In the early 1800s, South Carolina College was a significant institution in the growing city of Columbia. In order to understand slavery on campus, it is necessary to examine the role of slaves in Columbia during this era. Contrary to popular belief, not all slaves lived on plantations. In some ways, urban slaves, such as those in Columbia, inhabited a very different world than their rural counterparts.
One major difference between urban and rural slavery was the high concentration of slaves in cities. Whereas great distances often separated small communities of rural slaves, urban slaves typically lived and worked in close proximity with one another. In 1830, approximately 1,500 slaves lived and worked in Columbia; this population grew to 3,300 by 1860. Some members of this large enslaved population worked in their masters’ households. Masters also frequently hired out slaves to Columbia residents and institutions, including South Carolina College. Hired-out slaves sometimes returned to their owner’s home daily; others boarded with their temporary masters.
The movement of slaves throughout Columbia fostered ample opportunities for interaction among blacks in public and private spaces. These relationships permitted communication among slaves and the city’s small community of free blacks. Legislators developed state and local statutes to restrict the movement of urban slaves in hopes of preventing rebellion. Although various decrees established curfews and prohibited slaves from meeting and from learning to read and write, such rulings were difficult to enforce. Several prewar accounts note that many Columbia slaves were literate; some slaves even conducted classes to teach others to read and write. In spite of white efforts to prevent blacks from congregating, slaves and free blacks persevered to build a strong community of their own in Columbia.
Urban slaves also participated in white organizations throughout the city, though in limited roles. Many slaves attended services at local Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, yet some struggled to obtain membership in these institutions. Jack, a college slave, applied for membership in the First Presbyterian Church in April 1820. Church leaders postponed this decision for nearly two years and consulted the college’s board of trustees regarding Jack’s character. Jack did not obtain membership before his death in 1822. Jack’s story reveals the close ties between campus slaves and their urban environment. It also provides evidence of whites’ utter disregard for the contributions of slaves throughout this period.