How an Enslaved Blacksmith Had to Enslave His Own Family to Win Their Freedom

Most historians were appalled when the Florida Board of Education adopted new standards for the state’s African American History curriculum, including instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, thought it was just fine. “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” the Republican presidential candidate explained.

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie pointed out, enslaved Americans were treated as chattel, always subjected to enforced labor, beatings, sexual abuse, and family separation. Whatever skills a “fortunate few” managed to acquire were heartlessly exploited for the benefit of the enslavers.

Moreover, the Florida Board of Education attempted to justify its standard by releasing a list of 16 individuals who were said to have benefited from skills acquired as slaves. But as it turns out, many on the list had never been enslaved, or had become free in childhood and had acquired their professions post-emancipation.

So an already weak argument doesn’t even have these wobbly legs to stand on. But let’s explore the life of one formerly enslaved person who did acquire skills during slavery.

In my book, The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery, I wrote about Allen and Temperance Jones, a married couple, both born into enslavement by a North Carolina plantation owner named Jeffrys in the late 18th century. Trained as a blacksmith, Allen had been able to work for wages on Sundays, the slaves’ only day of rest, eventually saving the $685 required to buy his freedom.

Jeffrys, however, was a swindler as well as a slaver. He took Allen’s money, falsely claiming that it was never rightfully his. “You are my n—-r yet,” Jeffrys said, “and I have the money, too.”

Undeterred, Allen redoubled his labor. He eventually raised enough money to buy his freedom, which Jeffrys could not refuse a second time. Now able to work full time and keep his earnings, Allen saved the $3,000—a small fortune in those days—necessary to free Temperance and their three children.

This time, Allen took no chances. North Carolina law required manumitted slaves to leave the state unless they had been freed under narrow circumstances. He could not trust the perfidious Jeffrys to release Temperance and the children, and certainly not to provide the certificate of “meritorious service” that would allow them to remain in North Carolina. Rather than risk simply handing over the cash, Allen was compelled to purchase his own wife and children, enslaving them to himself.

That still provided scant security for the Joneses. Enslaved persons could always be seized in satisfaction of debts—real or concocted—which was especially perilous for the African Americans in bond to their own families. Allen therefore took the remarkable step of hiring a prominent white lawyer named Thomas Ruffin to petition for the freedom of his wife and children.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks after signing three education bills on the campus of New College of Florida in Sarasota, Fla. on May 15, 2023.

Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The necessary papers, filed in 1829, alleged Allen’s ownership of “several negro slaves to wit: Tempe, Munro, Betheny, and Burnham”—his wife and children. The petition cited Tempe’s “upright character” and her “dutiful, faithful, and highly meritorious” service, as required for her to stay in the state.

Ruffin was no racial progressive, owning two plantations where he enslaved over 100 African American men, women, and children. He would soon be appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where he authored one of the most pro-slavery judicial decisions of the antebellum era. Holding that enslavers could legally shoot recalcitrant slaves, he wrote that “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” Nonetheless, Ruffin was a scrupulous attorney, and the well-drafted petition was soon granted on Allen’s behalf, decreeing the “liberation of his said slaves.”

Allen became a leader in his community, daringly helping to build a school for free Black children. The school was burned to the ground several times, and the Joneses eventually decided they and their children could no longer remain in a slave state.

In 1843, the family relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, which was the most racially progressive town in the United States. Allen opened his own smithy and became well known in abolitionist circles. He was celebrated in a long profile in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, which described him standing at his forge and singing “songs of liberation.”

All four of the Jones children graduated from Oberlin College—including the youngest, the aptly named Elias Toussaint, who was born free in 1834—making them perhaps the most educated African American family in the United States. Nonetheless, the burden of enslavement was never fully lifted.

I discovered the manumission petition in a North Carolina archive when I was researching another family. As far as I can tell, no one since 1829 had ever been informed of Temperance’s enslavement to her husband. In all of the many memoirs, interviews, remembrances, and articles about the achievements of the Jones family, there was never any mention of the court proceeding. It is highly likely that the Jones children and their descendants were never aware of the embarrassing circumstances of their mother’s liberation, or of their abolitionist father’s humiliation at having been forced to become an enslaver himself.

So yes, Allen Jones was trained as a blacksmith by an enslaver, but the brutal system did everything possible to deprive him and his family of any personal benefit.

The College Board, whose own advanced placement course on African American history was rejected in Florida, has issued a statement “resolutely disagree[ing] with the notion that enslavement was in any way a beneficial, productive, or useful experience for African Americans.”

But Gov. DeSantis would have none of that. “I’m here defending my state of Florida against false accusations and against lies,” he tweeted.

In fact, the true story of Allen and Temperance Jones gives the lie to DeSantis’ callous assertion that enslavement bestowed a “personal benefit” on blacksmiths or anyone else.

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