“He was a light skinned black man who was the product of his white owner and an enslaved black female.
William Ellison Jr. ( born April 1790 – died December 5, 1861), born April Ellison, was a U.S. cotton gin maker and blacksmith in South Carolina, and former African- American slave who achieved considerable success as a slaveowner before the American Civil War.
He eventually became a major planter and one of the medium property owners, and one of the wealthiest property owners in the state. According to the 1860 census (in which his surname was listed as “Ellerson”), he owned 63 – 68 black slaves, making him the largest of the 171 black slaveholders in South Carolina.
In 1802, he began an exceptional fourteen-year apprenticeship with a local cotton-gin maker. While slaves sometimes acquired skills, they typically remained unskilled all their lives. April’s apprenticeship allowed him to learn the craft of gin making, which also required mastering the skills of the blacksmith, machinist, and carpenter along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. As he gained more experience, April visited outlying plantations and did repair work there. During his free time he worked for wages, and by 1816 he had acquired the funds to purchase his freedom. Once free, April relocated to the town of Stateburg in Sumter District. By 1817 he purchased and freed his Loved Ones.
He held 40 slaves at his death and more than 1,000 acres of land.From 1830-1865, he and his sons were the only free blacks in Sumter County, South Carolina to own slaves. The county was largely devoted to cotton plantations, and the majority population were slaves.
Ellison and his sons were among a number of successful free people of color in the antebellum years, but Ellison was particularly successful.
His master had passed on social capital by apprenticing him to learn a valuable artisan trade as a cotton-gin maker, at which Ellison made a success.”
– Contribution by Joseph Paterson, our founding contributor