Free Blacks in the North

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Free Blacks in the North

Traveling across the United States in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville searched for the distinctive or "exceptional" quality of American democracy. What set Americans apart, Tocqueville contended, was the basic equality of social condition that Americans enjoyed. The society he observed was in the throes of a fundamental transformation in the very concept of representative, democratic government. Voluntary associations proliferated and, by the early 1830s, state after state had dropped property qualifications for voting for white men. And yet Tocqueville was alarmed at the foundations upon which American democracy seemed to rest: racial prejudice and a white supremacy that pervaded every institution of society. After about 175 years of slavery, the unique nature of the black experience in the United States—politically, socially, economically, culturally—had come into such sharp focus that Tocqueville believed whites and blacks incapable of complete integration or, for that matter, complete separation. "These two races are fastened to each other without intermingling; and they are unable to separate entirely or to combine," Tocqueville asserted in his classic book, Democracy in America (2 vols., 1835, 1840). "The most formidable of all ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory; and in contemplating the causes of present embarrassments, or of future dangers in the United States, the observer is invariably led to this as a primary fact." For Tocqueville the real secret to what modern scholars call American exceptionalism lay at the doorstep of the color line.

In the new American nation, racial prejudice sometimes seemed more intense in the northern states than in the South. Northern whites who feared blacks or harbored deep racial prejudice were probably more hostile to their black neighbors than were slave owners. This made sense. In the South blacks were controlled by masters, overseers, and slave codes. The entire legal apparatus of the South was available to suppress blacks and keep them in perpetual servitude and perpetual servility. But in the North, especially in the eastern states that formed the Union, free blacks were not under the control of anyone and after the Revolution were free to move about; interact in society; and, in a number of states, participate in politics.

abolition and discrimination

In the years following the Revolution the northern states abolished slavery and the free black population grew rapidly. In 1790 there were about 27,000 free blacks and over 40,000 slaves in the northern states. By 1810 these states had over 75,000 free blacks and about 27,000 slaves. By 1830—the end of the early national period—there were over 122,000 free blacks in these states and about 2,700 slaves, almost all of them in New Jersey, which was the last northern state to begin to end slavery. There were three sources for the growing numbers of free blacks: the emancipation and manumission of slaves; the children of slaves who were born free under the gradual emancipation statutes of Pennsylvania (1780), Connecticut (1784), Rhode Island (1784), New York (1799), and New Jersey (1804); and the free blacks and fugitive slaves who left the South for the greater freedom and opportunity of the North. The Northeast was not the only destination for free blacks. Despite laws that discriminated against them, southern blacks flocked to Ohio, where the free black population rose from a paltry 198 in 1800 to over 9,500 by 1830. Similarly, Indiana's free black population grew from 87 in 1800 to over 3,600 by 1830. Illinois, with about 400 free blacks at statehood in 1818, had over 1,600 by 1830.

The rights of free blacks in the North varied tremendously in the half century after independence. In Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and later Maine they had virtually full rights as citizens The only formal discrimination they faced in those states was laws banning interracial marriage. After the Revolution blacks could vote not only in those states, but in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey as well. But the new states of the Midwest—Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), and Illinois (1818)—prohibited blacks from voting and passed laws requiring them to register and prove their freedom. These laws were rarely enforced and did little to slow the growth of the free black population in those states, but the laws did brand them as second-class citizens. More pernicious were laws prohibiting them from testifying against whites, receiving public assistance if they became impoverished, and banning them from public schools.

By the end of the early national period, the political status of blacks had declined. In 1821 New York allowed all whites to vote but retained a property requirement for black voters. New Jersey had taken the vote away from blacks by this time. Ohio had begun to build public schools, but only for whites.

economic conditions

Just up from slavery, blacks were faced with the difficult task of carving out independent lives for themselves and providing the means of economic sustenance. Slavery operated much differently in the North than in the South. Rather than toiling on large, sprawling plantations, slaves were mostly concentrated in northern urban centers and worked as domestics in their owners' homes. As free blacks moved out of white households and into their own (segregated) communities, they sought work anywhere they could find it. Naturally, they competed on the lowest rung of the economic ladder with poor whites, many of whom were recent immigrants in places like Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and New York City. Economic competition caused racial tensions

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in those areas where urbanization, immigration, and industrialization were the most pronounced. The larger the growing free black population, the more visible blacks were and hence the more resentment they faced. Also, the earlier immigration, urbanization, and industrialization took place, the greater the likelihood that racial animosities would flare up. In general, the social and economic milieu of the early nineteenth century across the North tested what Joanne Pope Melish has described in Disowning Slavery (1998) as "the stability of social identity and the meaning of citizenship for whites as well as for people of color."

In the northern and the mid-Atlantic states, a small portion of free blacks worked in their own fields on land that was either purchased by them or bequeathed to them. In the cities, they carved out their own economic existence as barbers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, painters, and shoemakers. Yet many struggled to become completely independent from white benefactors, many of whom had been their former masters. In New York City from 1790 to 1810, for example, roughly a third of all free blacks lived in white households. Most of these blacks lived and worked as domestic laborers in the homes of merchants, artisans, professionals, and retail salesmen—in other words, in the homes of prominent white citizens of New York City. But in the same period, the number of households headed by free blacks went up from 157 to 1,228, or about an eightfold increase.

forging black communities

In Pennsylvania, the gradual abolition law passed by the Pennsylvania assembly in 1780 stipulated that any child born to a mother held in slavery would be freed upon reaching the age of twenty-eight. Thus, by 1810 manumission was taking place all across the state. Gradual abolition no doubt played a large role in both the increase in the number of free blacks in the state and the black migration to Philadelphia. By 1810, there were only 795 slaves and 22,493 free blacks in Pennsylvania. In 1800, 56 percent of all Philadelphia blacks lived in white households; by 1810 that number had dropped to 39 percent. Ten years later only 27 percent of blacks resided in white households. Blacks were forging their own communities in Philadelphia, but were doing so in the face of increasing political and economic discrimination on the one hand and residential segregation on the other.

Black communities in other northern states also struggled to piece together a tolerable existence. To the northeast of Pennsylvania in Rhode Island, any black child born to a slave after 4 March 1784 was freed upon reaching the age of majority—eighteen for females, twenty-one for males. The children were bound to their masters until that time, and the slave owner was responsible for the child's education until the age of majority was reached. By 1820 the slave population in Rhode Island had dwindled down to a mere several dozen; in Newport, the foothold of plantation slavery in the state, the number of slaves had declined to seventeen, and the census of the same year recorded only four slaves in Providence. As Rhode Island entered an era of industrial expansion between 1800 and 1830, manumitted blacks were moving from south to north within the state, converging mainly on Providence, where a burgeoning black community began to thrive. Furthermore, the newly freed class eventually possessed and maintained some modicum of economic independence from the white majority.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, nearly two-thirds of all blacks lived in black-headed households. Most of those living outside black homes were children who remained in white households as apprenticed house servants, placed there by the black parents; in return for their services, black children received educational instruction from whites. These ties between the white elite and blacks were formed in the days of slavery and took the shape, specifically in Rhode Island, of whites allowing blacks into their churches and, to a lesser extent, their schools. However, the removal of blacks from white households coincided with an attempt at racial separation through the creation of wholly black institutions. While black groups such as the Free African Union Society and the African Benevolent Society had been in existence in Newport since the 1790s, by 1820 there was a concerted effort on the part of both white and black leaders to establish separate schools and churches for blacks.

Some blacks attended college. John Russwurm for example, graduated from Maine's Bowdoin College in 1826 and then moved to New York, where he was co-founder with Samuel Cornish, a Presbyterian minister, of the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, in 1827. Cornish was one of a number of free black ministers in the North who helped create viable black communities in the early national period. By 1830 black churches could be found throughout the North, run by black ministers and supported by black communities. These communities resisted segregation and discrimination in public places even as they turned inward to create schools, fraternal organizations, clubs, churches, and intellectual institutions, like Russwurm's newspaper. Across the North blacks found freedom, discrimination, racism, white philanthropy, economic opportunity, and discrimination in employment. Whether in Massachusetts or Ohio or New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, or anywhere else across the North, free blacks suffered the brutal realities of discrimination, the joyous taste of freedom that came with abolition and a new life, and the bitter disappointments attendant with second-class citizenship as it stalked them wherever they went. All dreamed of what James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton called "The Hope of Liberty"; all lived somewhere between freedom and bondage. How did they endure? In his Platform for Change: The Foundations of the Northern Free Black Community, 1775–1865 (1994), Harry Reed argues that free black communities all across the antebellum North looked to five specific things in forming a community identity and "consciousness" to ease the harshness of their increasingly isolated status: the church, self-help organizations, black newspapers, the black convention movement, and the ideology of emigration that began in the 1810s. How did they endure? Faced with the racial prejudice Tocqueville witnessed firsthand across the North, the answer is simply by relying on one another and the bonds discrimination wrought as a source of strength.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Colonization Movement; Emancipation and Manumission; Newspapers; Voting .


Carrol, Peter N., and David Noble. The Free and the Unfree: A New History of the United States. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Chambers, William Nisbet, and Philip C. Davis. "Party, Competition, and Mass Participation: The Case of the Democratizing Party System, 1824–1852." In The History of American Electoral Behavior. Edited by Joel Silbey, Allan G. Bogue, and William H. Flanigan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780–1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the White Working Class. New York: Verso Press, 1991.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by J. P. Mayer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770–1810. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Paul Finkelman

Christopher Malone