This family lived in Sumter County, South Carolina, and as the largest slaveholders in the state, were avid supporters of the Confederate cause. The patriarch of the family, William Holmes “April” Ellison, Jr. was a successful entrepreneur and readily offered the labor of his sixty-three slaves to the Confederate Army. Born into slavery, William had been freed on June 8, 1816 at the age of twenty-six by his master (and possibly his father) William Ellison.
It is believed that April Ellison was born in April of 1790, this due to the fact that often children born to slave parents were given the month of their birth as their name. Around the age of ten, April was apprenticed to William McCreight, and learned to build and repair cotton gins. He continued to work in McCreight’s shop until 1816 (even though his apprenticeship had ended after six years) and worked as a blacksmith, machinist and carpenter. During that time, April also learned how to read, write and do basic math and bookkeeping.
These were all skills that would help April, who had taken a consort named Matilda in 1811 (slaves weren’t allowed to marry), to provide for his family and make his own way if given the opportunity. That opportunity came in 1816 when William Ellison appeared before a magistrate in the presence of five witnesses and received permission to free April.
Since 1800, when the South Carolina legislature set forth laws and procedures for manumission, it had been required that a slave’s owner must testify under oath to the good character of the slave he was seeking to free, and also present evidence that the slave could provide for himself. April met all those qualifications and was a free man on June 8, 1816.
Soon after gaining his freedom, April moved to Sumter County where he began hiring out slaves as his workers. By 1820 he had purchased two adult male slaves to work in his shop, scarcely four years after he himself had been set free. On June 20, 1820, April took another important step by appearing in the Sumter District courthouse and filing papers to legally changed to William Ellison, presumably taking the same name (as a junior) as his former master or possibly father.
Court papers filed stated that a “freed yellow man of about 29 years of age . . . would greatly advance his interest as a tradesman” by changing his name. The description “yellow man” likely indicates that he was a light-skinned mulatto and, as purported, likely the son of William Ellison, or some other white man (some hypothesize that William’s father Robert Ellison might have been April’s father). A new name would also “save him and his children from degradation and contempt which the minds of some do and will attach to the name April.” The request was granted and on that day April Ellison became known as William Holmes Ellison, Jr.
By that time William was a successful entrepreneur as a master cotton gin builder and repairer. The skills he had learned during his apprenticeship were serving him well. Cotton was becoming a major enterprise and by 1840 William had twelve slaves working in his shop. An advertisement placed in the Sumter Banner in 1847 touted “Improved Cotton Gins.”
In 1850 the Slave Schedule listed William as a black male who owned thirty-seven slaves (twenty-seven males and ten females). William was later supportive of efforts to admit Kansas as a slave state, as the following was noted in the June 24, 1856 issue of The Charlotte Democrat:
SIGNIFICANT FACT. We deem it worthy of especial notice the fact that William Ellison, a colored man, and a resident of Statesburg, in this district, contributed, the other day, the sum of one hundred dollars to the funds of the Kansas association. Ellison, once a slave, but now a slaveholder, has, entirely by his own industry, attained his present state of prosperity, and we might say, wealth, he being the possessor of a large and productive cotton plantation. We are pleased to see such a manifestation, from such an one, for such a cause. The example too, even from such a source, is worthy the imitation of those whose superior means and intellect render them not only more able to give, but to discern more clearly the necessity of giving liberally to this cause.
In William Ellison, white slave owners and others who supported the institution had found someone like-minded, albeit the fact he was once a slave himself. There is no doubt that William had become highly successful because he not only owned and operated a cotton gin business but owned a great deal of land which he ran as a cotton plantation. In 1857 a letter to his son Henry with instructions as to how to manage his business accounts lends credence to that supposition.
By 1860, and the nation on the brink of civil war, William owned more than sixty slaves who worked on his large cotton plantation. William was the state of South Carolina’s largest black slave owner, and with the use of slave labor, he had driven white competitors out of business.
In 1860 he owned more than nine hundred of acres of land, most of it dedicated to cotton, although a small part was used for growing his own food. His children lived on the property and some of them also owned slaves of their own. William had sent some of his children to Canada to be educated and some returned to the plantation to reside after marrying mulattos from Charleston.
According to an article entitled Dixie’s Censored Subject: Black Slaveowners by Robert M. Grooms, William under-reported his net worth to tax assessors in 1860 as being $65,000. Grooms went on to write that William’s major source of income was actually that of a “slave breeder.”
Although a successful businessman and cotton farmer, Ellison’s major source of income derived from being a “slave breeder.” Slave breeding was looked upon with disgust throughout the South, and the laws of most southern states forbade the sale of slaves under the age of 12. In several states it was illegal to sell inherited slaves (9). Nevertheless, in 1840 Ellison secretly began slave breeding.
While there was subsequent investment return in raising and keeping young males, females were not productive workers in his factory or his cotton fields. As a result, except for a few females he raised to become “breeders,” Ellison sold the female and many of the male children born to his female slaves at an average price of $400. Ellison had a reputation as a harsh master. His slaves were said to be the district’s worst fed and clothed. On his property was located a small, windowless building where he would chain his problem slaves.
Slaves often ran away and when William’s did so, he employed the use of “slave catchers” to capture and return them to his plantation. One account reported that Ellison had once paid someone almost eighty dollars in fees and seventy-four dollars in expenses to retrieve one of his slaves.
At the time William had taken Matilda as his consort/wife, she was still enslaved, but by January 1817 it appears he had purchased his family’s freedom. Their children were: Henry, Reuben, Aliza Ann, William, Jr., Maria (unclear, but possibly an illegitimate daughter he later sold) and Mary Elizabeth.
When the Civil War broke out, William had invested heavily in Confederate bonds, treasury notes and paper currency. It would, of course, eventually become totally worthless. However, William didn’t live to see that happen because he died on December 5, 1861. Matilda had passed away in 1850 and his estate went to his free daughter and his two surviving sons.
His family continued to support the Confederacy, and in addition to raising cotton, they also produced food products like corn and bacon for the Confederate Army. William’s oldest grandson, John Wilson Buckner, joined the Confederate Army on March 27, 1863. Although it was illegal at the time for a Negro to formally join the army, the family’s prestige was reason for officials to “look the other way.” Just a short time later, however, John was wounded and killed on July 12, 1863.
After the war the family fortune quickly dissipated, likely due, at least in part, to their heavy investment in the Confederacy. Ironically, his family reverted to the poverty that William had known as a slave.
William had established a family cemetery on his plantation years earlier. He was buried there along with Matilda and later some of his children and grandchildren. In contrast to another freed black man, Denmark Vesey, who upon gaining his freedom led a slave revolt in 1822, William “April” Ellison had embraced the cruel institution he had been freed from.
As Michael P. Johnson, author of Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, wrote in regards to the similarities and ultimately the very different paths these two freed slaves took: “Freedom was a privilege Ellison refused to risk. Vesey wanted to remake his world in the name of freedom; Ellison only wanted to make freedom work for him.”