Black History Month Spotlight — George Dereef, Slaveholding Family of Color Descendant and NAACP Member
George Dereef, Slaveholding Family of Color Descendant and NAACP Member:
George Dereef, a Wisconsin attorney, was the descendant of a slave-holding free family of color from Charleston, South Carolina whose members had belonged to the Brown Fellowship Society. Originally from South Carolina, Dereef settled in Milwaukee in 1913 and figured prominently in the local branches of the NAACP and the National Negro Business League.
In the 1820’s George’s grandfather Joseph Dereef had purchased a troublesome Negro girl named Betsey for $270 and started on the road to slave ownership. His father Richard E. Dereef inherited Joseph’s slaves and added to this number, becoming a wealthy free black Charleston wood factor. His sons were listed in the 1862 Free Negro Tax Book as factors as well, one of which had the title “Doctor.” Son John Dereef was listed in his father’s household in the 1860 federal census, and paid municipal taxes on real estate worth $3,700. Like white slaveholders, the Dereef’s were forced to sell their slaves after the war.
Other free black slaveholders like the Dereef’s were Robert Howard, one of the wealthiest free men of color in antebellum Charleston, and William Ellison, the wealthiest free Negro in South Carolina. Howard was a wood dealer like the Dereef’s, paying city taxes on five slaves and real estate worth $33,900. Ellison was born into slavery in 1790, but by the time of the War Between the States owned more slaves than any other free Negro in the entire South except Louisiana. Ellison bought his freedom in 1816, set up a cotton ginning business, and made enough income to buy 63 slaves and ex-Governor Stephen D. Miller’s former home and plantation.    
Free black slaveholding was not unusual in the antebellum North and South as they utilized the labor of slaves for profit, hiring them out as simple labor or trained artisans. Though much is made of the benevolence of black slaveholders toward their kin, author Larry Koger (No Chariot Let Down) dismisses this as improbable as most black slaveholders were mulattoes (83.1%) while nearly all their slaves were dark-skinned (90%). He asked, “where was the kinship?”
Koger underscores that there were black masters in every State where slavery existed (including the North), many black Americans of the antebellum period believed that slavery was a viable economic system. In Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, free blacks owned more than 10,000 slaves, according to the Federal census of 1850.
Aristocrats of Color, The Black Elite, Willard C. Gatewood, University Press of Indiana, 1993
No Chariot Let Down, Charleston’s Free People of Color, UNC Press, 1984