In 1860, when four million Afro-Americans were enslaved, a quarter-million others, including William Ellison, were “free people of color.” But Ellison was remarkable. Born a slave, his experience spans the history of the South from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. In a day when most Americans, black and white, worked the soil, barely scraping together a living, Ellison was a cotton gin maker–a master craftsman. When nearly all free blacks were destitute, Ellison was wealthy and well established. He owned a large plantation and more slaves than all but the richest white planters.
Excerpt from the book:
Every census indicates that Ellison’s slave population had an unusual structure. in each decade his male slaves heavily outnumbered his females. In 1820 and 1830 he owned only adult men. In 1840 the ratio of adult men to adult women (including the age category of ten to twenty-four as “adult”) was 16 t0 6, almost 3 to 1. In 1850 the adult sex ratio (using twenty years and over as “adult”) was 14 to 7, or 2 to 1. In 1860 Ellison owned twenty-three adult males and sixteen adult females, a ratio of nearly 3 to 2. The sexual imbalance among Ellison’s adult slaves also appeared in more extreme form among his slave children. In 1840 he owned eight children, five of them boys. In 1850 nine of his ten slave children were boys. In 1860 boys comprised fifteen of his twenty slave youngsters. In Ellison’s quarters, female slaves were few and young females were rare. In 1850, after owning several slave women in their child-bearing years for more than a decade, Ellison had only one female slave under the age of 18.
Assuming that nature presented approximately equal numbers of little girls and little boys to slave mothers belonging to Ellison, there is a shortage of about twenty young girls in Ellison’s census rosters. The best explanation of that shortage is that Ellison sold slave girls. The evidence is not conclusive, since, as with his slave purchases, records of his slave sales do not exist. Certainly Ellison did not object to selling slaves. In his will he directed his executors to sell a young woman named Sarah and to divide the proceeds among his heirs. Grim as it is, selling is the most plausible way to explain the missing slave girls. No evidence exists of a mysterious sex- and age-specific disease sweeping decade after decade through Ellison’s quarters.
. . . Why would Ellison sell off black girls? The best answer is that he sold them to help raise the large sums he needed to buy more adult slaves and more land. By turning human capital into cash, he was able to sustain an aggressive program of expansion. To him, slaves were a source of labor, and the laborers he needed most were adult men who could work in his gin shop. Men, as a rule, were also stronger workers in the fields. Even though slave women often had less strength and endurance, they did valuable work for Ellison in his fields, but it was not as valuable as having babies. Their boys could grow up to be workers in Ellison’s shop or full hands in his fields, but in Ellison’s eyes their girls could never provide the labor he most wanted.