According to D. A. Tompkins' History of Mecklenburg County, slavery was introduced to Charlotte Mecklenburg in 1764. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the slave population of the county was approximately 6800 out of a total population of 17,000, or 40% of the entire population.
North Carolina Percent of Population Enslaved, 1860
In addition to slaves, there were 293 free blacks who lived in Mecklenburg in 1860. Most were common laborers but there were also two barbers, three blacksmiths, a carpenter, two iron moulders and three painters. The lives of free blacks were carefully restricted and free blacks were a concern to slaveowners. In September 1852, a group of free blacks was accused of inciting slaves to rebel, and (as you'll see below) as a result, free blacks were in many circumstances prohibited from socializing with enslaved blacks without permission from the slave owners.
During the Civil War, Mecklenburg slaves were donated to the Confederate cause on at least three occasions. In April of 1863, county slaveholders donated slaves, at the request of the Confederate government, to help construct fortifications in eastern North Carolina and in July of 1864, 65 Mecklenburg slaves helped repair the rails of the Statesville Railroad. Finally, in March of 1865, as General William Sherman's troops advanced northward through South Carolina, slaves were donated to the Confederate cause and helped blockade the roads leading to Charlotte from the south.
It is difficult to (holistically) determine how slaves were treated in Charlotte Mecklenburg. The reminiscences of whites and blacks on the subject often vary and contradict each other. It is safe to say that the treatment of slaves varied from owner to owner, and that most areas of the south had owners on both sides of the spectrum. During the Civil War, local Charlotte newspapers praised slaves for their loyalty to the Confederacy. However, many slaves chose that time to escape. Runaway slave notices were published frequently during the Civil War.
These ads (below) are taken from a Charlotte newspaper, The Western Democrat. Both of them were published in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. It appears from the frequency of such ads that many slaves took advantage of the absence of owners and the confusion surrounding the war to escape. The city and county employed slave patrollers who tried to capture runaways. Remember that after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, all runaways had to escape to Canada to find freedom; according to this federal law, all runaways to the north had to be returned to their owners, under strict penalty.
Runaway slave notice #1
I will give the above reward to any person who will take up my boy SAM, if captured without serious injury and delivered to me or confined in Jail so that I can get him. He has been lying out over twelve months ranging from near Charlotte to Reedy Creek. He is 22 years old, medium size, and has a scar on his forehead. Address me at Charlotte, N.C.
Feb. 24, 1863
Runaway slave notice #2
Runaway from my plantation, nine miles from Charlotte, on the Statesville Railroad, a negro boy named DANIEL. The boy is about 22 years old, five feet one or two inches high, right or left foot cut off by a railroad car, and walks with a stick. I will give the above reward if the boy is brought to my plantation or confined in any jail so that I can get him. The boy was raised in Petersburg, Va., and was purchased in Richmond last winter.
Aug. 24, 1863
R. P. Poindexter
Additional slave notice
"Ten Dollars Reward, WILL be paid for apprehending and securing in jail in this county, a negro woman named ZENIA.--She has a child with her about two years old, and is thought to be lurking about the plantation of William Means, Esq. JOHN McGEHEE. Charlotte, Nov. 17, 1824.--8tf." - Catawba Journal; 11/23/1824, Page 3.
More Mecklenburg County slave notices, and their illustrations, can be found here.
These additions (below) to the Charlotte Town Ordinances were published in
the Western Democrat on January 26, 1864. Not only do they show the restrictions placed on both slaves and free blacks, but they also reflect the concerns and problems of everyday life in Charlotte during the Civil War. These codes refer to public whippings of violators, particularly slaves and free blacks. Public whippings were held on the Square in Charlotte, at the intersection of Trade and Tryon, where pillories stood. Public whippings ended in Charlotte in 1865, with the occupation of Federal troops during Reconstruction.
6. Be it further ordained, That any person or persons who shall discharge any gun or pistol, or sell or set fire to explode, or use any squib or fire crackers, within the city limits of the Town, shall forfeit and pay for each and every offence the sum of Five Dollars, if the offender is a free person: and if a slave, shall receive twenty five lashes.
9. Be it further ordained, That any person or persons who shall deposit in any of the streets, any rubbish, refuse, or filth of any kind whatever to remain, shall forfeit and pay for each and every offence, if free, the sum of Five Dollars, and if a slave receive not less than thirty lashes.
11. Be it further ordained, That any person or persons who shall deposit the carcass of any dead animal in any street or lot, or suffer such to remain on their premises within the limits of the town, shall forfeit and pay for each and every offence the sum of Five Dollars if a free person, and if a slave shall receive not less than thirty lashes.
14. Be it further ordained, That any person or persons who shall run, ride or drive any horse or horses at a rapid speed through the streets, shall, if a free person, forfeit and pay the sum of Ten Dollars for each and every offence, and if a slave receive twenty lashes.
20. Be it further ordained That if any free negro be found by the Town Constable or Guard, in the nighttime or on the Sabbath day, in any kitchen or outhouse not their own, in the company of, or associating with, any slave, shall by said Constable or Guard, be brought before the Mayor, and upon conviction be fined not more than Two Dollars, and upon failure to pay said fine and costs, shall receive not more than thirty-nine lashes- unless said free negro is there and associating with said slave by the permission of the owner of the premises.
21. Be it further ordained, That no person shall employ in his or her store or grocery, any free negro in the capacity of clerk or retailer of any article, without forfeiting the sum of Twenty-five Dollars for each and every day.
23. Be it further ordained That if any slave shall be found in any dram or grog shop either in the day or night time, without having a written permit from his or her owner stating that he or she was sent for a specific purpose, shall receive fifteen lashes at the public whipping post ... And the owner or keeper of a grog shop where a slave may be found, shall forfeit and pay for each and every offence Twenty-five Dollars, and a suspension of his license.
25. Be it further ordained, That it shall not be lawful for any person or persons to permit any assemblage of slaves on his or their lot, without having first obtained permission from the Mayor or Commissioners; and any one violating this ordinance shall forfeit and pay Twenty Dollars; and if any slave attends such assemblage without permission from his owner, or the agent of his owner, shall receive thirty-nine lashes.
26. Be it further ordained, That no slave or free negro shall smoke a pipe or cigar in any street, or walk with a club or bludgeon, or carry any weapon, under a penalty, if a free negro, of Five Dollars, and on failure to pay such fine, shall receive not less than five nor more than thirty-nine lashes; and if a slave receive the same number of lashes.
28. Be it further ordained, That if any slave shall be found from his or her home after the hour of half-past nine o'clock ,p.m., unless by written permission from his or her owner, said slave shall be put in the guardhouse and kept there until the next morning and shall receive twenty-five lashes, and the owner or employer shall then be notified of his or her arrest and shall come forward and pat Two Dollars and remove the slave.
29. Be it further ordained , That if any free negro or slave shall sell or give to any person whatever any spirituous liquor, either in the day or night time, he or they shall receive Thirty-nine lashes.
41. Be it further ordained, That it shall be the duty of the Town Guard to patrol the streets from 9 p.m. until daylight next morning and visit all suspected negro houses;
42. Be it further ordained, That on and immediately after the first day of July next, and on each succeeding 1st day of July thereafter... all Free Negroes now resident in the town of Charlotte, who may hereafter become residents of the same, being of the age of twelve years and upwards, shall be required to appear before the Mayor, enroll their names, and upon satisfactory evidence of a peaceable character and industrious habits, obtain from him a certificate of such enrollment, together with a description of their persons, character and trade, or employment, to be signed by the Mayor, countersigned by the Clerk and sealed with the corporate seal of the town. And if any free person of color liable to such enrollment shall be found without such certificate, said free persons shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction before the Mayor, shall be punished at his discretion by either fine, whipping, imprisonment, or hiring-out for a time not exceeding six months for each offence. And for each and every such enrollment and certificate so granted, a tax of two dollars shall be collected by the Clerk for the use of the Treasury of the Town.
One thing is clear. One need not look any further than the written records to determine that the concept of freedom was only a fictional abstract as it related to free blacks. Its also pretty eye-opening how clear of a message was being sent in the adoption of these ordinances to control slave behavior and incite fear, even down to detailing the number of lashes for prescribed offenses.
Until next week!
Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission website
University of North Carolina at Greensboro Digital Library on American Slavery
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin