THE CHARLESTON SLAVE BADGES

In the days leading up to the War between the States (and the Federal Government), a unique system of slavery existed in the otherwise bucolic coastal City of Charleston, South Carolina. For those not privileged to have visited the area, vast agricultural plantations surround the center of Charleston. These enterprises required a varied array of talent to run and maintain their various components. Skilled mechanics, cooks, seamstresses, farriers as well as casual labor were all employed in these endeavors. Most readers are familiar with the "Gone with the wind" style imagery surrounding this subject but the thing that made this system of slavery unusual was the element of free enterprise surrounding the issue of slave badges. The city issued these metal badges in order to raise revenue and control the movement of those in bondage. The tags, provide a glimpse into a bleak chapter of American history. However, They also illustrate a little known component of slavery, that of tradesman for hire. Many of these otherwise enslaved workers enjoyed a different status from the "ordinary slave". Often these tradesmen were allowed to keep a portion of their wages for themselves, the remainder was turned over to the master. The extras in life not normally provided to those in bondage were thereby within their reach. One of the earliest known slave badges is dated 1800. They are normally square, about 2 inches wide and bear the year of issue and the occupation the person was engaged in. Servant was the most commonly known occupation, although fisherman, carpenter and mechanic were also prevalent. Imagine the scene, A slave gets up in the morning and leaves his quarters as well as the plantation that is his prison. He labors the day away using incredible talent which in many cases was more refined than a free person might provide. After his service was complete, the slave was paid a wage, or by the job, as was often the case. In this fashion the slave controlled the quality of his work as well as the amount of time that it took. If his work was up to par, or his talent in great demand, a slave could expect this arrangement to continue. Year after year many slaves provided a steady stream of income to an otherwise passive master. The slave could come and go as he pleased and provide the little extras for his or her family. Often the master was silent other than to collect. Many slaves lived pretty much the same life as their free counterparts. The differences were that the slave's money went to a master who did nothing for his share. That master decided what the slave could keep. Moreover, even the most minor freedom was at the master's sole discretion. The system was halted by the war. Or was it? Even without a slave badge this sure sounds like my arrangement with Uncle Sam.

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