Slave tags reflect era Find is window into late-1700s world of slavery and free men

Harlan Greene talks about the different slave and free men’s badges that were used in the city of Charleston as a way to identify slaves who were allowed to work off their owner’s property and free people of color back in the 1780s.

Imagine having to wear a clunky piece of metal around your neck just to prove you were not a slave, or that your owner allows you off the property unescorted.

It was that way for a time in pre-Civil War Charleston. Slaves and free people of color had to register with the city and wear tags, a local expert on slave and free tags said.

Harlan Greene, an author and senior manuscript and reference archivist for College of Charleston libraries, said slave and free men’s tags are now valued artifacts. Square, round and diamond shaped, slave tags were numbered and listed the type of work a slave could perform.

He said that each time another tag is found, a little light is shed on a poorly documented period in Charleston’s history.

The tags also remind us, he said, of an ugly era when humans could be bought and sold.

“It reminds us that people used to be slaves, and that we had categories for them,” Greene explained.

Greene is very excited about a discovery made in February at a plantation site on the Cooper River. Columbia relic hunter Hal McGirt and his metal detector turned up City of Charleston Free Badge No. 320, issued around 1783.

Having also found a gold doubloon at the site, McGirt said he wasn’t impressed at first with the dark, twisted, oval object he pulled from the soil.

“It was bent completely over, and I could barely make out the word, ‘Free’,” McGirt recalled.

Once the object was identified and cleaned, McGirt knew he’d found an extremely historic and rare item valued at $20,000 to $30,000.

But true to the word he’d given the plantation owners before he searched their property, he said the tag will remain with the owners.

Though it’s the find of a lifetime for a man who’s hunted relics for 40 years, McGirt said he searches to enrich history and not himself.

“Determining the history belonging to the object, that’s where the fun comes in,” McGirt said.

Greene said he’d love to see McGirt’s find added to the Charleston Museum’s display of slave and free tags. “It is one of only seven known,” Greene said of McGirt’s discovery.

Greene said it’s believed there were fewer than 600 free people of color who could have received such tags. He said that from 1783 to 1789, the city required free people of color to register and wear tags.

“Free tags were good for the life of the wearer,” he said.

An annual renewal was required, however, for tags issued to slaves age 15 and above allowed to work off their owners’ properties.

It was not unusual, Greene said, for owners to rent out the services of their slaves.

Slave tags carried a one-word description of the slave’s skill: “porter,” “servant,” “mechanic,” “fisher,” “fruiterer” and even “huckster” for a slave skilled in sales, he said.

He said some slaves were permitted to keep some of the money they made, providing these slaves with a minimum of freedom. “They could live away from their owner, and buy and sell,” he said.

The registrations provided a sense of security for white society, and “It brought in a lot of income to the city,” Greene said.

Unfortunately, Greene said, all city records that could link slave and free tags to the people who wore them vanished after the war.

“Finding such records would be really exciting. You could trace a particular tag back to a particular person,” he said.