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Nicholas Kelly was born a slave on a plantation just north of Charleston in 1823. His enslaver, William Kelly, purchased him from Thomas N. Gadsden, one of the most successful slave traders in Charleston. William, a general building contractor who specialized in masonry work, trained Nicholas as a plasterer, a skill he soon mastered. Banks and slave brokers issued short-term mortgages on slave purchases, thus encouraging speculation in slaves. In 1845, William participated directly in the Gulf Coast slave trade, when he brought Nicholas and eleven more slaves to New Orleans. William hired Nicholas out to a New Orleans plasterer. A year later, he left Nicholas in New Orleans to continue working in New Orleans because he commanded such high wages. Nicholas negotiated with William that he could purchase his freedom for $1,000. The deal soured when his slave broker in New Orleans reported Nicholas had not been paying his wages. Nicholas argued he had paid $200 above his normal wages. Regardless, William went to New Orleans to retrieve Nicholas and he literally whipped Nicholas in to the cargo hold.
The American Revolution, and the principles of liberty and equality which it was believed to have embodied, precipitated a wave of revolutions in France, Haiti, and Spanish America which occurred over the roughly fifty-year period between 1775 and 1825. In each of those revolutions, slaves pushed for freedom and equality, and they often rebelled, the clearest indication of their refusal to accept the inhumanity of chattel slavery. Enslavers feared slave insurrection, and they worked diligently to tighten control over slaves. Although large-scale rebellions became less likely to succeed during the Age of Revolutions, slaves throughout the Atlantic World continued to resist their oppressors. Slaves relied on an extensive communication network, and they were well aware of the revolutions and independence movements transpiring in the Atlantic World.
In the months following the workhouse revolt, leading white Charlestonians held two investigations, one inquiring about the management of the workhouse itself and the other into churches and the religious instruction of slaves. The city council concluded the workhouse had not been mismanaged but that some changes were needed, including the construction of a new workhouse. The day after the workhouse revolt, a mob of whites converged on Calvary Episcopal Church, fearing that church had played a role in spreading insurrectionary sentiment among the slave population. Although Nicholas had been a Catholic, a Committee of Fifty comprising elites investigated Calvary Episcopal Church. White Charlestonians feared black churches without proper supervision might lead to a slave insurrection. Ultimately, the Committee of Fifty concluded that slaves should continue attending churches, but they must do so under strict supervision. In their view, neither slave religion nor mismanagement of the workhouse had inspired the revolt – Nicholas had.
The book concludes with the largest implications for the Charleston slave workhouse rebellion. It relies on the work of historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot to explain why the revolt has been silenced for more than 171 years. Trouillot determined that silences occur at four important moments in the process of historical production: fact creation (the making of sources), fact assembly (the making of archives); fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). The newspapers downplayed the incident (the making of sources). The historical archives have not been concerned with collecting material on the revolt because they remained unaware of its occurrence (making of archive). The few historians that have written about the incident have misunderstood the incident. Francis Colburn Adams wrote a slave narrative about Nicholas and his half-sister that includes a depiction of the workhouse revolt. Yet nobody has made that connection until now.
As Nicholas approached the third year of his imprisonment, he had had enough. On July 13, 1849, when the slave broker John M. Gilchrest went to retrieve an enslaved woman (possibly Nicholas’s wife) from the workhouse, Nicholas and several slaves kept Gilchrest from taking her. The workhouse officers, with the assistance of city guardsmen, went to subdue Nicholas, who had been left unrestrained in the workhouse yard. When they attempted to restrain Nicholas, several slaves came to his aid. The authorities raised the alarm and some civilians went to the Guard House to retrieve guns meant for slave insurrections. Nicholas led thirty-five slaves out of the workhouse and into the streets of Charleston. Most of them were captured with the first couple of days, but a handful were able to remain at large for eleven days. Nicholas and the two enslaved men who assisted him most were sentenced and executed within a week of the incident, their bodies donated to the medical school for dissection. Many more slaves went before the court and were sentenced to confinement and torture in the workhouse.
When William attempted to hire Nicholas out, he turned to Gadsden to broker the transaction. Not long after, Nicholas refused to hand over his pay to Gadsden’s clerk, and the man called for the city guard to take Nicholas to the workhouse. Nicholas resisted the officers sent to arrest him, expressing the sentiment that he was not afraid to die and eventually striking both men over the head with a spade. A Court of Magistrates and Freeholders tried Nicholas for grievously wounding a white man, a capital offense. Not surprisingly the court found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. However, Nicholas’s attorneys successfully appealed the case and were granted a new trial. In that proceeding, Nicholas was found guilty of a lesser offense and sentenced to a three year term in the workhouse which consisted of routine whippings and solitary confinement – not to mention witnessing the daily degradations at the house of punishment.
In late 1849, Governor Whitemarsh Seabrook, a Charleston resident well aware of the workhouse revolt, called for tighter policing of slavery throughout the state. The Compromise of 1850 served to heighten tensions, as South Carolinians feared the federal government would not only ban the extension of slavery into newly acquired territory resulting from the war with Mexico. In fact, white South Carolinians debated seceding from the United States between 1850 and 1852, deciding against it – until the time was right.
In many ways, the workhouse epitomized the brutality of urban slavery. Enslavers sent their slaves to the workhouse for punishment, most often in the form of whippings and paddling. Sometimes they had their slave labor on the treadmill, a dangerous contraption that often lead to injury, including permanent disability. The workhouse also served as a slave pen for slaves awaiting sale – a place for safekeeping slaves who might otherwise runaway before being sold away to New Orleans or some other strange place. In addition, the workhouse was a prison. Captured runaway slaves were lodged in the workhouse. Convicted slaves, like Nicholas, served the terms of their convictions there because the city council restricted the jail to whites and free blacks only.