News Stories

Behind the Badge

Published July 1, 2024 | 1 min read

By Olivia McCommons

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., recently acquired what is thought to be the largest and most complete set of historic Charleston slave badges. The collection includes 146 rare badges dating as far back as 1804. 

Instituted in 1783, Charleston’s slave-badge system required that enslaved African Americans whose labor was leased out by their enslavers wear registered identifying badges. The badges indicated the laborer’s occupation, including mechanics, porters, fishers, fruiterers, carpenters, porters, and servants. According to the museum, “It was a form of control and surveillance over African Americans who had limited autonomy to move about the city conducting work—but today they are reminders that the enslaved were skilled workers who built much of Charleston.”

The collection was compiled by renowned collector and expert Harry S. Hutchins Jr., coauthor of Slave Badges and the Slave Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783-1865. The museum has launched a Searchable Museum feature to share the history of these items and provide insight into collecting, archaeology, the role of vocational training, and the meaning of freedom. Visit to explore and learn more.

A version of this article appears in the August 2024 issue of The Numismatist (