What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A Negro Woman, named BETTY … often frequents the Wharves, and Night-Dances on board of Scooners.”
Henry Gray had two main purposes in inserting an advertisement in the September 21, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette. He informed residents of Charleston that he planned to move out of the busy port and “into the Country.” He called on everyone who owed him money “to make immediate Payment,” while also noting that he left his account books with John Kesson in King Street. Debtors could settle accounts even after Gray departed from the city.
Even though Gray prepared to move his entire family into the country, one member of the household seemingly did not intend to go with them. More than half of Gray’s advertisement concerned Betty, “a Negro Woman,” who had escaped from him. Absenting herself from the Gray household on the eve of their departure apparently was not the only way that Betty asserted her liberty. Gray described her as “well known in Town,” which could have been the result of running errands assigned by Gray, but Betty’s other activities listed in the advertisement suggest that she forged relationships and went places of her own volition rather than with the permission of her enslaver. According to Gray, she “often frequents the Wharves, and Night-Dances on board of Scooners.” That may have been especially troubling to Gray if he suspected festivities that gathered the lower sorts – poor whites, free blacks, and enslaved men and women – together and undercut some of the hierarchies that organized colonial society and kept good order (at least from the perspective of colonists like Gray). Although she refused to answer to him, Gray knew that Betty was still in the vicinity of the bustling port. She had been spotted “with a Basket of Fruit, without the Town-Gate.” Like many other Black women in Charleston, enslaved and free, Betty participated in the market, selling fruit and setting the terms for the sales as she negotiated with customers. The city was large enough that she could evade capture by blending into her surroundings, perhaps benefiting from aid offered by friends, rather than fleeing and putting as much distance as possible between herself and Gray. Betty managed to seize some level of autonomy in Charleston. Whether or not she knew of Gray’s plans to move “into the country,” she apparently planned to continue exercising that autonomy rather than allowing her enslaver to dictate her movements and her relationships with others.