Free Blacks, 1619–1860
Free Blacks, 1619–1860
In 1860 some half a million free people of African descent resided in the United States. Known alternately as free Negroes, free blacks, free people of color, or simply freepeople (to distinguish them from post–Civil War freedpeople), they composed less than 2 percent of the nation's population and about 9 percent of all black people. Although the free black population grew in the centuries before the universal emancipation that accompanied the Civil War, it generally increased far more slowly than either the white or the slave population, so that it was a shrinking proportion of American society.
But free blacks were important far beyond their numbers. They played a pivotal role in American society during slave times and set precedents for both race relations and relations among black people when slavery ended. Their status and treatment were harbingers of the postemancipation world. Often the laws, attitudes, and institutions that victimized free blacks during the slave years—political proscription, segregation, and various forms of debt peonage—became the dominant modes of racial oppression once slavery ended. Similarly, their years of liberty profoundly influenced the pattern of postemancipation black life. Free people of African descent moved in disproportionate numbers into positions of leadership in black society after emancipation. For example, nearly half of the twenty-two black men who served in Congress between 1869 and 1900 had been free before the Civil War.
Although free blacks have been described as more black than free, they were not a monolithic group. Their numbers, status, and circumstances changed from time to time and differed from place to place, in some measure based on their origins, their social role, and relations with the dominant Euro-American population, on the one hand, and the enslaved African-American population, on the other.
The Colonial Era
Before the American Revolution, few free blacks could be found in colonial North America. The overwhelming majority of these were light-skinned children of mixed racial unions, freed by birth if their mother was white, as colonial law generally provided that a child's status followed that of its mother. Others were manumitted (i.e., freed) by conscience-stricken white fathers. A 1775 Maryland census, the fullest colonial enumeration of free blacks, counted slightly more than 1,800 free people of African descent, 80 percent of whom were people of mixed racial origins. Like Maryland whites, about half of these free black people were under sixteen years old, and, of these, almost nine in ten were of mixed racial origins. Few black people of unmixed racial parentage enjoyed freedom in colonial Maryland; the free black population was not only light skinned but also getting lighter. Unlike slaveholders in the Caribbean and South America, Maryland slave owners emancipated their sons as well as their daughters with equal—if not greater—facility. The sex ratio, following that of slaves, generally favored males. In addition, about one-sixth of adult free blacks were crippled or elderly persons deemed "past labor," whom heartless slaveholders had discarded when they could no longer wring a profit from them. In all, free black people composed 4 percent of the colony's black population and less than 2 percent of its free population. Almost a century after slavery had been written into law, the vast majority of Maryland black people remained locked in bonded servitude. The routes to freedom were narrow and dismal.
Fragmentary evidence from elsewhere on the North American continent suggests that free black people were rarely a larger proportion of the population than in Maryland. In most places they made up a considerably smaller share of the whole, and in some places they were almost nonexistent.
Although their numbers were universally small, the status of free people of African descent differed from place to place in colonial North America. In Spanish Florida and in French and (after 1763) Spanish Louisiana, black people generally gained their freedom as soldiers and slave catchers in defense of colonies vulnerable to foreign invasion and domestic insurrection. Playing off the weakness of European colonists, free African and Afro-American men gained special standing by taming interlopers, disciplining plantation slaves, and capturing runaways. However grossly discriminated against they were, service in the white man's cause enabled some free black men to inch up the social ladder, taking their families with them.
Spanish authorities first employed black men, many of them runaways from English colonies, in defense of St. Augustine in the late seventeenth century. Eager to keep the English enemy at bay, Spanish officials instructed the fugitives in the Catholic faith, allowed them to be baptized and married within the Church, and then sent them against their former enslavers in raids on the English settlements at Port Royal and Edisto. Black militiamen later fought against the English in the Yamassee War and protected Spanish Florida against retaliatory raids. During the eighteenth century, Spanish officials stationed black militiamen and their families at Gracia Reál de Santa Terésa de Mosé, a fortified settlement north of St. Augustine. Mosé became the center of free black life in colonial Florida until its destruction in 1740. Thereafter, free blacks were more fully integrated into Spanish life in St. Augustine. They married among themselves, with Native Americans, and with African and Afro-American slaves; worked as craftsmen, sailors, and laborers; purchased property; and enjoyed a degree of prosperity and respectability. The free black settlement at Mosé was rebuilt in the 1750s, and it once again became a center of free black life in colonial Florida until the Spanish evacuated the colony in 1763.
French authorities in Louisiana first enlisted black soldiers in quelling an Afro-Indian revolt in 1730. Thereafter, officials incorporated black men into Louisiana's defense force and called upon them whenever Indian confederations, European colonial rivals, or slave insurrectionists jeopardized the safety of the colony. On each such occasion—whether the Chickasaw war of the 1730s, the Choctaw war of the 1740s, or the threatened English invasion of the 1750s—French officials mobilized black men, free and slave, with slaves offered freedom in exchange for military service. By 1739 at least 270 black men were under arms in Louisiana, of whom some 50 were free.
The black militia played an even larger role in Spanish Louisiana than it had under the French. Spain gained control of the colony in 1763 as part of the settlement of the Seven Years' War. Finding themselves surrounded by hostile French planters, Spanish authorities embraced free people of African descent as an ally against internal as well as external foes. They recommissioned the Louisiana free black militia, adopting the division between pardo (lightskinned) and moreno (dark-skinned) units present elsewhere in Spanish America. Officials clad the free black militiamen in striking uniforms and granted them fuero militar rights, thereby exempting the black militiamen from civil prosecution, certain taxes, and licensing fees—no mean privileges for free black men in a slave society.
The free black militia thrived under the Spanish rule, becoming an integral part of the colony's defense force. When not fighting foreign enemies, free black militiamen were employed to maintain the levees that protected New Orleans and the great riverfront plantations, to fight fires in the city limits, and to hunt fugitive slaves. As the value of the free black militia to Spain increased, so did the size and status of the class from which the militia sprang. In 1803, when the Americans took control over Louisiana, the free black militia numbered over five hundred men.
The central role of free black men in defense of colonial Florida and Louisiana allowed them to enlarge their numbers and improve their place within those colonies. Black militiamen employed their pay and bounties to secure the freedom of their families and a modest place in societies that were otherwise hostile to free people of African descent. From their strategic position they entered the artisan trades, frequently controlling many of the interstitial positions as shopkeepers, tradesmen, and market women—occasionally even as plantation overseers and midwives.
In English seaboard colonies white nonslaveholders served as soldiers and slave catchers and monopolized the middling occupations as artisans, tradesmen, and overseers. Free blacks, as a result, were confined to the most marginal social roles. They had few opportunities to advance themselves, accumulate property, gain respectability, and buy their loved ones out of bondage. Their status fell far below that enjoyed by free blacks in the Gulf region.
The Antebellum Period
The American Revolution transformed the free black population. But because the Revolution took a different course in different places and because of differences within the extant slave and free black populations, the reformation of black life moved in different directions in different parts of the new republic. Post-Revolutionary free black life can best be understood from a regional perspective. During the antebellum years, there were three distinctive groups of free blacks in the United States: one in the northern or free states, a second in the upper South, and a third in the lower South. Each had its own demographic, economic, social, and somatic characteristics. These differences, in turn, bred different relations with whites and slaves and, most important, distinctive modes of social action.
First, the Revolution transformed the North from a slave to a free society, greatly enlarging its free black population. But slavery died hard in the northern states, and the gradualist process by which northern courts and legislatures abolished slavery left some black people in bondage until the eve of the Civil War. Still, post-Revolutionary emancipation ensured that eventually all northern blacks would be free, and by the first decade of the nineteenth century the vast majority had emerged from slavery. To their number were added immigrants from the South, most of them fugitive slaves. In 1860 about a quarter of a million blacks, slightly less than half of the nation's free blacks, lived in the free states.
But universal emancipation in the North did not transform the economic status or social standing of black people—except perhaps for the worse. Before the Revolution, northern slaves had been disproportionately urban in residence, black in color, and unskilled in occupation. Free blacks followed that pattern, becoming in fact more
urban and unskilled during the antebellum years, as they increasingly migrated to cities and found themselves pushed out of artisan trades by European immigrants.
Nevertheless, post-Revolutionary emancipation allowed black people certain rights. Because the abolition of slavery freed northern whites from the fear of slave revolts, they did not look upon every gathering of black people as the beginning of a revolution. They limited the political rights of free blacks, but they allowed them to travel freely, organize their own institutions, publish newspapers, and petition and protest. Black men and women transformed these liberties into a powerful associational and political tradition. African churches, schools, fraternal organizations, and literary societies flourished in the northern states. The African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion denominations and the Prince Hall Masons, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias were among the largest of these, extending their reach to all portions of the North. Every black community also supported a host of locally based institutions and organizations. Members of these institutions, national and local, joined together to hold regional and national conventions that protested discrimination and worked for group improvement. From Richard Allen to Frederick Douglass, the black leaders forged a tradition of protests that demanded full equality.
As in the North, the free black population in the upper South was largely a product of the American Revolution. But in this region, the ideas and events—along with the economic changes—of the Revolutionary era merely loosened the fabric of slavery by increasing manumission, self-purchase, and successful suits for freedom. Slavery survived the challenge of the Revolutionary years, and indeed flourished. Nevertheless, the free black population grew rapidly, so that by 1810 the upper South contained nearly 100,000 free blacks, who composed about 8 percent of the black population in the region and almost 60 percent of all free people of African descent. Thereafter, the tightening noose of slavery slowed the growth of the free black population, and the proportion of free black people residing in the region declined.
The free black population in the upper South was the product of two patterns of manumission. The first and most important occurred on a large scale; it was indiscriminate and rooted in ideological and economic changes of the Revolutionary era. The second, smaller and more selective, originated in personal relations between master and slave. The first wave of manumissions produced a population that, like the slave population, was largely rural and black in color. To the extent, however, that post-Revolutionary emancipation was selective—with masters choosing whom they would free—it produced a free black population that was more skilled and lighter in color than that of the North. In the course of the nineteenth century, manumission became even more selective, so that freepeople of the upper South became increasingly skilled in occupation, urban in residence, and light in skin color. The absence of large-scale European immigration to the slave states and a long-standing reliance on black labor allowed upper South free blacks to enjoy a higher economic standing than those in the free states. In 1860, a quarter to a third of free black men practiced skilled trades in Nashville, Richmond, and other upper South cities.
But if the presence of slavery helped elevate their economic status, it severely limited the freepeople's opportunities for political or communal activism, for southern whites looked upon free black people as the chief inspiration and instigators of slave unrest. White southerners not only prevented free black people from voting, sitting on juries, and testifying in court but also barred them from traveling without permission and meeting without the supervision of some white notable. These constraints circumscribed political and organizational opportunities. No black newspapers were published and no black conventions met in the South. There were no southern counterparts of Allen or Douglass. Black churches, schools, and fraternal societies were fragile organizations, often forced to meet clandestinely. With limited opportunities for political outlets, free black men and women poured their energies into economic opportunities, and, as tradesmen and artisans, made considerable gains.
This tendency toward economic advancement at the expense of political activism was present in an even more exaggerated form in the lower South, particularly the port cities of Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans. These places were largely untouched by the egalitarian thrust of the Revolutionary era. Moreover, when the United States gained control of Louisiana and Florida, American officials decommissioned and dispersed the free black militias, and slaveholder-dominated legislatures subjected the existing free black population to considerable restrictions. The free black population increased slowly in the nineteenth century, its growth the product of natural increase and sexual relations between masters and slaves. Almost all free blacks were drawn from the small group of privileged slaves who had lived in close contact with their owners, connections that often bespoke family ties. As a result, former slaves were overwhelmingly urban and light skinned, a quality that earned them the title "free people of color," or in New Orleans gens de couleur. Although comparatively few in number, most were far more skilled than free blacks in the upper South. In some places, such as Charleston and New Orleans, over three-quarters of the free men of color practiced skilled crafts, and they monopolized some trades on the eve of the Civil War. A handful of wealthy free people of color even purchased slaves and moved into the planter class.
As in the upper South, the presence of slavery in the lower South prevented free people of color from translating their higher economic standing into social and political gains. Denied suffrage and proscribed from office, they found a political voice only by acting through white patrons—their manumittors, their customers, and occasionally their fathers. Their own organizations remained private, exclusive, and often shadowy, especially in comparison to the robust public institutions created by free black people in the North. Although some were well traveled and highly educated, as much at home in Paris and Glasgow as in New Orleans and Charleston, they dared not attack slavery or racial inequality publicly. Many feared to identify with slaves in any fashion. Rather, they saw themselves—and increasingly came to be seen by whites—as a third caste, distinct from both free whites and enslaved blacks.
With the general emancipation of 1863, free people of African descent carried their diverse histories into freedom. Although Civil War emancipation liquidated their special status, their collective experience continued to shape American race relations and Afro-American life.
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ira berlin (1996)