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Free black

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Free black

A free Negro or free Black was an African American in the United States who was not a slave. The term ceased to have any application there after the abolition of slavery.

Almost all African Americans came to the United States as slaves, but as early as 1619, a class of free Negroes existed in America.[1] The free Negro population grew from multiple sources:

  1. children born of free colored persons
  2. mulatto children born of free colored mothers
  3. mulatto children born of white servants or free women
  4. children of free Negro and Indian parentage
  5. manumitted slaves
  6. slaves who escaped.[1]

Slaveholders manumitted slaves for various reasons. Sometimes an owner died and the heirs did not want slaves, or a slave was freed as reward for his or her good service, or the slave was able to pay in order to be freed.[2] Slaves could also be promised their freedom by serving in the army during the Revolution; the British were the first to recruit and promise slaves their freedom, and then the Americans began to allow blacks to enlist as well.[3] Many slaves took the initiative to free themselves by running away through networks like the Underground Railroad, assisted by former slaves and abolitionist sympathizers.[3]


While free blacks existed as early as 1619, significant efforts against slavery didn't begin until the mid eighteenth century.[4] The sentiments of the American Revolution and the equality evoked by the Declaration of Independence rallied many black Americans toward the revolutionary cause and their own hopes of emancipation; both enslaved and free black men fought in the Revolution on both sides.[4] In the North, slaves ran away from their owners in the confusion of war, while in the south, some slaves declared themselves free and abandoned their slave work to join the British.[4]

In the 1770s, blacks throughout New England began sending petitions to northern legislatures demanding freedom; by 1800, all of the northern states had abolished slavery or set measures in place to gradually reduce it.[4][5] However, the existence of these free territories did not guarantee rights of citizenship to free black people, nor did it end racism, segregation, or physical violence against the black population.[4] The population of free black people increased from 8% to 13.5% from 1790 to 1810, and most of these lived in the Mid-Atlantic States, New England, and the Upper South.[4]

The rights of free blacks fluctuated and waned with the gradual rise in power among poor white men during the late 1820s and early 1830s.[4] The Negro convention movement began in 1830, with black men holding regular meetings to discuss the future of the black race in America; some women such as Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth made their voices heard through public lecturing.[4] These efforts were met with resistance, however, as the early nineteenth century brought renewed anti-black sentiment after the spirit of the Revolution began to die down.[5] Southern dominated governments began adopting legislation that favored slaveholders, and slavery was permitted to exist in territories where it was technically illegal. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was strengthened by the Compromise of 1850, requiring all Americans to help slaveholders reclaim runaway slaves; Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth both had to have white abolitionist supporters purchase them from their previous owners to avoid deportation into Southern slavery.[4] In 1857, the ruling of Dred Scott v. Sandford effectively denied citizenship to black people of all statuses.[4]

Southern states also passed harsh laws regulating the conduct of blacks already free, in several cases banning them from entering the state altogether. In Mississippi, a free negro could be sold into slavery after spending ten days within state lines. Arkansas passed a law in 1859 that would have enslaved every free black person still present by 1860; although it was not enforced, it succeeded in reducing Arkansas's population of free blacks to below that of any other slave state.[6] A number of Northern states also restricted the immigration of free blacks, with the result that even emancipated blacks found difficulty finding places to legally settle.[7]

Not until 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War did the struggle against slavery become an active force in American society. Under President Abraham Lincoln, several legislative acts worked in favor of blacks in search of freedom; the First Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed fugitive slaves who escaped to behind enemy lines to remain free, the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 guaranteed both fugitive slaves and their families everlasting freedom, and the Militia Act allowed black men to enroll in military service.[4]

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in Confederate held territory only, and Black men were officially admitted to serve in the Union Army.[4] In 1865, the Union won the Civil War and the thirteenth amendment was ratified, outlawing slavery (except as punishment for a crime) throughout the entire country.[4] In response, the Southern states created Black Codes in an attempt to maintain control over black labor. The Missippi Black Code (the first to pass and the best known) distinguished between "free negroes", (newly-free) "freedmen", and "mulattoes"—though placing similar restrictions on freedom for all. US-born blacks gained legal citizenship with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, followed by the Fourteenth Amendment Citizenship Clause.

Regional differences

The lives of free blacks varied depending on their location within the United States. There was a significant free-black bias towards cities, as many rural free blacks migrated to cities over time, both in the North and the South. Cities were the chief destinations for migrating free blacks in the South, as cities gave free blacks a wider range of economic and social opportunities. Most southern cities had independently black-run churches as well as secret schools for educational advancement.[8] Northern cities also gave blacks better opportunities. For example, free Negroes who lived in Boston generally had more access to formal education.[1]

Before the American Revolution, there were very few free blacks in the Southern colonies.[8] The Lower South, except for its cities, did not attract many free blacks. The number of urban free Negroes grew faster than the total free black population, and this growth largely came from a mass migration or rural free Negroes moving to cities.[8] The South overall developed two distinct groups of free Negroes; the Lower South free Negroes were more urban, educated, and had lighter skin than free blacks in the Upper South.[8] Despite these differences, the Southern states passed a similar set of laws to regulate black life.[9][10]

Even with the presence of significant free black populations in the South, there was still a significant bias towards the North for free blacks. During the nineteenth century, the population of free blacks in the South shrunk as a significant portion of the free black population migrated northward.[8] This migration even moved some of the more prominent and talented free black figures out of the southern caste of free Negroes into the North, draining the south of potential free black leaders.[8] This difference in distribution of free blacks persisted until the Civil War, at which time about 250,000 free blacks lived in the South.[10]

Opportunities for advancement

The system of white supremacy that provided cultural justification of slavery also affected the status of free blacks, who were perceived as members of an inferior race.[11] The judiciary confirmed this subordinate status even when explicitly racialized laws were not available. A South Carolina judge editorialized in an exemplary decision from 1832:[12]

Free negroes belong to a degraded caste of society; they are in no respect on an equality with a white man. According to their condition they ought by law to be compelled to demean themselves as inferiors, from whom submission and respect to the whites, in all their intercourse in society, is demanded; I have always thought and while on the circuit ruled that words of impertinence and insolence addressed by a free negro to a white man, would justify an assault and battery."

Free blacks could not enter many occupations like medicine and law because they were barred from the necessary education. This was also true of occupations that required firearm possession, elective office, or a liquor license. Many of these careers required large capital investments that most free blacks could not afford, although as time went on, there were notable exceptions to these limitations, as was the case with physicians Sarah Parker Remond and Martin Delany.[13]

The 1830s saw a significant effort by white communities to oppose black education, coinciding with the emergence of public schooling in American society.[14] Public schooling and citizenship were linked together, and because of the ambiguity that surrounded black citizenship status, blacks were effectively excluded from public access to universal education.[14] Paradoxically, the free black community of Baltimore made more significant strides in increasing black access to education than Boston and New Haven.[14]

Free black males enjoyed wider employment opportunities than free black females, who were largely confined to domestic occupations.[13] While free black boys could become apprentices to carpenters, coopers, barbers, and blacksmiths, girls' options were much more limited, confined to domestic work such as being cooks, cleaning women, seamstresses, and child-nurturers.[15] Despite this, in certain areas, free black women could become prominent members of the free black community, running households and constituting a significant portion of the free black paid labor force.[15] One of the most highly skilled jobs a woman could have was to be a teacher.[13]

Many free African-American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia became landowners and a few of them also became slave owners. In some cases, this was in order to protect members of their own families, whom they purchased from other owners. In other cases, they participated in the full slave economy. For example, a freedman named Cyprian Ricard purchased an estate in Louisiana that included 100 slaves.[16][17]

Free blacks drew up petitions and joined the army during the American Revolution, motivated by the common hope of freedom.[18] This hope was bolstered by the 1775 proclamation by British official Lord Dunmore, who promised freedom to any slave who fought on the side of the British during the war.[19] Blacks also fought on the American side, hoping to gain benefits of citizenship later on.[19] During the Civil War, free blacks fought on the Confederate and Union sides. Southern free blacks who fought on the Confederate side were hoping to gain a greater degree of toleration and acceptance among their white neighbors.[20] The hope of equality through the military was realized over time, such as with the equalization of pay for black and white soldiers a month before the end of the Civil War.[4]


Within free black marriages, many women were able to participate more equally in their relationships than elite white women.[21] This potential for equality in marriage can be seen through the example of the "colored aristocracy" of the small black elite in St. Louis, where women were often economic partners in their marriages.[21] These small groups of blacks were descended from African or French and Spanish mixed marriages. Under the French, the women in these marriages had the same rights as white women and could hold property.[22] These black women hoped to remain financially independent both for themselves and for the sake of protecting their children from Missouri’s restrictive laws.[21] This level of black female agency also made female-centered households attractive to widows.[21] The traditional idea of husband dominating wife could not be the central idea in these elite marriages because of women’s importance in bringing income into the family.[21] Women had to exercise caution in married relationships, however, as marrying a black man who was still a slave would make the free black woman legally responsible for his behavior, good or bad.[15]

There are multiple examples of free black women exerting agency within society, and many of these examples include exerting legal power. Slavery and freedom coexisted with an uncertainty that was dangerous for free blacks. From 1832 to 1837, the story of Margaret Morgan and her family presents a prime example of the danger to free blacks from the ambiguous legal definitions of their status. The Morgan family's legal entanglement led to the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania in which it was decided that their captors could supersede Pennsylvania's personal liberty law and claim ownership of the Morgans.[23] This case highlighted the constitutional ambiguity of black rights while also illustrating the active effort by some in the white community to limit free blacks' rights.

In New England, slave women went to court to gain their freedom while free black women went to court to hold onto theirs; the New England legal system was unique in its accessibility to free blacks and the availability of attorneys.[24] Women's freedom suits were often based on technicalities such as the lack of legal slave documents or mixed race ancestry that exempted some from slave service. In New England in 1716, Joan Jackson became the first slave woman to win her freedom in the New England court.[24]

Elizabeth Freeman brought the first legal test of the constitutionality of slavery in MA, and as a land owner and tax payer, is considered to be one of the most famous black women of the revolutionary era.[24] Couverture limited the ability of some free black women to file lawsuits on their own, but a few women still filed jointly with their husbands.[24]

Notable free Negroes

See also


African American portal


  • Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974),
  • Burton, Orville Vernon. "Anatomy of an Antebellum Rural Free Black Community: Social Structure and Social Interaction in Edgefield District, South Carolina, 1850-1860," Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South (1982) 21#3 pp 294-325.
  • Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of the Dream (University of Chicago Press, 1981).
  • Horton, James O. Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993)
  • Horton, James O., and Lois E. Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1979)
  • King, Wilma. The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women during the Slave Era (2006)
  • Lebsock, Susan. "Free black women and the question of matriarchy: Petersburg, Virginia, 1784–1820," Feminist Studies (1982) 8#2 pp 271-92
  • Polgar, Paul J. "'Whenever They Judge it Expedient': The Politics of Partisanship and Free Black Voting Rights in Early National New York," American Nineteenth Century History (2011) 12#1 pp 1-23.
  • Rohrs, Richard C., “The Free Black Experience in Antebellum Wilmington, North Carolina: Refining Generalizations about Race Relations,” Journal of Southern History 78 (Aug. 2012), 615–38.
  • Wilson, Theodore Brantner. The Black Codes of the South. University of Alabama Press, 1965.

External links

  • The University of North Carolina at Greensboro Digital Library on American Slavery: Browse Subjects - Free People of Color
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