1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi 1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

1775: Thomas Jeremiah, Charleston’s wealthiest free black

August 18th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1775, Thomas Jeremiah, a free black man in the then-colony of South Carolina, was hung after being convicted of attempting to a slave insurrection.

The case against him was extremely weak, but he was tried/framed under the Negro Act of 1740 (in a slave court, although he was not a slave), wherein the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. South Carolina’s own royal governor, William Campbell, called it a case of “judicial murder.”

Very little is known about Jeremiah. He left no diary or letters behind, and most of his trial records have been lost. We know he was married but we know nothing about his wife, whether she was a slave or a free black like himself, or whether they had any children. We don’t know how he became free or how he learned his trade. He is, in fact, so obscure that he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry.

What little we do know, however, suggests that he was a most extraordinary man: a fisherman and ship’s pilot, one of less than 500 free blacks in the city of Charles Town (now called Charleston), Jeremiah had somehow managed to claw his way up and amassed a net worth of £1,000, or about $200,000 in today’s money. He was one of the wealthiest free black men in North America, and certainly the wealthiest self-made one.

Himself a slaveowner, he had no reason to start a slave rebellion, but this didn’t matter to those who convicted him. Jeremiah’s life, trial and death are discussed in detail in J. William Harris’s 2009 book, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty. (This book review provides a good summary.)

2010 saw the publication of a second book, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution.

Jeremiah was basically a victim of his own success. He had risen too high; he made the local white elites uncomfortable. As Harris noted, Jeremiah “did not need to gather arms or preach revolution to undermine slavery, because his whole life was a refutation of whites’ basic justification for slavery.”

Henry Laurens, a wealthy businessman, future Continental Congressman, slaveowner, and contemporary of Jeremiah’s, stated he was “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” He needed to be smacked down and he was, most severely.

In the spring and summer of 1775, revolution was fomenting everywhere. White “Patriots” wanted an opportunity to get out from under England, but they feared their slaves would use the conflict to try and get out from under them.

Nat Turner and Charleston’s own Denmark Vesey — these immortal rebels lay years into the future, but their very prospect made slave rebellions an omnipresent fear among the white populace. It was jumpy. And when two slaves accused Jeremiah of trying to persuade them to rebel, it jumped.

Only a few months passed between Jeremiah’s arrest and his execution. By that time he was a broken man, welcoming death. After he was hung, his body was cut down and burned to ashes.

Books about Thomas Jeremiah

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,South Carolina,Torture,USA,Wrongful Executions

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