Black Matt and the Selling of a Slavemaster
Matthew Hobson was well known along the coastal areas of Virginia as a slave dealer of great abilities. Everyone agreed that he was quite accomplished as a “breaker-in”, one of those rare individuals who had a talent for turning around those slaves not exhibiting a pleasant disposition regarding their slave status. To his friends, he was known as “Black Matt”, owing to his dark good looks and complexion, but for business purposes, he stuck to the formal moniker bestowed upon him at birth.
Sometime in the 1850's, Matthew purchased a mulatto by the name of Sam for a very low price. Sam was intelligent – he could read and write, and had a refined ability to imitate the behaviors of the most polished of gentlemen. He was also very light skinned and with his polished airs, was able to pass for a white man. But Sam was also the owner of some very bad habits. He lied. He thieved. He was given to drunkenness. Thus, his price was exceedingly low.
After making his purchase, Matt took the time to give him a good talking to, resplendent with great admonitions regarding unacceptable behaviors. He made sure that Sam understood the punishment he could expect if he failed to maintain proper decorum as befitted a slave.
Sam hid his anger over being spoken to so harshly, and vowed sure vengeance if ever the opportunity presented itself. He didn't have to wait long. Matthew made up his gang to be sold, Sam among them, and shipped out of Norfolk for New Orleans. Mathew aimed to get a good price for Sam and so, decided to dress him up in finery – clothing, silk hat, leather boots, kid gloves – hoping Sam's appearance would portray the body servant of a wealthy planter. Matt was hoping to sell Sam for at least $600.
Sam Goes To Town
After more warnings accompanied by a verbal list of dire consequences, Sam was sent on shore in order to show himself off. He proceeded to the steamboat, Alhambra, and began to strut along as though he was one of the well-bred gentlemen moving about their business. Overhearing a heavy-set gentleman speaking of his wishes to purchase a good body servant, Sam sidled up to him and said, “My dear sir, I have got just the boy for you.”
“Aha!” exclaimed the planter, “I'm glad to hear that as I have been looking for quite a few days now. How much are you asking for him?”
Sam pretended to think on it for a moment before speaking. “Nine hundred dollars.” He followed with a bit of excitement tinting his speech, “And cheap as dirt at that! He is loaded to the brim with all the qualities you could wish for him to possess. He can shave, dress your hair, brush boots, and is very polished in his manners.” Sam barely missed a beat when he proclaimed, “I could get $1500 for him, but for the one fault he's got.”
The planter quirked an eyebrow and asked, “And pray what kind of a fault might that be?”
Sam sighed and shook his head slowly, implying a great confusion. “Why, sir, it's a ridiculous fault for one such as him. He imagines himself a white man.”
The wealthy planter laughed uproariously. “A white man! That surely is a funny conceit, indeed; but I can quickly cure him of that as I've considerable experience in the training and managing of gentlemen of color.”
Sam pretended to be a little unsure, warning several times that though he was certain his slave could be cured, he was sure to be a bit of trouble at first. The more Sam voiced his uncertainty, the more the planter wanted to make the purchase. After several minutes of Sam's doubtful pondering, the planter was anxious to get the deal done.
“Sir, you appear to be a gentlemen and so, I will take him on your recommendation. Where is he now?” the planter demanded.
Sam pointed in the direction of a ship by the wharf. The planter hastily pulled out the $900 and asked for a bill of sale. Obliging the man, Sam signed his name as Samuel Hopkins and pocketed the cash. Turning to give directions to his customer, he said, “Be sure to ask the captain for Black Matt, for that is what he is known by. I shall be around as soon as I complete my business with another gentleman.”
Vengeance Is Had
When the planter found his way to the ship, he demanded the captain to let him see the boy, Black Matt. The officer pointed to Matthew Hobson who sat on the quarter deck smoking a cigar and overseeing the debarkation of his slaves.
“Are you Black Matt?” the planter asked of him.
Matthew eyed the man briefly. “Folks at home call me that, but here my name is Matthew Hobson. What do you want with me?”
The planter puffed out his chest and snorted. “I'll tell you what I want. I want you. You look as though you'll do just fine and will surely suit me.”
Getting hot under the collar, Matthew fired off a response, “Look here, stranger, maybe you don't know who you're speaking to?”
“Yes, I do. You're my property! I bought you from your master, Samuel Hopkins just today, and...”
Matthew was on his feet in an instant. “You bought me!” he exclaimed angrily. “The Devil you did! I'm a white man!”
Undaunted, the planter continued on in his efforts to take possession of Matthew, warning him that he would whip such conceits out of the young man. Upon hearing such threats, Matthew drew back a fist and landed a hard blow on the planter's nose. They tussled back and forth, grabbing throats and bellowing until a police officer came along. Hearing the planter's story, the policeman seized hold of the unruly slave and took him off to jail where Matthew remained until evidence identifying him as a white citizen of the US could be gotten.
While all this was taking place, Sam found a ship weighing anchor for a European port. He promptly paid the fare and hastily boarded the ship. And having gotten his revenge against his master, Sam was never heard from again.
While perusing historic newspapers, I came across an article (1860) telling the story of Sam and Black Matt. I was taken with the story as it's a good example of how color of skin wasn't always the reason for slavery, but rather prejudice against race. According to laws, a person with even 1/16 black blood could be held a slave in some states. Other states had 1/4 and 1/8 laws.