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Wealthy free women of color in Charleston, South Carolina during slavery

Rita Reynolds, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation focuses on the lives and experiences of a small group of affluent free mulatto women in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike their enslaved sisters we know very little about their community and the place they occupied in it. To comprehend the everyday world wealthy free women of color inhabited I begin by examining the origins of the wealthy free colored community in Charleston. I then investigate individual case studies of five wealthy free mulatto and black women and how their varying choices, made under differing degrees of societal duress, molded and formed their lives. Biographical sketches of Rachel and Martha Inglis, Nancy Randall, Hagar Richardson and Margaret Bettingall consider the different options each woman experienced under the same social, economic and racial framework. All five women (whose stories are told here for the first time) dealt with enslavement from either a personal perspective as slaves themselves, or as a recent memory in recalling a mother or grandmother’s bondage. Their stories relate how the lives of wealthy free women of color were paradoxical and how they often dealt with triumph and tragedy in the same instance. Like the majority of wealthy southern white women who spent a portion of their time as sophisticated urbanites, wealthy free women of color also set out to participate as free people in a slave society. To fully share in the economic and social benefits of society these women made deliberate efforts to improve their station through education, religious participation, social institutions and caste and racial identification with their wealthy white neighbors. However, the oppressive nature of Southern slave society greatly thwarted their best efforts. As a result, free blacks basic rights were fundamentally denied. This examination of five wealthy free women of color will analyze the manner in which social, community and family relationships influenced the world these women occupied. Racial and class status were also defining creeds for free wealthy women of color. By probing into the importance of race and class affiliations in the free mulatto community a clearer portrait of racial hierarchy among the wealthy emerges.

Subject Area

American studies|African Americans|American history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Reynolds, Rita, "Wealthy free women of color in Charleston, South Carolina during slavery" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3275800.