Since the mid-1600s, free people of African descent have been in America. It is a common misperception that only enslaved black people were in America from the earliest days of exploration and colonization until the final abolition of slavery at the close of the Civil War. Although the majority of black people came to America as captive slaves, there were free people of African descent who lived and worked with early explorers and colonists in the American colonies. For example, the first documentation of free blacks in America was dated around 1644. The Dutch West India Company seized Spanish ships with captive African slaves and used them as the primary source of labor in the New Netherlands colony (presentday New York). "An Act of the Director of New Netherlands" dated February 25, 1644, freed eleven "Company Negroes" with "nineteen years of faithful service" to the Company (Williams 1998, p. 5). In 1644, some black slaves also obtained their freedom by petitioning the company with the assistance of white citizens of New Netherlands who were opposed to slavery.
In New Netherlands there were three categories of people of African descent: slaves, half-slaves, and freemen. Half-slaves were similar to indentured servants; after they obtained freedom from the Company, these half-slaves had continued financial and work obligations to the Dutch West India Company including having to agree that their children "born or yet to be born" would still be slaves of the company (Higginbotham 1980, pp. 107-108). The manumitted blacks essentially paid for their continued freedom through their labor for their former masters. Their freedom was conditional, and they could be returned to slavery if they did not meet the obligations that the company imposed on them. One example of a manumission agreement from Dutch West India Company details the conditions of a former slave's freedom:
Therefore we, the Director and Council do release, for the terms of their natural lives, the above named an [sic] their wives from Slavery, hereby setting them free and at liberty, on the same footing as other free people here in New Netherlands, where they shall be able to earn their livelihood by Agriculture, on the land shown and granted to them, on the condition that they, the above named Negroes, shall be bound to pay for the freedom they receive each man for himself annually, as long as he lives, to the West India Company for its deputy here, thirty skepels (barn baskets-22 1/2 bushels) of Maize, or Wheat, Pease or Beans, and one Fat Hog, valued at twenty guilders, which thirty skepels and the hog they, the Negroes, each for himself, promises to pay annually, beginning from the date hereof, on pain, if anyone of them shall fail to pay the yearly tribute, he shall forfeit his freedom and return to slavery (Williams, p. 15).
These freed black people were not truly free because of these impossible conditions. They did not achieve true freedom until after the Dutch West India Company failed in 1664; at that time the former slaves did not have any further obligations to the defunct company. After 1664 when the English took over New Netherlands and renamed it New York, there was no middle ground of being a half-slave: a person of African descent could only be categorized as free person or a slave under English law. The status of a black person's mother was the determinative factor in deciding whether a person of African descent was born free or in bondage. This maternalline of descent was contrary to English common law in which the status of one's father determined free status. This change was made in the American colonies to combat the problem of mixed children who were born as a result of the frequent unions between black female slaves and free white men (Higginbotham and Higginbotham 1993, pp. 1242-1245).
Because of the presumption that people who were white or Native American were free, and people of African descent were slaves, many free African Americans had to sue for their freedom to prove that they were free people. One example of this type of freedom suit was the Virginia case of Hudgins v. Wright (1806). In the Hudgins case, the plaintiffs sued for their freedom because they claimed that they were American Indians because their mother was an American Indian. The court determined that they were free Native Americans based on their appearance and outside evidence that their mother and maternal grandmother were of Indian descent. The author of the Hudgins opinion, Judge George Tucker of the Virginia Court of Appeals, helped to solidify the practice that people of African descent were presumed to be slaves, primarily based upon physical appearance. Tucker restated the presumption that white people and Native Americans were free and that people with typical African features were presumed to be slaves. According to Tucker:
Nature has stampt [sic] upon the African and his descendants two characteristic marks besides the difference of complexion, which often remain visible long after the characteristic distinction of colour either disappears or becomes doubtful, a flat nose and woolly head of hair … so pointed is this distinction between the natives of Africa and the aborigines of America, that a man might as easily mistake the glossy, jetty clothing of an American bear for the wool of a black sheep, as the hair of an American Indian for that of an African, or the descendant of an African (Hudgins v. Wright, 11 Va. 134 (1806).
Before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, many slaves gained their freedom through manumission. After the Revolutionary War, some slave owners manumitted slaves who had served as soldiers in the Revolutionary War; other slaveholders freed their slaves because human bondage was contrary to the precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. By the early 1800s, there were more than 20,000 free blacks living in the slave state of Virginia. Manumission was not a viable option for many black slaves and some escaped from slavery, sued for their freedom via freedom lawsuits, or purchased their freedom from their masters (Higginbotham and Higginbotham 1993, pp. 1220-1222, 1237-1242).
Paul Cuffee was a free African American who was prominent in gaining civil rights for African Americans in the early days of the United States. He was born in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, near New Bedford, in 1759. His parents were Kofi, a former slave from Ghana, and a Wamponoag Indian woman.
He was a successful businessman and captain who owned a shipping company, whaling ships, and a large amount of property in Westport, Massachusetts. Cuffee opened the first integrated school in Massachusetts in 1797 after his children were denied admission to the local public elementary school because of their race.
Cuffee was instrumental in winning the right to vote for free African American property owners. Cuffee and his brother John petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1780 to protest the taxation without representation of free black people. Although Cuffee's efforts were not successful initially, his actions led to free African American citizens winning the right to vote through an act of the legislature.
Cuffee was also an advocate of the Back to Africa movement and helped finance a trip to Sierra Leone for African Americans who wanted to return to Africa because of racial discrimination in the United States. He shipped thirty-eight African Americans to Sierra Leone in 1815. Cuffee had planned more voyages to Africa for free blacks who wanted to emigrate, but he died in 1817.
Hope Franklin, John, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Random House, 2004.
Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons, To which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855.
The experiences of each of these groups were different depending on whether they lived in an abolitionist state or slave state. Some other factors that determined the quality of life of free African Americans included the manner in which they obtained their freedom and the attitudes and beliefs of White society in particular geographic locations in the United States before 1865.
In the Southern slaveholding states, there were free blacks but their situations were quite different from similarly situated free blacks in the Northern states and northwestern territories. These African Americans lived a precarious existence in a Southern society that still held thousands of their brethren in human bondage. Proslavery white citizens did not readily accept the concept of free blacks and often harassed, humiliated, and killed them. These free black people were constantly in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery illegally and had to constantly prove that they were free men and women. For example, in 1800, more than 20,000 free people of African descent lived in Virginia. Because Virginia was one of the Southern states with the most slaveholders and black slaves, it was very difficult for free blacks to prove that they were free. In Southern states such as Virginia, there was a presumption that people with darker skin and other African physical characteristics were slaves. Free black people who had African features had the burden of proving that they were truly free and not slaves. People with white or light skin were presumed to be free (Higginbotham and Higginbotham 1993, pp. 1237-1242).
Even if an emancipated slave could prove that he or she was free, it was not a guarantee of absolute freedom in the Southern states and the person could be resold into slavery under certain conditions. For example, under Virginia law, "any emancipated slave remaining in the state more than a year, may be sold by the overseers of the poor for the benefit of the literary fund." In North Carolina, a 1799 statute declared that "any slave set free, except for meritorious service … may be seized by any free holder, and sold to the highest bidder." Conditions were even worse for free African Americans in South Carolina where "any person may seize such freed man and keep him as his property" (Davis 1845, p. 3).
Free African Americans lived in the Northern United States before the American Revolutionary War. The experiences of northern free people of African descent were quite different than the experiences of free Blacks who lived in the slaveholding states. Although they were free, most White Americans still did not consider free African Americans to be their equals and they were often denied the rights and privileges of white citizens and had to fight for their civil rights, including the right to obtain a public education and the right to vote. Despite these social, political, and legal inequities, there were many successful free African Americans in the non-slaveholding states. For example, even though they lived and worked in the free states, free African Americans were still in danger of being kidnapped into slavery after the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This federal law gave federal marshalls and their deputies the authority to pursue, capture, and return any escaped slave to their owner. Just like in the South, many free African Americans did not have proof of their free status and might be captured and sent to a life of human bondage in a slave state. As a result of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, many free African Americans and slaves migrated to Canada and established communities in the Canadian provinces. Whether free African Americans lived in a slave state or a free state, they were not truly free until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. Even after the passage of this constitutional amendment that abolished slavery, the newly freedmen still did not enjoy the rights and privileges of white citizens until nearly a century later.
Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
Davis, Edward M. Extracts from the American Slave Code. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1845.
Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Random House, 2004.
Green, Robert, P., Jr. ed. Equal Protection and the African American Constitutional Experience: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Higginbotham, Jr., A. Leon, and F. Michael Higginbotham. "Yearning to Breathe Free: Legal Barriers Against and Options In Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia." 68 New York University Law Review 1213, 1220-1222, 1237-1245 (1993).
Hudgins v. Wright, 11 Va. 134 (1806).
Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons, To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1865. "Documenting the American South." University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu/nell/nell.html.
Williams, Oscar. African Americans and Colonial Legislation in the Middle Colonies. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
Jocelyn M. Cuffee
"Free Blacks." Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/free-blacks
"Free Blacks." Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America. . Retrieved November 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/free-blacks
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