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Metal detectorist finds 10th known 1800s 'Free Slave' badge

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Metal detectorist finds 10th known 1800s 'Free Slave' badge

Veteran South Carolina relic hunter Ralph Fields' metal detecting art paid off Feb. 28 when he unearthed what is currently identified as just the 10th known illustration of a copper Charleston Free Slave badge, one of only five private hands.

Fields pinpointed the locate on a building site in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, seven kilometers southwest of Charleston.

Slaves in and about Charleston in the late 18th century and early 19th century were assigned numbered metal badges that were also stamped with the wearer's occupation.

As stated by the Charleston Museum website at,"Enslavers were needed to obtain a badge annually [for five shillings]from the city's treasury office for any enslaved individual working outside their own domain. The resulting income from these types of ancillary services were occasionally kept by the enslaver completely, divided equally, or, in some recorded instances, kept from the enslaved laborer entirely."

The Charleston Free Slave badge, also sometimes referred to as a Freedman badge, has been issued under a late 18th century Charleston ordinance.

"A town ordinance in place from 1783 to 1789 demanded all free persons of color over the age of fifteen to use these badges in plain view," in accordance with the Charleston Museum website.

The Charleston Museum's collection retains one of those five Free Slave badges not in private hands.

The badge obverse depicts a Phrygian, or Liberty, cap onto a vertical pole. Inscribed on a banner bisected by the rod is CITY OF and CHARLESTON. Engraved on the Fields badge in the region below and right of the cap is your number 147. There's no date.

The badge reverse illustrates that components of the obverse theme were embossed through in the obverse.

The Fields badge is holed at the top, but the hole is plugged with dirt. Fields' discovery has been acquired by a noted specialist in early coins and medals of Colonial America and Americana, John Kraljevich Jr., from JK Americana of Fort Mill, South Carolina.

Kraljevich said the backs of the chords are intended to be blank, though the 147 badge is a flip over double attack so it's a flattened design on the back.

Kraljevich says that he currently has no immediate plans to associate with the Fields detection piece. Kraljevich also owns the only Charleston Free Slave badge marked with a letter, U, in the area in which a number would normally be. The lettered case in point is currently in the second year of a five-year loan for display at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Kraljevich claims the badge would have been one of the very few possessions a former servant owned. He said associations actively seek such items which may be translated as an important part of American history.

Warrenton, Virginia, author Cliff Krainik, who is having an article on Fields' discovery published in an upcoming issue of American Digger Magazine, says that the Free Slave badge is known as the"Holy Grail" of badge gathering. Krainik states Fields is one of just four relic seekers to have dug a Free Slave badge -- Pete Ellis located Free Badge Number 259 at Beaufort County through the winter of 2005; Hal McGirt recovered Free Badge Number 320 on a farm website near Charleston at February 2012; and Free Badge Number 258 was dug on the banks of the Black River in the Low Country by Dr. Cantey Haile Jr. on Nov. 21, 2013.

One of the main reasons for the rarity of the 1.5-inch aluminium Free Slave badge, according to Krainik, is the range of individuals who would have been needed to wear them to spot their free status. "According to the United States Census, no longer than six hundred free men of color were living in Charleston in 1790," Krainik notes. "And unlike the later issued servant hire badges, the Free badge was not issued annually. So after a badge had been obtained, presumably it was great in perpetuity."

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