The Smithsonian’s African American Museum Acquires the Largest Collection of Charleston Slave Badges

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) recently acquired what is widely considered the largest set of historic Charleston Slave Badges. The collection includes nearly 150 rare badges dating as far back as 1804. 

Slave badges were an early tool of surveillance. On a badge, there were various identifying factors, like an enslaved person’s name, his or her role in the plantation and an ID number. These badges were updated and issued yearly, and enslaved people were required to sew them onto their clothes. If someone dared to escape, information from the badge would be used in slave-catching advertisements. Today, these badges serve as a reminder of the Black, enslaved labor that built much of Charleston.

“We are honored to share the story of enslaved African Americans who contributed to building the nation,” Mary Elliott, NMAAHC museum curator said. “It is a story that involves the juxtaposition of profit and power versus the human cost. The story sheds light on human suffering and the power of the human spirit of skilled craftspeople who held onto their humanity and survived the system of slavery, leaving their mark on the landscape in more ways than one.”

Not only are the badges visible in the NMAAHC, but the Smithsonian has launched a searchable museum feature where people can look at the badges and other museum artifacts from anywhere in the world. Visitors—both digital and in-person—can engage with the relics and learn about the intricate system of leased enslaved labor. In addition to providing the history of Charleston Slave badges, the new searchable museum feature will provide insight into the collection and archaeology, along with the role of vocational training and the meaning of freedom in the larger context of American history.

Although the badges served as a form of control, those who wore them had a marginal degree of autonomy to move about the city while conducting work. This provided greater communication opportunities with a wider network of enslaved Black people. The legacy of the badges is not rooted in the badges themselves—they serve as a tangible memory and testament to enslaved people’s humanity and resilience.

Updated: June 24, 2024 — 9:03 am