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.