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This Rare Copper Badge Tells a Story of Slavery in 19th-Century Charleston

The South Carolina city used the metal tags to identify enslaved people hired out as part-time laborers by their enslavers

Enslavers pocketed the majority of the money earned by enslaved individuals hired out as part-time laborers. But in some cases, enslaved people managed to save a fraction of their earnings in hopes of purchasing freedom for themselves or their families. (College of Charleston)
smithsonianmag.com

Students and faculty conducting excavations at the College of Charleston in South Carolina have discovered a “slave badge” dated to 1853.

As Chase Laudenslager reports for WCBD, these small metal tags proved that an enslaved person’s enslaver had authorized them to work for someone else. The city issued the badges in return for a fee paid by slaveholders. The objects were inscribed with the word “servant,” as well as an occupation, date and registration number.

While many cities had laws regulating enslavers’ ability to contract out their enslaved workers, Charleston is the only place in the country where physical badges have been found. This fact suggests that the city may have been the only municipality to use the system.

Enslaved workers, including skilled craftspeople, built much of the physical structure of the college, which opened in 1770. If These Walls Could Talk, a recent documentary produced by the school, examines that legacy.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we found the slave badge. It’s a great opportunity to showcase what the college is doing to actively make changes,” says Charissa Owens, producer of the documentary and director of diversity education and training at the college, in a statement. “As the 13th oldest college in the [United States] and a former epicenter of slavery, our institution is striving to be a leader in this reckoning. Our ancestors are saying, ‘Hello, we’re here.’”

The discovery arrived ahead of construction of a solar pavilion on the campus. Rather than hiring an outside firm to survey the area, the college enlisted faculty members to lead students in conducting excavations. In addition to the badge, the dig unearthed artifacts including a hearth, animal bones, and pottery dating to the 18th and 19th century.

“It’s amazing what we pulled out of those 12 square meters,” says historic preservation scholar Grant Gilmore in the statement. “This is literally the history of the college, and we have a duty to recognize the contributions of the enslaved people of this landscape.”

Under Charleston’s slave badge system, which lasted from 1800 to 1865, owners received the majority of earnings that enslaved people made. Enslaved workers might save the small portion that they were allowed to keep in hopes of buying freedom for themselves or their families. Per the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), the badges were typically sewn to the wearer’s clothing, affording more freedom of movement than one would receive on a plantation. Potential occupations listed included porter, mechanic, fisher and fruiterer.

The small metal tags “evoke a personal history which is almost unfathomable: beatings, hardships, tears, pain, separation, loss, a terrible sense of abandonment,” James O. Horton, then a historian at George Washington University, told Smithsonian magazine’s Victoria Dawson in 2003.

At the same time, he added, “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.”

An 1812 slave badge housed in the Smithsonian's collections
A metal slave badge housed in the Smithsonian's collections (Smithsonian's National Museum of American History)

Between 1783 and 1789, the city of Charleston also issued freedman’s badges worn by free Black and mixed-race people to prove they were not enslaved. Only 500 to 600 of these badges were ever made, and today, only 10 of them have been identified—including one found this February.

As Adam Parker reports for the Post and Courier, metal detectorist Ralph Fields discovered the unassuming object just a few inches below the ground at a site that had probably been cleared for construction of a house. Speaking with the Post and Courier in April, rare coin collector and trader John Kraljevich said hobbyists interested in historical artifacts are an important source of clues about the past, which are frequently lost to continuing real estate development in the area. He called the discovery of the freedman’s badge particularly exciting.

“These are the most important objects of the American South in this era,” Kraljevich added. “I don’t think there’s anything that offers more value.”

The College of Charleston says discussions are underway about how to protect the slave badge and other items found during the campus dig.

“These artifacts are not just objects of monetary value,” says landscape archaeologist and classics scholar Jim Newhard, who helped lead the excavation, in the statement. “[T]hey are artifacts that have context and are more valuable when studied and shared.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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