Chapter 1: Charleston

ON NOVEMBER 24, 1800, as Thomas Jefferson rode from Monticello in an open four-wheeled phaeton to conclude his campaign for president, Octavius Catto’s grandmother was being dragooned into slavery in South Carolina.

This indignity gave poor Fanny Shields the distinction of having been enslaved twice. So says a document two centuries old: Her owner hadfreed her, but he was dead by 1800, and another slaveholder seized Fanny and her daughter “with force & Arms” to use them as his slaves.

It was a peril well known to the mulattoes, mechanics, Indians, dockhands, and former slaves who made up the city of Charleston’s free colored population. Free was how the tax code defined their world. But somewhere on the high fence of caveats and contradictions around that world, this much was clear: You could be bullied into bondage at almost any time.

Reclaiming your freedom, flimsy as it was, depended on having a white “guardian” vouch for you. He could do so by fi ling a claim of “ravishment of ward.” Those words are scrawled on the document that records the freedom of Fanny Shields and the moment of her re-enslavement.

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We like to talk. Our publicist put us in front of a video camera, asked three questions and then crossed his fingers. We're probably a little too serious at the beginning, but we loosen up as the video goes on.
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A Call to Arms

Click to get a closer look, you can see the name of Octavius Catto at the bottom, as well as his father's.

This broadside is eight feet high and was seen on windows in downtown Philadelphia in June, 1863, as black leaders called a meeting to convince black men to join the Union Army prior to Gettysburg.