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The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty

The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty
Author: J. William Harris
ISBN 13: 9780300171327
ISBN 10: 300171323
Edition: N/A
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 2011-02-22
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240
List Price: $24.00

The tragic untold story of how a nation struggling for its freedom denied it to one of its own.


In 1775, Thomas Jeremiah was one of fewer than five hundred “Free Negros” in South Carolina and, with an estimated worth of £1,000 (about $200,000 in today’s dollars), possibly the richest person of African descent in British North America. A slaveowner himself, Jeremiah was falsely accused by whites—who resented his success as a Charleston harbor pilot—of sowing insurrection among slaves at the behest of the British.


Chief among the accusers was Henry Laurens, Charleston’s leading patriot, a slaveowner and former slave trader, who would later become the president of the Continental Congress. On the other side was Lord William Campbell, royal governor of the colony, who passionately believed that the accusation was unjust and tried to save Jeremiah’s life but failed. Though a free man, Jeremiah was tried in a slave court and sentenced to death. In August 1775, he was hanged and his body burned.


J. William Harris tells Jeremiah’s story in full for the first time, illuminating the contradiction between a nation that would be born in a struggle for freedom and yet deny it—often violently—to others.

Publishers Weekly

Intrepid historian Harris (Pulitzer finalist for Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation) presents a carefully research account of nebulous historical figure Thomas Jeremiah, who, at the time of his death in 1775, "had risen as high as it was possible for a free black man" in South Carolina, where at least "ninety-nine in a hundred blacks were enslaved." Owner of a fishing company and worth $200,000 in 2009 dollars, Harris was probably the richest black man in North America; he was also a slave-owner. That didn't stop him from becoming a scapegoat, accused by patriot leader Henry Laurens-a wealthy plantation owner with hundreds of slaves-of secretly leading a British-sponsored slave insurrection. Though Governor William Campbell, aggrieved by the unlawfulness of Jeremiah's trial, interceded, it didn't stop those determined to hang Jeremiah. Alongside a rigorous narrative, Harris offers sober but forceful reflections: though he was "free, Christian, and a slave owner," Jeremiah proved an unworthy ally in the eyes of patriots like Laurens, who believed "the America being born...would be a white man's country." Readers will learn much about the darker side of American institutions; students of American history and civil rights will appreciate Harris's impassive approach and thorough standards. 18 b&w photos.
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