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“N” is for Negro Seamen Acts

South Carolina A to Z larger logo

“N” is for Negro Seamen Acts. While the mobility of free blacks was generally restricted before the Civil War, the Negro Seaman Acts were unique laws. During the antebellum era they proliferated along the southern coastal states. South Carolina was the first to pass such a law in the aftermath of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy. The goal of the legislation was to forestall potentially dangerous contact between nonresident free blacks and enslaved persons. By its provisions, free black sailors on board ships from outside South Carolina were incarcerated in local jails for the duration of the ship’s visit. Ship captains were responsible for paying the costs incurred. If a captain refused or left without him, the jailed black sailor could be sold as a slave. The Negro Seaman Acts contributed to rising antebellum sectional tensions.

Dr. Walter Edgar has two programs on South Carolina Public Radio: Walter Edgar's Journal, and South Carolina from A to Z. Dr. Edgar receivedhisA.B.degreefromDavidson College in 1965 and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1969. After two years in the army (including a tour of duty in Vietnam), he returned to USC as a post-doctoral fellow of the National Archives, assigned to the Papers of Henry Laurens.