sometimes this money was made through the sugar or cotton trades, often on the back of slaves of their own. And, while some treated their slaves kindly, others were far more ruthless.