Throughout the Antebellum era, the institution of slavery worked to strip Black women of their humanity and human rights and to seize control of their labor and their bodies. Black women resisted this system of racialized and gendered oppression both from inside and outside this institution, fighting for self-ownership, self-determination, and self-respect. This is the story of one of these women—a Greenville, South Carolina, dressmaker named Margaret Walker who, at the height of her success in the mid-1800s, stood at the helm of a thriving business and possessed significant real estate and personal wealth, valued in the thousands. At the moment of her birth, however, such a life would have been unthinkable, since she spent close to half her life in slavery. By the 1850s Margaret Walker found herself in the opposite condition as an independent, wealthy woman and business owner.
Margaret Walker was born into slavery sometime around 1810, somewhere in South Carolina. All we know of her parents is that her mother was enslaved at the time of Margaret’s birth. Margaret’s status at birth, after all, depended on that of her mother, a cruel reminder of the way in which the system of American slavery forcibly enlisted women’s reproductive capabilities to perpetuate the institution. As is the case for the vast majority of children born into slavery, information on Margaret’s early life is frustratingly limited, save for this: at some point, Margaret began to train in the needlecraft trades. In putting Margaret to this trade, her enslaver must have anticipated substantial returns from her labor, justifying the time and expense invested in her training. Margaret was not alone in this, but rather just one among thousands of young enslaved boys and girls sent to learn the artisan trades so that they might use their skills to enrich their enslavers and the broader system of human exploitation under which they labored. This is one of the strange ironies of the American slave system. It opened up certain skilled manual professions to Black men and women who might otherwise have been barred from them, which was often the case in the American North where white workers had comparatively more power to police the racial boundaries of the skilled manual trades.
Once Margaret completed her artisanal training, she would have begun full-time work in the needlecraft trades. Different sources used different labels, like “milliner” (a maker of women’s hats), a “dressmaker,” and a “mantua maker” (a reference to the style of loosely draped dresses). Regardless of the label, it is clear that Margaret worked at the highest levels of her profession, crafting ladies’ hats, dresses, and other garments to be purchased and worn by the monied white women of her district. During her time in enslavement, the vast majority of her earnings likely went into the pockets of her white enslaver. Some of the money, however, seems to have remained with Margaret, though it is unclear how much or through what means. She may have been permitted to keep a percentage of her earnings, or perhaps to take on extra work in her free time, both of which were tactics employed by enslavers to coax more and better work out of their enslaved laborers. Whatever way Margaret earned her money, she saved it carefully and, likely sometime in the 1840s, used her funds to liberate herself. The price of her freedom was a steep $1,200 (the rough equivalent of $45,000 today). This cost, high for a woman near the end of her reproductive years, would have reflected her skill in her trade, and the lost years of profit Margaret’s enslaver sacrificed in permitting her self-emancipation. In purchasing herself, Margaret took the less well-known route into freedom, a route which, in contrast to escape, allowed her comparatively greater freedom of choice in shaping the next steps of her life.
This high level of skill may also help explain what followed, which to modern eyes no doubt appears to be the most surprising decision of Margaret’s life. Upon emancipation, she chose not to leave South Carolina for freer pastures, but instead made her home in the heart of American slavery, remaining in the small town of Greenville for the rest of her known life. Of course, this decision may have been personal. Too little is known about her private life to determine to what extent a desire to remain near family and community influenced her choices. Margaret’s financial history has been comparatively better documented, however, allowing for more informed speculation about her economic motives. By staying in Greenville, Margaret put herself in a position to achieve remarkable success in her business. In this decision, she followed a path well-trodden by other Black women elsewhere in the South who used their skills in the needlecraft trades to carve out a free life in the midst of slavery.
The financial wisdom of Margaret’s decision became quickly evident. The 1850 federal census estimated her wealth in personal and real estate at one thousand dollars, evidence that her finances had recovered from the staggering cost of her self-emancipation. Her situation improved steadily from there. In December of 1853 she made her first appearance in the credit report volumes of the R.G. Dun & Co., the nation’s first consumer reporting agency. She was the first Black resident of Greenville District to do so, and the only prior to the end of the Civil War, highlighting the exceptional nature of her case. The white male agent who submitted her report gave a glowing review. Margaret “has fine taste,” he assured the agency, and she “has and is making money, owns [property] and is good [for credit].” His confidence was not misplaced. Margaret’s business remained strong throughout the Antebellum period, receiving consistently favorable credit ratings and peaking in an 1859 report that estimated her to be worth between five and ten thousand dollars.
Neither freedom nor financial security, however, could make Margaret’s life in 1850s South Carolina easy or safe. She was, after all, a formerly enslaved woman living in a district where almost 70% of residents were white, almost 30% were enslaved, and only one half of one percent were, like Margaret, both free and Black. She would thus have never had the privilege of anonymity, living under constant surveillance and judgment. Her conduct had to be impeccable in order to maintain her relationships with the white women who wore her clothing and the white men who extended her credit. If the R.G. Dun & Co. records are to be trusted, she succeeded in this aim. In the process, Margaret Walker turned her public existence into a political statement. She was a living contradiction of white supremacist rhetoric, offering visible, defiant proof of the fallacy that Black women were only suited for slavery.
As the 1850s wore on, rising sectional tensions over slavery threatened Margaret’s ability to maintain the life for which she had paid so dearly. Between 1858 and 1860, four different bills calling for the expulsion of free Black residents from the state appeared in front of the South Carolina legislature. Margaret must have watched these developments with anxiety, unable to voice her political opinions for fear of backlash. Though the bills came to nothing, the war that followed offered yet another threat. A Confederate victory in the Civil War meant the enshrinement of Black enslavement as a guiding national principle, further undermining the social position of Margaret and other free Black Southerners.
If life under a slave regime could not stop Margaret Walker, neither could the nation’s bloodiest war. The first winter after the conclusion of the Civil War, as the South began the slow post-war and post-emancipation rebuilding process, the first credit report of Margaret’s postbellum career offered a terse but reassuring confirmation: “Still here.”permission.