A couple of weeks ago at a Starbucks in Fort Mill, John Kraljevich was joined by a man with something to sell.
The man had recently procured a precious relic from a friend. It was an oval badge made of copper with a small hole at the top to accommodate a string or ribbon. The string was missing, of course, and the hole was packed with hardened dirt because the item had spent more than 200 years underground.
Kraljevich noticed the word “FREE” embossed upon an image of a liberty cap on a pole. Along the edge were the partially abraded words “CITY OF CHARLESTON” and etched beneath the Phrygian cap was the number 147.
Freedman's badges were made for free Black people in Charleston in the late 1700s, all were required by law to register with the Office of the City Clerk and obtain a badge, for which they paid 5 shillings.
Kraljevich, a collector who trades in rare coins and metals and operates John Kraljevich Americana, was familiar with this item (he has another just like it in his collection), and he did not hesitate to purchase the badge. It is likely worth the price of a very good car, he said, declining to offer specifics.
Who unearthed it?
Ralph Fields, a Myrtle Beach resident and metal detectorist, was out with his equipment on Feb. 28 — somewhere on the Cainhoy peninsula just north of Mount Pleasant, and within the city of Charleston — scanning the grounds of a construction site for interesting objects when the clicks and whistles indicated he had located something.
He was part of a group of 25 or so with permission to scan the grounds in an area known for its antebellum history, he said.
After a couple days of uneventful searching, Fields was ready to go home, he said. But he showed up that Sunday for one last pass, planning to remain on site only for a couple of hours.
Turns out it was time well spent.
He left the group to focus on a flat area near a new road bed, probably where a house was to be built. He found the top half of a British button that dated to the Revolutionary War. Then his machine detected a lot of iron underground, along with something else. A coin perhaps?
He dug no more than 4 inches and pulled out the badge. He had seen slave badges before, which were distributed to enslaved people hired out by their masters to do limited work. But he’d only heard about the elusive freedman’s badge.
“In my head, that’s my holy grail,” Fields said. “It’s a lightning strike. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime find.”
Kraljevich caught wind of the discovery and quickly reached out to Fields on Facebook. But the detectorist was inclined to share his find with his friend and mentor in Virginia, who agreed to buy it.
“A more beautiful relic I’ve never seen,” the man told Fields. A few weeks later, the man made his way to the Starbucks in Fort Mill.
Policing Black people
The copper badge dates to the late 1700s — after South Carolina became a state and before the White population began to feel threatened by the possibility of slave rebellions. Only a few hundred were produced, and no more than a dozen have been found. A relic hunter from Columbia, Hal McGirt, discovered one in 2012 at a Cooper River plantation site.
Five of these freedmen’s badges are part of institutional collections — the Charleston Museum has one; so does the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center. The rest are in private hands.
“The trend is for these things to move into institutions,” Kraljevich said, citing two main reasons. Museums have given short shrift to the African American story, often failing to present it as part of mainstream American history, he said. But that is changing. Interest among collectors and institutions in the African American experience is growing. Yet, he said, there is a dearth of material objects available to help convey the narrative.
Harlan Greene, director of the College of Charleston’s Special Collections and lead author of “Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783-1865,” said the freedman’s badge donated to the Avery was appraised five years ago at $20,000.
A freedman’s badge whose physical condition is worse than the one just found sold at auction in 2008 for $32,200.
“What makes free badges incredibly rare is they were only done in an extremely narrow window of time,” Greene said. The city issued the medallions between 1783 (the year Charleston was incorporated) and 1789 only to males 15 years of age and older, and only within the borders of the city, which was enclosed to the north by Boundary Street (today, Calhoun Street).
The city was quick to address the issue of slavery, passing an ordinance in November 1783 that required slave owners to secure a ticket or badge for any enslaved person he wanted to hire out for work, according to Greene’s book.
At the time, fewer than 600 Black people in Charleston were free, and all were required to obtain a badge.
If they failed to display the badge on their persons, they could be fined 3 pounds which, if not paid within 10 days, could result in arrest and up to 30 days of labor at the city workhouse.
“They were still policing free people of color at that time,” Greene said, debunking the idea that these badges represented some form of White largesse. The badge was less a privilege than a way of differentiating people and keeping tabs on them, he said.
Only a few hundred were produced. Some were copper, others brass, and at least one was silver.
'Zones of significance'
The city of Charleston has no rules in place that require archaeological investigation of certain sites slated for development. And unlike other historical cities such as St. Augustine, Fla., and Alexandria, Va., Charleston has no staff archaeologist.
The Historic Charleston Foundation, Preservation Society of Charleston, Charleston Museum and other organizations have been pushing the city to pass an archaeology ordinance for years. It nearly happened before the COVID pandemic prompted a hiring freeze and other restrictions.
“It’s astounding for people to learn that a city with such rich history ... has very few rules in place for (protecting) below-ground history,” said Brian Turner, the Preservation Society’s director of advocacy.
Historic Charleston Foundation has argued that the proposed ordinance could be linked to the current permitting and design review process. “The overarching goal of the ordinance would then be to prevent valuable cultural resources from being destroyed by large-scale development while placing as little burden as possible on the average homeowner.”
The city could define “zones of significance,” timetables, trigger points, and fees while seeking to strike a balance between preservation and business development. Those zones would include the historic district and possibly other areas of importance "that have special value because they have yielded archaeological resources or because of the probable presence of notable archaeological resources relating to the cultural and historical heritage of the city.”
Items found on private property would belong to the property owner, though the city would encourage the owner to donate such objects to a museum.
Sites outside of specific areas of interest would not likely be subject to formal archaeological scrutiny by the city. They would continue to be the purview of amateur collectors armed with metal detectors.
Today, local authorities can invoke the National Historic Preservation Act to require archaeological work on any project subject to federal permitting, but this provides insufficient protection, according to advocates of the city ordinance.
The city is one vast (archaeological) site, and every spot in the city has something to tell, said Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum. "Though you don’t see the underground stuff, it’s a critical part of the whole fabric. It has an important story to tell."
Our best chance
Meanwhile, the developers seem to be busier than ever, and Turner worries that too much is lost. Most individual homes are not subject to any archaeological requirements, he said. And when surveys are conducted on bigger properties, they don’t always identify the full range of potential treasure that could be buried there.
“We rely on voluntary compliance with the general ethic that you don’t harm things,” Turner said.
Kraljevich, who once worked as a historical interpreter at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia, and who has long had an interest in African American and antebellum history, is certain that many historical artifacts are getting bulldozed and buried, or drowned in nearby waters. So it’s especially thrilling to secure a freedman’s badge.
“These are the most important objects of the American South in this era,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything that offers more value.”
And until the city has a formal method in place to discover, secure and preserve such artifacts, museum curators, archaeologists and collectors will have to rely on independent relic hunters like Fields.
“Metal detectorists are usually the best chance we have of finding and saving stuff,” Kraljevich said.