The State Museum recently acquired a Bible once owned by William Turpin, a white South Carolina merchant and enslaver turned abolitionist.
Inside the front cover of the Bible is a historical find: a handwritten list of dozens of enslaved people Turpin freed, illustrating the activities of a small, yet vibrant abolitionist community in pre-Civil War South Carolina.
Between 1807 and 1826, William Turpin freed 31 people and wrote their names in his Bible now in the museum’s care. They were placed under the protection of relatives, close personal friends and the Bush River Society of Friends, a community of Quakers who opposed slavery. One individual named Boston, freed by Turpin in May 1820, was kidnapped from his home by slave catchers seven years after gaining his freedom. His guardian, John Glen was furious and purchased ads offering a reward for the “restoration of said fellow to his liberty.” Boston’s fate is unknown; Turpin records his death in 1833 but makes no assertion as to whether he died free. Boston’s story is an example of the difficulties faced by free Blacks in South Carolina, whose ability to enjoy the fruits of emancipation were always contested.
“Turpin’s Bible not only names and offers details about the lives of the enslaved, but it also deepens our understanding of how ideas about slavery, emancipation and freedom evolved in South Carolina,” said Ramon Jackson, Curator of African American History and Culture. “Their names, recorded by Turpin’s hand, are powerful ways for us to connect with the past. It gives names and power to those recorded, helping us better understand their lives and struggles.”
The piece of cultural history is currently available to explore online at scmuseum.org. The Bible will soon be put on display in a new exhibition opening this November during the State Museum’s 35th Anniversary Celebration.