Reference Entry

Free African Americans to 1828

Leslie M. Harris

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Free African Americans to 1828

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Before the American Revolution only very small numbers of blacks gained freedom from slavery. In New Amsterdam in 1644 the first eleven slaves were able to negotiate with the Dutch colonial government for half-freedom, the most important aspect of which was land ownership. In return, the colonial government demanded that the half-free blacks to pay annual tribute in goods to the colony and be available for labor as needed. Additionally, the children of half-free adults were to remain enslaved. Despite these limits, by 1663 there were about seventy-five half-free blacks, to whom the Dutch granted full freedom just before it turned over the colony to the British in 1664. In Virginia, Anthony Johnson was the wealthiest of a small group of free black landowners who, by the late seventeenth century, owned slaves as well as land, voted, and sometimes married whites. With the entrenchment of slavery in the North and South in the eighteenth century, whites resisted freeing blacks from bondage for fear that it would lead to slave unrest. Colonies passed laws making it difficult to free blacks by requiring masters to establish expensive security deposits, forbidding newly free blacks from owning property, and limiting the occupations at which free blacks could work. By the mid-eighteenth century, the small group of colonial free blacks had lost their property, and their descendants were reduced to menial labor and perhaps even enslaved once more. Movements to Free Slaves The ideological and material upheaval of the American Revolution produced the growth of a new population of free blacks in the new United States. Movements to end slavery had begun among the Quakers before the American Revolution; by 1787 all Quaker meetings had agreed that members could not own slaves. But widespread movements to free blacks gained compelling strength from the secular and political impact of the Revolution. As white colonists fought for political freedom from England, some also began to question the enslavement of blacks. Vermont was the first state to make slavery illegal within its borders through its 1777 constitution. By 1785 all northern states except New York and New Jersey had provided for the gradual or immediate end to slavery; New York did so in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804. Three states provided for emancipation through constitutional interpretation. Vermont gave immediate freedom to enslaved adult blacks in its state constitution. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire slaves themselves brought cases that used the provisions of the new state constitutions to argue successfully for black freedom. In all three states, however, the path to emancipation was unclear to masters and slaves. In Vermont the constitution referred explicitly to freedom for those of age, which could have been interpreted to mean that children remained enslaved until they reached adulthood. In 1783 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled on the case of Jennison v. Caldwell, a case in which Nathaniel Jennison sued John Caldwell for stealing his slave. (The slave, Quok Walker, had run away and found shelter with Caldwell.) The court ruling stated that slavery was incompatible with the state's new constitution, but masters' and slaves' knowledge of the ruling was at best uneven initially, and whites continued to sell blacks for at least another decade. Despite the fact that there was no category for slaves in the 1790 state census, it is probable that some blacks continued to be held in bondage until the end of the eighteenth century. The remaining northern states—Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—provided for freedom through gradual emancipation laws that freed children born of slave women. In Rhode Island children born after 1 March 1784 were free within a year, with town governments assuming the responsibility of raising and educating the children upon freedom. In other states children born to slave mothers gained full freedom only after serving lengthy indentures to their mothers' masters. In the case of New York, male children born after 4 July 1799 remained indentured until the age of twenty-eight and female children until the age of twenty-three, and in New Jersey males served until age twenty-five and females until age twenty-one. In Pennsylvania both male and female children served until age twenty-eight and in Connecticut until age twenty-five. These gradual emancipation laws were designed to control the increase of the free black population and to appease the fears of white slave masters as they lost their traditional sources of labor; however, the laws were also designed to educate blacks in the ways of freedom. Masters were to provide basic education and skills to indentured children, and upon completion of indentures young adults received small material compensation, such as clothing and a Bible. Despite the slow pace of change dictated both by the lack of clarity in how to implement abolition decreed by constitutional or judicial rulings and by gradual emancipation laws, the population of free blacks in all northern states increased far more quickly than the laws prescribed. Blacks negotiated freedom from slavery for themselves and their spouses and freedom from indentures for their children. Masters were eager to be rid of the responsibility of slaves as the economy began to rely on wage labor. In most northern states, the ratio of enslaved to free blacks reversed by the early decades of the nineteenth century. By 1828 all northern states had provided for the complete freedom of blacks, with the exception of New Jersey, whose final slaves were freed along with southern slaves in 1865 under the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment. Emancipation in the South in the Early National Era Although southern states did not pass laws emancipating their slave populations during the Revolutionary War and the early national era, many state legislatures debated ending slavery and sending free blacks to colonies out of the country in the wake of the war, with the result that masters had greater flexibility to free slaves if they so desired. In Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, crashing tobacco prices led plantation owners to less labor-intensive cereal crops, with the result that they were more willing to free their slaves. Between 1790 and 1830 the number of free blacks in the Upper South more than doubled, from more than five hundred thousand to over 1.1 million. The Lower South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) also experienced an increase in the number of free blacks through individual manumissions. Unlike the Upper South, this increase leveled off as cotton became the new cash crop and masters grew more concerned with the rising numbers of slaves they owned; thus, the Lower South contained significantly fewer free blacks than the Upper South throughout the nineteenth century. Still, the number of free blacks rose between 1790 and 1830 from more than 130,000 to over 840,000. Historians estimate that many of the blacks freed were those with personal relationships to the master: particularly trustworthy or highly skilled slaves as well as children or concubines of the master. Masters may also have freed elderly and handicapped slaves who were no longer able to work. In both North and South, the first two decades of the nineteenth century were a time of struggle, opportunity, and optimism for free blacks. In both regions blacks negotiated with their masters to gain freedom, regardless of the laws that limited them. Once free, they sought to achieve freedom for family members and to reconstruct their lives independent of white control. But, north and south, blacks were often dependent on whites for employment. In the North black women and some black men continued to work as domestics, sometimes for the very families that had owned them as slaves. A few blacks in urban and rural areas were able to use the skills they had learned as slaves to build businesses in freedom as carpenters, sailmakers, restaurateurs, and barbers and hairdressers. The majority of northern blacks, however, were limited to low-wage jobs as domestics, peddlers, and day laborers or well-paid but low-status jobs as chimney sweeps and sailors. Because of the meager wages adults received, children, too, worked as soon as they were able. Black boys worked as chimney sweeps, and both boys and girls assisted their parents at their jobs as domestics and peddlers. In the South, free black men and women had more opportunities for skilled labor because of the continuing association of blacks with labor of all types and because many blacks had gained freedom through associations with whites who continued to feel a sense of responsibility to them and supported them in establishing businesses and finding employment. Churches' Role in the Fight for Freedom Once free, blacks founded churches, mutual aid societies, schools, and other organizations with and without the assistance of whites. Protestant denominations incorporated free blacks and slaves into congregations in segregated pews. Displeased with this second-class status, blacks began to form separate congregations in traditional denominations or new independent denominations. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by Richard Allen in Philadelphia in 1816, had spread north and south by the early 1820s. In both the North and the South, black ministers built churches for Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist congregations for blacks. Black churches and congregations were often centers of social and political activism. In some cities, black congregations formed the center of residential neighborhoods in which newly freed blacks bought or rented homes. Black churches and congregations also focused on the socioeconomic needs of newly free blacks more than did white congregations. Black women, with the encouragement of ministers, formed Dorcas societies, which collected used clothing and other supplies and held fund-raisers for poor families. Church buildings provided meeting space for such organizations and for Sunday and night schools attended by adults and children eager to learn to read and write for the first time. In 1827 the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, was founded by Samuel Cornish, a Presbyterian minister, and John Russwurm, who had become the second black person to receive a college degree upon his graduation from Bowdoin College the previous year. The paper lasted only two years, but it inaugurated an era of independent black newspapers noted for their political outspokenness and attention to the moral, historical, cultural, social, and economic situation of blacks throughout the diaspora. The optimism of free blacks during this time was buoyed by support from white allies. Particularly in the northern states, Quakers and others who had been central in forming the manumission societies that had pressured northern legislatures to enact gradual emancipation laws continued their guardianship of northern black communities by opening schools. Some schools founded by northern manumission societies, such as the New York African Free School, employed black and white teachers and became the central educational influence on the black leadership class. In other cities, such as Philadelphia, manumission societies struggled to maintain enrollments when they excluded black teachers and paid too little attention to the financial difficulties that prevented black children from attending schools. While the New York African Free School flourished under manumission society leadership until the early 1830s, similar schools in Philadelphia opened, halted, and closed between 1797 and 1806. Manumission society members also made financial donations and gave other forms of support to black mutual aid societies. In many northern communities, manumission societies' most important contributions were in the form of legal assistance to blacks who were threatened with sale south in contravention of laws in many northern states, which stated that enslaved blacks could not be sold out of state. Disillusionment The optimism of free blacks north and south faded soon after the War of 1812. In the South, the entrenchment of the cotton economy led masters to value slaves highly again and to resist freeing blacks. Masters in the east coast tobacco belt began to sell their slaves farther south for handsome profits. As the South became more reliant on slavery, masters looked askance at free blacks as a source of incitement to rebellion through their example of freedom to slaves. Such fears were realized when Denmark Vesey led a conspiracy in Charleston in 1822. Vesey, a former enslaved sailor who had bought his freedom with proceeds from a lottery, was a member of Charleston's American Methodist Episcopal Church and was believed to have organized its members and others to rebel against slavery. In the wake of the conspiracy, southerners destroyed black churches and other organizations and passed laws limiting the ability of masters to free individual slaves and the mobility of free blacks. Black churches and other organizations disappeared from public view in the South until after the Civil War. In the North disillusionment with the impoverished state of many African Americans following emancipation led blacks' former middle-class white allies to turn to colonization as a way to address the alleged problems of freedom. In the face of increasing racism, which limited them to the lowest-paid jobs, many blacks in urban and rural locales gained jobs and property and attempted to better themselves through education. But whites focused on the disproportionate numbers of blacks in prisons and almshouses and, to a lesser degree, on whites' unwillingness to grant blacks equal status as evidence of blacks' inability to survive as free men and women in the United States. In 1816 the founding of the American Colonization Society, which proposed to ship all free blacks to Africa, provided whites with an organized way to focus their discontent with black freedom. This discontent fueled laws limiting blacks' ability to participate as full citizens in politics and society in many northern states and sometimes boiled over in mob violence against blacks throughout the antebellum period. As northern free blacks' former white middle-class allies turned to colonization, working-class whites and their employers began limiting hiring of blacks. White workers, particularly following the economic difficulties preceding and during the War of 1812, refused to work with newly free blacks. Enslaved blacks had been owned by white skilled businessmen and often worked alongside white workers throughout the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. But as white workers were increasingly consigned to wage labor and unable to become small businessmen themselves, they sought to exclude newly free blacks from wage-labor jobs as a way to preserve their own status. By 1828 free blacks north and south had established a strong presence but faced challenges to the complete exercise of freedom from whites who feared economic competition and political and social change. See also African Diaspora; American Colonization Society; Black Church; Denmark Vesey Conspiracy; Emancipation; Fraternal Organizations and Mutual Aid Societies; Gradual Emancipation; Indentured Servitude; Manumission Societies; New York African Free Schools; Riots and Rebellions; Russwurm, John Brown; Slavery: Lower South; Slavery: Northeast; Slavery: Upper South; Society of Friends (Quakers) and African Americans; and War of 1812.

Reference Entry.  2589 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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