From Slave to Entrepreneur Who Owned Slaves: The Rise and Fall of William Ellison

Written by Rewindingblack

The cotton gin, a technological advancement of the textile industry, increased the production of cotton to a much larger scale than ever before.   Prior to the American Revolution, the difficulties involved with removal of the sticky seeds from inside the cotton ball, hindered the production of cotton.   In addition, the process to remove the seeds was not fast enough to make the production of cotton profitable. However, the introduction of the saw gin at the end of the 18th century changed all of this.  Patented in 1793, the saw gin made processing cotton easier, faster, and cheaper.  In a day, one person was able to clean the seeds from fifty pounds of green-seed cotton.  In just a short time, cotton became the most important cash crop in the South.  Between 1790 and 1800, cotton exports from South Carolina increased from 9,840 pounds to more than 6,000,000 pounds (Johnson and Roark 1984, 10). The increase in cotton production led to increased demands for cotton gins.  Without a doubt, Whitney’s invention significantly changed the life of a young slave, named April Ellison.  Little did April know that he would have the opportunity for an education, freedom, and eventually wealth.

April Ellison, born in 1790 to black slave parents, was owned by William Ellison, a white slave owner.  Often children of slaves were named for the month in which they were born.  Around 1802 Ellison apprenticed April to William McCreight, a gin maker in Winnsboro, South Carolina, to be trained as a cotton gin builder and repairer.  Very little is known about April’s life beyond his apprenticeship, except in 1811, he had a daughter by Matilda, a sixteen year old slave woman (Johnson and Roark 1984, 14).

April worked in McCreight’s gin shop until 1816 learning how to be a blacksmith, a machinist, and a carpenter, skills required of a gin maker.  In addition to learning to be a master gin builder during his apprenticeship with McCreight, April learned to read, write, cipher, and do bookkeeping. Indeed, McCreight had provided April with all the skills, both intellectual and mechanical, necessary for independent success as a gin maker (Johnson and Roark 1984, 11-13). April’s long term apprenticeship in gin making prepared him for freedom.  Not only did he become a master gin builder, but also he learned how to get along with the white planters.  If April aspired to be successful as a free black gin maker, he had to understand the ways of whites.

On June 8, 1816, William Ellison appeared before a Fairfield District magistrate, with five local freeholders, to gain permission to free April, now 26 years of age.  For the first time in his life, April no longer belonged to another man and could decide for himself where he would live and work.  In 1817, upon obtaining his freedom, William moved to Stateburg, Sumter County, South Carolina and started making and repairing cotton gins.

By the time William was in his late twenties, he was in business for himself as a master cotton gin builder and repairer.  Ellison became a successful businessman and mechanic.  A bill to Judge Waite dated October 6, 1817 exemplified that Ellison was truly skilled at his work.  Ellison completely dissembled, rebuilt, and reassembled Waite’s cotton gin.  It probably took him twelve days to complete this job. By 1819, William had bought two male slaves to work in his shop. In 1820, April legally changed his name to William Ellison, Jr., the name of his former owner.  As a result of the high price and increased production of cotton, by 1840 William had twelve slaves working in his shop.  On December 13, 1848, Ellison placed an advertisement in the Sumter Banner, a newspaper, advertising his business of making and repairing gins.

According to the 1850 U.S. Census- Slave Schedule of Sumter County, South Carolina, William Ellison was listed as a black man with thirty-seven slaves, twenty-seven males and ten females. In a letter to his son Henry, dated March 26, 1857, Ellison wrote giving him instructions on managing several of the gin shop customer accounts.  One can conclude that business was going so well, that William’s son help was needed to keep up with the accounting (Ellison’s papers).

By 1860 William owned, not only his gin shop, but also a large cotton plantation and more than 60 slaves. He was South Carolina’s largest black slave owner.  In the entire state, only five percent of the people owned as much land as William. It was unusual, but not impossible, for former slaves to own slaves.

When war broke out in 1861, William became a very devout supporter of the Confederacy. William turned his plantation over from being a cotton cash crop to farming foodstuff for the Confederacy when his grandson joined a Confederate Artillery Unit.  After Ellison’s death on December 5, 1861, per his wishes, his family actively supported the Confederacy throughout the war. The Ellison family produced foodstuff for the Confederate Army, contributed large amounts of money, paid $5000 in taxes, and invested a good portion of their fortune into Confederate Bonds, worthless at the end of the war.  After the war, the Ellison family had lost their money and returned to the poverty the Ellison patriarch knew in his youth.

Undoubtedly, the greatest accomplishment of William Ellison was his transitioning from a slave to an entrepreneur.  With his technological and business skills, William was able to earn his freedom and become a successful entrepreneur

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