It seems, at first glance, an innocuous if enigmatic artifact, a copper medallion 1.5 inches square, rough-edged and engraved with the words "Charleston. 571. Porter. 1856."
But the inscription—a city, a number, an occupation and a year—is stamped on a rare fragment of the past, known to scholars of the period as a slave hire badge, one of three in the cultural collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The tag likely hung from the neck of a slave for a calendar year, representing all that we will ever know of one man: a porter in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1856, industrious and trusted enough to be leased out by his master for short-term hire but required by law to be licensed and to wear or carry a metal identification tag at all times.
"Looking at a slave badge evokes an emotional reaction," says James O. Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University. "There is the realization that one person actually owned another."
Urban slavery just prior to the Civil War accounted for less than 5 percent of the slave population in the United States. "One reason a collectible like this is so compelling is that, given our dearth of knowledge about the badge system, there is room for speculation," says Michael Hodder, a numismatic consultant who researched the subject in 1993 when the New York coin-dealing firm Stacks offered 14 badges—the first large private collection ever sold. They commanded $60,000.
The badges, Hodder says, "evoke a personal history which is almost unfathomable: beatings, hardships, tears, pain, separation, loss, a terrible sense of abandonment." At the same time, he adds, "one can read into them a sense of hope and planning for the future—the slave working to earn as much money as possible, perhaps to purchase his freedom or the freedom of a family member."
Badge laws existed in several Southern cities, urban centers such as Mobile and New Orleans, Savannah and Norfolk; the practice of hiring out slaves was common in both the rural and urban South. But the only city known to have implemented a rigid and formal regulatory system is Charleston. Perhaps the statutes in other cities were never enforced; perhaps paper badges, inherently impermanent, were issued instead. All of today’s extant badges can be traced exclusively to Charleston. There, from the mid-18th century to the end of the Civil War, ordinances dealt with the matter of owners marketing the labor and skills of their slaves by arranging for them to work outside the home or plantation.
Perhaps a quarter to a third of white Southern families were slaveholders. The rest of the population, according to Horton, likely contracted to purchase slave labor on a part-time basis. "This was especially true if you needed a skilled craftsman," says Horton. "The process proved quite profitable for the master. The slave might accrue some portion of the fee—he might get it all or he might get nothing."
Such practices were inevitably fraught with tension. White laborers objected to what they saw as unfair competition. "There was a great deal of resentment," observes Harlan Greene, a Charleston scholar and coauthor, along with Harry Hutchins, of the forthcoming book Slavery’s Badge: A History of the Slave Hiring System of Charleston, SC, 1783-1865. "White artisans complained vehemently."
The system also created a category of slaves whose privileges threatened the status quo. "[Urban] slaves had more access to education, opportunities for self-hire and self-purchase, and the privilege of ‘live-out’ in separate sections of town, away from all the watchful eyes of masters," writes historian Theresa Singleton of Syracuse University in "The Slave Tag: An Artifact of Urban Slavery," a 1984 journal article. "All of these conditions tended to undermine masters’ control over slaves."
In the seaport of Charleston, one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the South, the city treasurer’s office issued all badges, with fees set according to the category and skill of the laborer. The most common occupations were servants and porters, though Charleston slaves also worked as skilled artisans (such as furniture makers and silversmiths), fishermen and fruit vendors.
Badges were made of copper alloy, cut or pressed from a mold, or occasionally fashioned by hand into various sizes and shapes, most typically squares or diamonds, ranging in size from about 1.5 square inches to 3 square inches. Each was punctured with a hole and was probably worn around the neck on a string or chain.
In addition to the three slave hire badges owned by the Smithsonian, another 100 or so, dating from 1800 to 1864, are in various museums around the country, and another few hundred are believed to be in the hands of private collectors. Prices for badges have soared in recent years, in part because of a burgeoning interest in African-American memorabilia. Recently, a huckster’s (fruit vendor’s) badge, dated 1803, fetched $26,450 at auction in Baltimore, Maryland.
Their power far transcends monetary value. "Imagine," Michael Hodder says, "this badge as it hung around the neck of a man. Imagine how it felt against his chest, how it felt to present it whenever someone demanded. At the end of the day, did the slave hang up the badge in his hut or did the master keep it? What happened if a slave lost his badge? What happened at the end of the year? Was the badge returned to the city marshal’s office, turned in, taken to a local mill, melted and then reused?" The only certainty is the profound inhumanity—and likely brutality—evoked by such an artifact.