African Americans (Freed People)

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Although the vast majority of African Americans were slaves until 1865, the relatively small free black community that began to form during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries played a very important role in African American history. The free black community established institutions such as independent black churches, schools, fraternal organizations, and mutual aid societies. Free blacks were also extremely important in the abolitionist movement. African Americans' post-emancipation hopes for full and equal citizenship were ultimately dashed; nonetheless, the freed people developed their own distinct culture and institutions that would shape black American life in the decades that followed.

background: seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

The first African Americans were transported to the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland in the early 1600s in order to work as indentured servants on tobacco farms, similar to many European emigrants. However, throughout the 1600s, the practice gradually developed where blacks were presumed to be slaves for life rather than bound for a term of years. By the early 1700s, African slavery was established in all of the British North American colonies, north and south.

While some free blacks, such as the poet Phillis Wheatley and Boston Massacre victim Crispus Attucks, achieved some renown in colonial America, a distinct black community did not emerge until the American Revolution (1775–1783). A number of blacks received their freedom as a result of their fighting in the American Army. Other blacks, particularly in the South, received their freedom by fighting for the British against their patriot masters. Thousands of blacks took advantage of the dislocations caused by the war to run away from their owners. Further, the democratic and egalitarian sentiments spawned by the Revolution led northern states to begin the gradual emancipation of slaves within their borders. While southern states did not abolish slavery as a result of the revolution, some individual slave-owners, such as George Washington, voluntarily emancipated their slaves. By the late 1700s, sufficient numbers of free blacks were present in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, and in rural areas in upper South states such as Maryland, as to permit the emergence of a black community with its own distinct culture and institutions.

After the Revolutionary War, free northern blacks formed institutions that have continued to influence African American life to the present day. The first independent black churches date from this period; the most well known example is the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Richard Allen in Philadelphia in the mid-1790s. Free blacks also founded independent black schools, fraternal organizations such as the Prince Hall Masons, and mutual aid societies such as the Free African Society founded by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen in Philadelphia in the late 1780s. These institutions provided a foundation from which many black community leaders emerged in the first half of the 1800s. Black northerners, however, faced pervasive social discrimination: most states did not permit blacks to vote and they were informally barred from many jobs and public accommodations.

african americans in antebellum america

There were also free blacks in the slaveholding South during the nineteenth century. Most free blacks in the upper South states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware lived in rural areas, although significant numbers of free blacks lived in cities such as Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk. A smaller number of free blacks lived in Deep South states such as Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana, particularly in cities such as Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans. Free blacks in the Deep South, unlike those in the North and in the Upper South, often had close ties to the white elite: free blacks in major Deep South cities were often skilled tradesmen, and a small number of Deep South free blacks were slave owners themselves. Free blacks in the South lived under even more restrictive conditions than black northerners because white southerners feared that free blacks would conspire with slaves to harm whites. For instance, some states passed laws to restrict their freedom of movement and ownership of guns.

Free blacks played an important role in the abolitionist movement, which became increasingly prominent after 1830, and helped to cause the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, was the most well-known free black abolitionist of the period, but free blacks such as Henry Highland Garnet and Martin Delany were also prominent leaders. Free blacks helped slaves escape on

the Underground Railroad. Northern free blacks also agitated, with only occasional success, to obtain the right to vote and gain equal employment and housing opportunities.

the civil war and its aftermath

The Civil War was a turning point for the African-American community. Although initially reluctant to use black soldiers, the Union Army enlisted over 180,000 free blacks and escaped slaves who served in all-black units under white officers. Black soldiers faced unequal pay in the Union Army and were frequently executed by Confederate forces that were unwilling to treat black soldiers as prisoners of war. However, blacks served valiantly in the Union cause that began with preserving the nation and ended with the goal of abolishing slavery. Those who survived lived to see both slavery and the Confederacy finally destroyed at the war's end.

The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 ended slavery in this country forever. Freedom, however, did not mean equality or economic opportunity. Freed slaves lacked land, education, and employment. As a result, many former slaves continued to work the same land they had worked as slaves, only now as sharecroppers or tenant farmers rather than chattel slaves. Other freed blacks took to the road in order to leave the area in which they had been slaves, to seek opportunities in cities and towns, or to attempt to find relatives who had been sold away during slavery. Now that slavery was ended, it remained to be seen what status free blacks would hold in postbellum America.

After Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Reconstruction policy was initially dominated by President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Unionist who had little sympathy for blacks. Johnson acquiesced in southern states' passage of "Black Codes" intended to reduce the freed people to a condition much like slavery by preventing them from owning land or traveling freely. Freed blacks were also the target of much violence from angry white southerners in the first several months after the war ended. A particularly heinous incident occurred in Memphis in May 1866 when forty-six black people were killed by a mob led by local policemen. Northern outrage at widespread southern violation of blacks' rights and the return of former Confederate leaders to political power in the South led to a rejection of Johnson's lenient Reconstruction policies in the 1866 elections and to congressional-led Radical Reconstruction (1867–1877).

The Republican-dominated Congress sent federal troops to the South to protect blacks' rights and to establish more democratic governments. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were ratified in 1868 and 1870, respectively, with the intent of requiring southern states to give blacks equal citizenship rights and the right to vote. In response, white southerners formed terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which instituted a violent campaign against blacks and their white sympathizers. Nonetheless, during Radical Reconstruction, over 1,000 blacks were elected to various offices in southern states, including two U.S. Senators and fourteen members of Congress.

However, this period of black political influence was brief. Unrelenting white terrorist violence in the 1870s led to the recapture of political control in many southern states by white supremacist Democratic regimes. Further, white northerners gradually lost interest in protecting black southern rights throughout the 1870s. By 1876, only Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina remained under Republican rule.

the post-reconstruction period

Radical Reconstruction came to an end after the 1876 presidential election between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Although Tilden won the popular vote, Hayes claimed that he had carried Lousiana, Florida, and South Carolina, and therefore had won the election by one vote in the Electoral College. After much dispute, an agreement was reached by which Democrats would accept Hayes's victory in exchange for his promise to remove federal troops from Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. Once the troops were removed, white supremacist Democrats immediately seized power in those southern states and Reconstruction was finished.

In the years following 1877, southern states adopted a number of devices, including poll taxes and literacy tests, which effectively prevented nearly all southern blacks from voting. Further, all southern states adopted "Jim Crow" laws which required the segregation of blacks from whites in nearly all aspects of southern life, including housing, schools, and transportation, in order to establish a racial hierarchy in which blacks were clearly subordinated.

Despite the disappointment of Reconstruction, black southerners, in the last third of the nineteenth century, managed to build communities with institutions that would play an important role in black culture and in the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. Black southerners established their own independent churches and Sunday schools in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Black southerners, often aided by white northern philanthropists, established schools and colleges that trained the next generation of black leaders, such as Fisk University in Tennessee and Hampton Institute in Virginia.

Although frustrated in their search for equality, free blacks in the North and freed slaves in the South established their own distinct culture and institutions that helped them survive difficult times and that would eventually provide the foundation for future gains. The greatest outcome of the Civil War was the freedom of nearly four million slaves. What freedom meant and what this nation would do to ensure freedom and equality to African Americans and all minorities were issues that remained unresolved for decades.


Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Horton, James Oliver, and Horton, Lois E. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Johnson, Micheal P., and Roark, James L. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: Norton, 1984.

Daniel W. Aldridge, III

See also:Frederick Douglass; Reconstruction; Segregation, Racial, 1816–1900; Sharecropping and Tenant Farming.

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African Americans (Freed People)

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African Americans (Freed People)