Last updated: March 17, 2021
Thomas Jeremiah, or "Jerry," was a free person of color, who worked as a harbor pilot in Charleston, South Carolina. Little is known about his life or how he obtained his freedom. In addition to his work as a harbor pilot, Jeremiah worked as a firefighter and ran a fish market. Eventually, Jeremiah became a slaveholder himself and a man of wealth with an estimated worth of £700 to £1,000, possibly the richest person of African descent in British North America. His connections to rich white South Carolinians proved helpful during an incident in 1771.
On July 17, 1771 Jeremiah was convicted of assaulting a white ship captain and was sentenced to an hour in the pillory and ten lashes with a whip. In view of his status, however, Lieutenant Governor William Bull pardoned Jeremiah. In 1775, Jeremiah again caught the attention of the white power structure of South Carolina in the midst of the conflict between Great Britain and the colonies.
In June 1775, Jeremiah became suspected of involvement in an alleged plot by the British to use enslaved people against white colonists, who opposed British rule. Given Jeremiah's position in the black community and his work as a harbor pilot, white colonists feared Jeremiah to be a leader of the alleged insurrection. Chief among the accusers was Henry Laurens, a leading patriot and former slave trader, who later became the president of the Continental Congress. On the other side was Lord William Campbell, royal governor of the colony, who believed that the accusation was unjust and tried to save Jeremiah’s life but failed. Jeremiah was tried in a slave court and sentenced to death under the Negro Act of 1740. On August 18, 1775, he was hanged and his body burned.
Before the noose was tightened around his neck, Jeremiah told his accusers that "God's judgment would one day overtake them for shedding his innocent blood." It is unknown if Jeremiah was involved in plotting an insurrection, but his hanging represents white South Carolinians' fears of British support for enslaved insurrection during the American Revolution. Thomas Jeremiah should arguably be considered the first South Carolinian killed during the American Revolution, months before the first armed clash between loyalists and patriots in South Carolina at the First Siege of Ninety Six in November 1775.