The Economic Prosperity of Free African-Americans in Antebellum Savannah

Dyshekira Johnson

Savannah is a multifaceted city with a rich history. It is the home of Juliette Gordon Lowe, the First African Baptist Church, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Isaiah Davenport House, and the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the home to other notable people and attractions. Savannah is indeed a diverse city. However, much of the city’s history is either overlooked or waiting to be further investigated. The history of the Freedmen in Antebellum Savannah is one sector that has been hidden from the forefront of the city’s history. These black men and women were able to live an economically prosperous life in the face of racial adversity. They had a variety of jobs as skilled and unskilled workers. Men worked in the transportation, real-estate, tailoring, and food industries. While, women were able to obtain jobs as seamstresses, washerwomen, nurses, domestic servants, and cooks.  Their success in their occupations allowed them to live in financial independency even as racism threatened to hold them mentally and physically captive.

The job market for free African-Americans in Savannah was restricted, but favorable. In a slave based economy, many prospective immigrants are turned off by the competition of slaves in the work force. Savannah was no exception. Because of this, the number of white laborers in the city could not possibly fill up the jobs created by the economy. That left a pool of opportunities for the Freedmen in the city.  In addition, white employers held little bias against black workers. There were not any preferences for white workers due to African-Americans being known for their reliability and competence[1].

Blue collar worker is the best term to describe most Freedmen in Antebellum Savannah. It was especially true of black men. The transportation industry created a surplus of jobs for African-American men. These jobs were both on sea and land. They required transporting merchandise from one place to another. This, in addition to the procession of cotton, increased the jobs for draymen and wagon drivers. Draymen, especially, saw an increase in their salary. The changes in the transportation industry allowed them to get an eight cent increase in their pay. Andrew Marshall was an example of a draymen who was able to live a comfortable life due to his career[2].

Marshall was a preacher first and foremost. He was the successor to his uncle Andrew Bryan as preacher for First African Baptist Church, Savannah’s first Baptist church. However, it was not preaching that gave him financial security, but being a drayman. Marshall was the richest African-American in Savannah from the 1820s to the 1840s. In 1820, he owned $6, 500 worth of reality. In 1824, the amount went up $1,900 more making his property worth the highest in the Freedmen community[3]. At the time of his death, he owned land in Yamacraw, a lot in St. Gall’s village, as well as stock in the Marine and Fire Insurance Bank of the State of Georgia[4]. This was a great amount of success for someone who once was a slave.

Henry Cunningham, a student of Marshall, was another pastor who was able to live a financial secured lifestyle. He was appointed as pastor of Second African Baptist Church by Andrew Bryant. Unlike Andrew Marshall, Cunningham income was solely from preaching. Like today, church was a profitable business. Since many members were slaves, it does raise the question as to how he was able to amass his fortune. The question has yet to be answered. In 1813, he purchased a property on the corner of Broughton and Houston streets for $1,000.  Cunningham spend the rest of his life investing in property and even accumulated a small amount of slaves[5].

The tailoring business, like the transportation industry, was a big boom for African-American men. Those in the industry were able to obtain both wealth and leadership roles. This was especially true for Freedmen of Haitian descent. Joseph Dubergier was no exception. He was a tailor, real estate owner, and slave holder. He was the most successful of the Haitian immigrants in Savannah, who probably fled the island during the revolution.In 1806, he had the most valuable property among the free African-Americans, as well as the highest taxes in the group. Louis Mirault was another success Haitian émigré. From his account book, Mirault had well over forty customers for his tailoring business.  Unlike other African-Americans in his profession, most of his customers were white professionals and businessmen. He owned nine slaves and at the time of his death, customers owed him $233.33[6]. This signaled that he made quite a profit with his tailoring business.

The tailoring and the transportation business was not the only industries good to African-American men. The food industry allowed them many opportunities in various sections of it. Anthony Odingsells, the largest landowner of his time, was quite profitable in the farming sector. He produced milk, meats, wool, and hides. He may have sold them to people in White Bluff, Thunderbolt and Savannah. He also may have sold his products at Savannah’s city market. Odingsells business allowed him to live a very comfortable life. He owned two thousand acres of land, thirteen slaves, thirty five cows, fifty sheep, and seventy five pigs[7] .

Toby Adams and William Claghorn were two other free African-Americans who became successful in the food industry. Their stories was a little different from Odingsells. They made their money in the retail sector of the industry. Adams was a former South Carolina slave who purchased his freedom in 1854. He then settled on the west side of Savannah, where he became a supplier of groceries and a market wagon.  Claghorn, on the other hand, ran a bakery on the corner of Liberty and Habersham. In 1860, the census showed him to have four thousand dollars’ worth of real estate and two thousand dollars’ worth of personal property[8] .

African-American men had many opportunities in the fields they were allowed to enter in.  Despite success in such fields, they were still limited in their job opportunities. They were restricted to only blue collar jobs. They were not given the opportunity to grow and venture into more professional careers. For African-American women, the situation was even worse.

Economic pressure forced some free African-American women to seek job opportunities. Some sought careers simply because there was enough African-American men for marriage. Others sought jobs because their husband’s income was not enough to support the household. However, such opportunities for women were few.Most jobs was intended for men, while others did not allow African-Americans to enter into the sector. Despite these obstacles, many African-American women had successful careers. In an 1823 census, there were 30 washerwomen, 26 seamstresses, 17 cooks, 11 sellers of wares, 5 housekeepers, and 4 nurses. The remaining careers had no more than two people in the occupation. A later 1860 census showed 121 seamstresses/ dressmakers, 44 washerwomen, 32 domestic servants 20 pastry cooks, and 10 nurses[9].

Dressmaking was a very profitable business. Freedmen were renowned for their love of spending money on opulent clothes, especially for “Sunday clothes”. Their love of attire created a market for a large group of black women to work in.  Leah Simpson was one of them. She was a founding member of Second African Baptist Church. She owned four slaves. In addition, she she owned real estate on Farm Street valued at $2,000 in 1819.  Her peers were Catherine Deveaux and Betsy Baptist. Deveaux s a native of Antigua. Her husband was a leader at Second African Baptist Church. She owned land in Greene War, where the church was located. She also owned property in Columbia and Warren Ward. In addition, she owned a “negro house”, where she might have possibly kept her slaves. Like Deveaux, Baptist was not a native of Savannah. She was bought to the United States from Africa in 1795. By 1837, she obtained freedom and went on to own half a lot, where she built a house worth $500[10].

The second generation of seamstresses included Sarah Ann Black and Hannah Cohen. Black by her mid-twenties owned a large lot outside of Gaston Street between Jefferson and Montgomery Street. On that land, she built two houses and two cabins. In addition to being a seamstress, she also made extra money from selling milk to the public.  Cohen was another successful seamstress. In 1860, she had property worth a $1,000 and even owned slave. Also, she was a benefactor to her Mother’s wealth, accumulated from selling produce from her garden[11].

Another successful industry amongst African-American women workers was the pastry industry. Frances Carley, Nancy Goulding, and Aspasia Mirault were among the most successful pastry cooks in Savannah.  Mirault was a Haitian émigré who lefted the country in 1800. She was able to start a bakery business on the corner of Bull and Broughton Street. It was heavily patronized by white customers. She was described as being “the best cake maker and baker, whose fruit cakes had such a reputation that they were sent for from many places, England included”[12] . Carley was another who was successful in the industry. By 1854, she was able to amass property worth $1,000. Goulding had property in Yamacraw worth the same amount in the same year. These three women was representatives of the many African-American women who was able to live comfortably as pastry cooks[13].

Washerwomen earned lower wages in comparison to dressmakers/seamstresses and pastry cooks. However, some was able to live pleasantly with their income.  Mary Spiers and Hannah Pray were two washerwomen who able to grow quite a wealth with their careers.  Spiers by the 1820s was able to purchase 5 slaves and real estate valued at $500.  Pray owned property also. She owned a house and a lot on North Oglethorpe Ward. Her property was originally worth $70, but by 1860, it went up to $370[14].

Free African-American women was allowed to live economically autonomous life. Their careers were more limited compared to their male counterparts, but they were able to achieve a great amount of success. In fact, they made up the majority of real estate. . In 1820, there was thirty six African-American real estate owners, 21 of them female. They made up 56% of real estate owners with a combine amount of property worth $17,700.  In 1858, the number of African-American property owners dwindled, but women still made up the majority of owners. Out of the nineteen black real estate owners that year, sixteen of them were women whose property together was worth $37,750[15].

The Freedmen in Savannah were a perseverant group.  They were able to live an economically independent life, while others in their race were enchained for economic incentives. They are group of people in Savannah history that has been largely overlooked and forgotten. However, their story shall triumph. In the face of adversity, they were able to stand strong and somewhat achieve the unalienable rights our forefathers spoke of.

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