Rare relic discovered in the Lowcountry

Published: May. 23, 2012 at 8:57 PM EDT|Updated: May. 24, 2012 at 1:27 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A rare relic from Charleston's days of slavery is making a huge buzz.

Just recently discovered, experts say it is a significant find because it belonged to a free person of color.  But the man who found it, has no plans to keep it.

Hal McGirt discovered the treasured relic on one of his many days of metal detecting at historic South Carolina Lowcountry plantations. When he swings the detector, there is a ping of unknown mysteries below.

McGirt gets down on his hands and knees to dig through the layers of earth, but has learned after some forty years of metal detecting, the beep doesn't always deliver. Most likely he will find a pop top or piece of lead. But sometimes he unearths an important artifact.

That's what keeps the Columbia man coming back to the Lowcountry which is a good thing considering a recent find. McGirt discovered a City of Charleston Free Badge once worn by a free person of color. Only a handful have been found.

"I cleaned it for a half an hour before I knew what it was," McGirt said of his discovery.

"It's an incredible find, historically and financially," said Harlan Greene, an expert on slave tags, metal badges which were worn beginning in 1800 by slaves in the city limits.

There are some examples of the badges at the Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston. The badges were required by the City of Charleston at the time to regulate slaves for hire.

Not everyone owned slaves, and those who owned them would hire them out to work for other people in Charleston. Greene says the practice also allowed slaves to earn some money themselves.  The tags were dated and designed a skill or trade.  They required annual renewal.

But Greene says Freedman's Badges appeared earlier and did not require annual renewal.

Speaking about the badge McGirt found, Greene said, "That badge came from a law that they passed in 1783 saying that every free person of color above 15 years of age literally had to walk around the City of Charleston with a badge on their neck that showed they were free people of color."

The law was on the books for only six years. The badge McGirt discovered was folded, but was restored to its small oval shape. The words "City of Charleston" can be seen around the edge and "FREE" on a liberty cap in the center.

Greene says perhaps the tag indicated the people who wore them were to be treated differently than slaves.

"They were trying to figure out what to do in this new found society after the American Revolution and Charleston is apparently one of the only places in the country that actually did this," Greene said.

He estimates only 500 to 600 were ever made.

"This was a good find," McGirt said.

The tag is worth an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 but it's McGirt's tradition to hand over artifacts to the property owners. McGirt enjoys the history and what artifacts say about the people who lost them.

For example, he found an ornate sword handle, "from probably a British officer, made in the 1700s and possibly lost in the Revolutionary War," McGirt said.

A gold doubloon he found may have been worn as a pendant in the mid 1700s.  And there's a button, possibly once stitched to General Sherman's coat. McGirt believes there's enough evidence to link the two.

"People have been convicted and sent to jail on less," he said.

But a lot of mystery remains.

The Freedman's badge bears the number 320  Who wore that number? City records were kept, but can't be found.

"Not one sheet of paper," says Greene.

He speculates they may have been carted off by Union soldiers when Charleston fell, or the city tried to hide its slave holding past and destroyed them. He's hoping some day, something will turn up. Greene says maybe they'll turn up in someone's attic.

McGirt says be aware there are strict  laws that call for stiff penalties if you go metal detecting without the property owner's permission.

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