South Carolina slave badge to sell at Swann Auction Galleries

A copper slave badge made by a South Carolina silversmith will star in Swann Auction Galleries’ African-Americana sale.

It’s a dark reminder of America’s deep roots in the slave trade.

Charleston slave badge

These badges were used to tax slaves working away from their master's property

Such tags were used exclusively in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves were regularly rented between owners.

All slaves had to wear one when working away from their master’s property. 

They served as a form of city tax, as each badge had to be bought from the local council.

The tradition started in the early 1800s so as to appease white workers, who were angered that slaves were carrying out work they would once have done for pay.

It’s unsurprising that such an innovation would have arisen in South Carolina (and Charleston in particular). The city was the historic centre of the slave trade.

By 1860 South Carolina was home to 400,000 slaves - 10% of the total in all of America.

The amount of tax paid on each badge was dependant on the slave’s skills. Higher skilled slaves (such as mechanics and carpenters) paid more tax.

The person who wore this 1824 badge was classed as a servant, which is by far the most common designation on these badges – making up around 80% of the survivors.

“Fisher” is generally agreed to be the rarest badge on the market.

This example was made by John Joseph Lafar, who produced large numbers of these badges on contract.

It’s expected to make around $8,000-12,000.

The sale will also feature rare manuscripts by civil rights leader Malcolm X.  

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