Metal detectorist finds 10th known 1800s 'Free Slave' badge
- Published: Apr 16, 2021, 9 AM
Veteran South Carolina relic hunter Ralph Fields’ metal detecting prowess paid off Feb. 28 when he unearthed what is now identified as only the 10th known example of a copper Charleston Free Slave badge, one of only five in private hands.
Fields pinpointed the find on a construction site in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, seven miles southwest of Charleston.
Slaves in and around Charleston in the late 18th century and early 19th century were assigned numbered metal badges that were also stamped with the wearer’s occupation.
According to The Charleston Museum website at https://www.charlestonmuseum.org, “Enslavers were required to obtain a badge annually [for five shillings]from the city’s treasury office for any enslaved person working outside their domain. The resulting income from these ancillary services were sometimes kept by the enslaver completely, divided equally, or, in some recorded instances, kept by the enslaved laborer entirely.”
The Charleston Free Slave badge, sometimes referred to as a Freedman badge, was issued under a late 18th century Charleston ordinance.
“A city ordinance in place from 1783 to 1789 required all free persons of color above the age of fifteen to wear these badges in plain view,” according to the Charleston Museum website.
The Charleston Museum’s collection holds one of the five Free Slave badges not in private hands.
The badge’s obverse depicts a Phrygian, or Liberty, cap on a vertical pole. The word FREE in capital letters appears on the cap. Inscribed on a banner bisected by the pole is CITY OF and CHARLESTON. Engraved on the Fields badge in the area below and right of the cap is the number 147. There is no date.
The badge’s reverse illustrates that elements of the obverse motif were embossed through from the obverse.
The Fields badge is holed at the top, but the hole is plugged with dirt. Fields’ discovery has been acquired by a noted specialist in early coins and medals of Colonial America and Americana, John Kraljevich Jr., from JK Americana of Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Kraljevich said the backs of the medals are intended to be blank, though the 147 badge is a flip over double strike so it has a flattened design on the back.
Kraljevich says he currently has no immediate plans to part with the Fields discovery piece. Kraljevich also owns the only Charleston Free Slave badge marked with a letter, U, in the area where a number would normally be. The lettered example is currently in the second year of a five-year loan for exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Kraljevich says the badge would have been one of the few possessions a former slave owned. He said institutions actively seek such items that can be interpreted as an important part of American history.
Warrenton, Virginia, writer Cliff Krainik, who is having an article on Fields’ discovery published in an upcoming issue of American Digger Magazine, says the Free Slave badge is considered the “Holy Grail” of badge collecting. Krainik says Fields is one of only four relic hunters to have dug a Free Slave badge — Pete Ellis found Free Badge Number 259 in Beaufort County during the winter of 2005; Hal McGirt recovered Free Badge Number 320 on a plantation site near Charleston in February 2012; and Free Badge Number 258 was dug on the banks of the Black River in the Low Country by Dr. Cantey Haile Jr. on Nov. 21, 2013.
One of the main reasons for the rarity of the 1.5-inch copper Free Slave badge, according to Krainik, is the number of people that would have been required to wear them to identify their free status. “According to the United States Census, no more than six hundred free persons of color were living in Charleston in 1790,” Krainik notes. “And unlike the later issued slave hire badges, the Free badge was not issued annually. So once a badge was obtained, presumably it was good in perpetuity.”
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