The Antebellum era of American history saw a number of people of color achieve marked success in business. Indeed, from the end of the 18th century right through to the start of the Civil War in 1861, several former slaves became entrepreneurs, none more so than William Ellison Junior. Indeed, by the beginning of the Civil War, he had grown to become one of the most successful businessmen in all of South Carolina, despite being a Mulatto. As well as owning a considerable amount of land, he also held dozens of slaves by the time of his death. So how did a slave get to become such a prominent figure in Southern society?
William Ellison Jr. was born April Allison in 1790. He was born into slavery on a plantation close to Winnsboro, South Carolina, though there was some confusion over his parentage: either Robert Ellison, the plantation owner, or his son, William Ellison – who was listed as April’s ‘owner’ – could have fathered the child. This status gave William some relative privilege on the plantation. Significantly, the Ellison men decided that young April should learn a skill. And so, at the age of 10, he became an apprentice cotton gin maker. Six years later, he finished his apprenticeship and was armed with a skill that was much in demand across the Deep South. He immediately got to work.
Since he was still technically a slave, albeit one who was ‘hired out’, April’s master kept most of what the young man earned in a nearby workshop. April was, however, allowed to keep a small portion of his earnings, including wages for work done on a Sunday, and he was ultimately able to buy his freedom from Ellison. The date was 8 June 1816, and April was just 26 years old. Perhaps as a sign of gratitude, he changed his name to William Ellison Jr and immediately bought his wife’s freedom and, as soon as he was able, that of his children. In 1817, he moved to Sumter County, South Carolina and set up shop as a cotton gin maker. Very soon, he had purchased four slaves to help him with his growing business. Then, by 1850, he had bought 156 hectares of land, with 32 slaves to work it.
A decade before the start of the Civil War, Ellison managed to acquire more land, so that by 1860, he had 53 slaves. His children also had slaves of their own. Once war erupted, he not only sided with the Confederate, he offered the army 53 of his slaves. Ellison also bought war bonds for the cause. With the defeat of the Confederacy, these became worthless. Like many others in the South, Ellison lost almost all his wealth. Nevertheless, when he died in 1861, Ellison was able to leave a will dividing more than 60 slaves up between his one surviving daughter and two sons.