I wanted to know more about this “colored slave owner” after reading that small bit about him in the gullah tour article. There is more information out there than I’d expected. I wish I could see a photograph of his Caucasian and Indian (American) parents. The New York Times article truly fascinates me. First of all, I’d love to know who wrote it! Secondly, it’s nice to hear (although there’s nothing nice about the sick and twisted system) that there were legitimate and acknowledged mulatto children. But that nice feeling quickly disappeared when I searched for more information on Isabella. I’ll include that in a separate post.
Richard Edward DeReef was one of the richest black men in Charleston. He had a Wharf at the end of Chapel Street, was in the “woodage business” (wood), and owned rental properties, most of which are located on the East side of Charleston. Because of his dark complexion he would have never been accepted into Charleston’s elite mulatto society but he claimed to be of Indian descent, and he had money.
IMAGE: ON RIGHT — Richard Edward Dereef (1798-1876), a free black wood factor and real estate investor, built this small two story frame single house sometime after he purchased the site in April, 1838. The site was part of a large lot, extending to Calhoun Street, on which Dereef erected several buildings, of which only this house remains. Dereef, a native Charlestonian, was one of the wealthiest men of the free black community. He and his son, Richard, Jr., had a wood factorage business on Dereef’s Wharf at the foot of Chapel Street, and lived nearby on Washington street. By 1867 Dereef had conveyed this property, apparently built for rental purposes, to Margaret Walker, a black woman.
(Stockton, unpub. MS.) SOURCE
COLORED SLAVE OWNERS.; One Family of Mixed Blood in Charleston Owned Forty Negro Servants.
May 26, 1907, Sunday
To the Editor of the New York Times:
Truth is stranger than fiction, and had not the information of the ownership of slaves by colored citizens of Charleston, and elsewhere, been sent forth by such an authority as The News and Courier, the statement would have been regarded as incredible. But The News and Courier has not stated nearly all the truth which is, according to your confession, surprising to you, and, according to your belief, surprising to many others in the North.
The prevalent views, State documents, Congressional debates, and lecture courses bearing upon the general subject render it difficult of belief that the proclamation of emancipation by Mr. Lincoln reduced many colored people of the South, and especially in the City of Charleston, from a state of affluence and competence to a condition of need, if not of poverty.
But such was the case.
Those slave owners were not called “negroes,” but “colored people,” as they were generally of mixed blood- sometimes of Caucasian and African; sometimes of Caucasian and Indian; (American.) Many of the colored people of Charleston had no African blood whatever. The question you ask, and The News and Courier failed to answer, is: How did those people come into possession of their slaves- by inheritance, gift, or purchase? The answer is, By all these ways. They were generally the children of rich planters who, in the early days of the coast settlements, established themselves in lower South Carolina, with Charleston as the centre of operation. These children were regarded as such, and not as illegitimate of slaves. They bore the name of the father with recognition and as by right. They were also educated.
Upon the death of the father these children would come, by inheritance, into possession of the estate, including beasts of burden, slaves, etc. There was a very large number of free colored people in Charleston in the eighteenth century.
An interesting article on this subject may be found in the January issue of The Southern Workman. Some of those who owned slaves in years before the war were by name De Reefs, McKinlays, Westons, Hollaways, Thornes, and Howards. There are descendants of some of those people in New York and Brooklyn to-day. There is information enough at hand on this subject to fill a book, but let me relate you one story which may prove interesting.
There was a rich planter in Charleston of the name of Fowler. He took a woman of African descent and established her in his home. Whether there were a pledge of relationship or form of ceremony is not of record, but it was known that he had no other family. There was a daughter born in that home to whom was given the name of Isabella. But the planter insisted upon it that all persons should know her as Miss Fowler. She grew to womanhood, and was married to Richard De Reef, a young man of Caucasian-Indian blood. At the time of her marriage her father presented to her as a wedding gift a plantation and a sufficient number of slaves to work it.
The News and Courier says that two colored Charlestonians had each fourteen slaves, but the records of the family showed that at emanicpation Mrs. Isabella De Reef liverated forty instead of fourteen.
In another thing the News and Courier is wrong- that is, in saying those free persons of color had no political privileges. The De Reef brothers- Richard and Joseph- born, respectively, in 1798 and in 1802, voted on reaching their majority, and ever after. Some others may have enjoyed the same privilege, but there are colored men in Charleston to-day, and some now living elsewhere, who could claim the right to vote on the “grandfather clause”; these were never enfranchised by an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
A former Charlestonian.
New York, May 23, 1907.
click HERE for a link to a copy of the original NYTimes article