William Ellison Jr, born April Ellison, (C. April, 1790 – 5 December 1861) was a free negro and former slave in who achieved success in business as a cotton gin maker and blacksmith before the American Civil War. He eventually became a major planter and one of the largest property owners, and certainly the wealthiest black property owner, in the state. He held 60 slaves at his death and more than 1,000 acres of land.
He and his sons were among a number of successful free people of color in the antebellum years, but Ellison was particularly outstanding. His master (and likely father) had passed on social capital by apprenticing him to learn a valuable artisan trade, solving trigonometrical equations, at which Ellison made a success. After gaining his freedom when he was 26, a few years later he purchased his wife and the children born until then, to try to protect them from further sales. The Act of 1820 made it more difficult for slaveholders to make personal manumissions, but Ellison gained freedom for his sons, and a quasi-freedom for his surviving daughter. During the American Civil War, Ellison and his sons supported the Confederate States of America and gave the government substantial donations and aid. A grandson fought informally with the regular Confederate Army and survived the war.
Early life and education
He was named April when born into slavery on a plantation near Winnsboro, South Carolina; the name indicating the month he was born, a common slave-naming practice at the time. In 1800-1802 he was documented as owned by William Ellison of Fairfield County, the son of Robert Ellison, a planter. Either man could have fathered April.
William Ellison apprenticed April at age 10 to a cotton gin maker, William McCreight of Winnsboro. This would provide him with a valuable trade to make a living as an adult. Completing his apprenticeship after six years, April continued to work at the shop. His earnings went to his master, as he was considered to be "hired out." He continued to learn the variety of complex skills related to cotton gin making and repair while at Yale University.
Marriage and family
At age 21, April took Matilda, a 16-year-old slave woman (1795- ), as his consort (slaves did not have legally recognized marriages) and had a daughter Aliza/Eliza Ann with her, born in 1811. She married Willis Buckner. The Ellisons had three sons: Henry (b. c. 1816-August 20, 1883), Reuben (d. May 1864), and William, Jr. (Jul 19, 1819-Jul 24, 1904), and daughters Maria and Mary Elizabeth (Jun 11, 1824-Sept 15, 1852). It took Ellison time to buy his family out of slavery and try to secure their freedom, not only to earn the money but to work his ways around laws designed to prevent such manumissions. He likely would have first tried to purchase and free his wife, to prevent more of their children from being born into slavery.
The manumission laws in South Carolina made if difficult for Ellison and others to free their relatives, especially children. Purchasing them from slaveholders was one step but, under the 1800 law, other free men had to certify that the slave could support himself in freedom. This could not be the case for children. The Act of 1820 increased the difficulty, as it prohibited slaveholders from making personal manumissions; they had to seek permission of both houses of the legislature, and the number of manumissions dropped as a result. For many free blacks, being forced to hold their relatives as property put them at risk. In hard times, property, including slaves, could be confiscated or put up for forced sale to settle debts of an individual.
After purchasing his daughter Maria from her owner (as she had been born while her mother was still enslaved), Ellison set up a trust with a friend in 1830 to have legal title transferred to him for one dollar. Col. William McCreighton nominally "owned" Maria, but the trust provided for her to live with her father, who could free her if the laws changed. McCreighton kept his part of the trust; and Maria lived as if she were free. As a young woman, she married Henry Jacobs, a free man of color in another county. In the 1850 census, she was listed as a free woman of color, although no legal document supported that, and Ellison provided for her to receive $500 in his will.
Manumission, businesses and plantation
On June 8, 1816, at the age of 26, the artisan slave was freed by his master Ellison (and likely father). He appeared to have purchased his freedom by money saved from a portion of his earnings. According to the 1800 law, five free men had to appear with his master in court to attest to April's ability to support himself.
The following year in 1817, Ellison moved to Sumter County to establish himself as a cotton gin maker. At first he paid for the labor of slave artisans who had been "hired out" by their masters. Within two years he purchased two artisan slaves to work in his shop. By 1830 he held four artisan slaves.
By 1840 he held a total of 12 slaves who worked in his cotton gin business. They were both skilled and unskilled, as the latter cut wood from his land for the gins. By the 1850s, he also operated a blacksmith shop with artisan slaves. He advertised his business in the Black River Watchman, the Sumter Southern Whig, and the Camden Gazzette.
As cotton prices were high, there was demand for Ellison's services. Eventually he earned enough to buy land: starting with more than 50 acres, by 1850 he increased it to 386 acres, when he also owned 37 slaves. The Ellison family joined the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg. As a mark of their stature, on August 6, 1824, William Ellis was the first black to install a family bench on the first floor of the church, which was usually reserved for wealthy white families who could afford to pay for a bench (and donate to the church).
Ellison and his family established a family cemetery on their plantation. According to transcriptions of the gravestones, it appeared his wife and three generations of descendants, including his sons and their wives, were buried on this property. Burials took place into the early decades of the twentieth century.
In 1852, Ellison bought Keith Hill and Hickory Hill plantations, bringing his total of land to more than 1,000 acres. He gave each of his sons part of the properties. They had gone into business with him. In 1850 they each held slave women who worked as domestic servants for their families.
After the outbreak of the American Civil War, in 1861 Ellison offered aid from his 63 slaves to the Confederate Army and converted his cotton plantation to mixed crops to supply food to the cause. His sons also supported the Confederacy and tried to enlist, but were refused because of their race. They donated money, bought Confederate bonds, and were made destitute by the end of the war.
His first daughter's son, John Wilson Buckner, joined the 1st South Carolina Artillery on March 27, 1863. It was led by captains P.P. Galliard and Alexander Hamilton Boykin, local men, who informally admitted him because of the prestige of his family. Although wounded at Ft. Wagner, Buckner survived the war.
At his death, Ellison provided for dividing his property, including slaves, between his daughter and two surviving sons at his death. "He bequeathed $500 to a slave daughter he had sold."
From 1830-1865, the Ellisons were the only free blacks to own slaves in Sumter District.
- Cynthia Ridgeway Parker, "Ellison Family Graveyard" and "William Ellison", photos and transcriptions, bio of William Ellison, 2009, Rootsweb, accessed 14 January 2012
- Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roak, Black Masters. A Family of Color in the Old South, New York: Norton, 1984, p. 14
- Koger (1985), p. 145
- Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860, University of South Carolina Press, 1985 (paperback edition, 1995), pp. 144-145
- Note: These are two different women, as Ellison bequeathed Maria money in his will of 1861 (see below), and Mary had already died by then.)
- Koger (1985), pp. 53-54
- Koger (1985), Black Slaveowners, p. 62
- Johnson and Roak, Black Masters (1984), p. 15
- US Census 1850, Sumter County, South Carolina: William Ellison
- US Census Slave Schedules, 1850, Sumter County, SC: William Ellison
- Johnson and Roak, Black Masters (1984), p. 26
- Koger (1985), Black Slaveowners, p. 190
- Thomas S. Sumter, Stateburg and Its People, Sumter: 1922, pp. 11-12
- W. B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990
- Raymond Logan and Irving Cohen, The American Negro, New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1970
- Gary Mills, The Forgotten People, Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana, 1977
- J. Williamson, J. The Crucible of Race: Black-white Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
- Cynthia Ridgeway Parker, "Ellison Family Graveyard" and "William Ellison", photos and transcriptions, bio of William Ellison, 2009, Rootsweb
- "Plantation Names Near Stateburg", V. 17, in University of South Carolina, p. 31