History Behind the Story: The Badge of Servitude

As a city with a large black population, including many free people of color, antebellum Charleston had a particular problem. In the countryside, any black person could safely be assumed to be a slave. Not so in the city itself. The city of Charleston had a solution to identify slaves going about legitimate business (that is, they were not runaways). From 1800 until the Civil War, Charleston issued slave badges.

The badges were squares of base metal, stamped with the phrase “The City of Charleston”, the year they were issued, and the job of the person who wore them—the most common being “servant,” often denoting a woman who was a laundress or seamstress, or “mechanic”, a 19th-century term for any skilled male laborer.

For a look at an 1860 badge—the moment captured by my novel about Charleston!—for a servant, see this image from the Charleston Museum. Also check out the Museum’s piece on badges, including many photographs, and if the subject fascinates you enough to do further research, take a look at Harlan Greene's book, Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina: 1783-1865.