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Sam was one of the many enslaved craftsmen at work in Charleston, South Carolina – a city with more enslaved craftsmen at work than any other American city. Teaching slaves to practice a trade raised the ire of journeymen and apprentices in that city. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they lobbied fiercely for laws regulating the training and conduct of those whom they saw as enslaved competitors. In 1764 the South Carolina Legislature passed a statute that allowed craftsmen to train their own slaves, provided that they “have and constantly employ one white apprentice or journeyman for every two Negroes or other slaves they shall so teach and thenceforth employ.”
We know very little about Sam, who only appears in the historical record once: when he runs away from his owner. We know much more about his former owner, the Charleston master-builder Humphrey Sommers, whose portrait by Jeremiah Theus is in MESDA’s collection, and whose rise from immigrant craftsman to successful gentleman is well documented.