If the family is the building block of society, it is also the keystone of historical understanding. Nowhere is this more evident than in the study of black people who were free in the slave societies of the Americas. Often the product of relationships between slaves and free people of various admixtures (Mu-latto) of African, Native American, and European descent, the free blacks’ familial origins and subsequent domestic connections determined their legal status and shaped, in large measure, their social standing.
Genealogists have recently noted how free people of color helped define Southern society, for the free people’s peculiar place also reveals much about the history of black -both free and slave, white free persons, and Native Americans – both free and slave.
Prior to the advent of the staple producing plantation, tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice in the Carolinas– the line between freedom and slavery was extraordinarily permeable. Various peoples of European, African, and Native American descent crossed it freely and often. In such socially ill-defined circumstances, white men and women held black and Indian slaves and white servants, and black men and women did like. Peoples of European, African and Native American descent–both free and unfree–worked, played, and even married openly in a manner that would later be condemned by custom and prohibited by law.
Everywhere Whites, Blacks, and Indians united in both long-term and casual sexual relations, some coerced and some freely entered. That mixing took place at the top of the social order, where white men of property and standing forced themselves on unwilling servant and slave women, often producing children of mixed racial origins. Inter-racial sex was far more prevalent at the base of colonial society, where poor and often unfree peoples–mostly slaves and servants of various derivations -lived and worked under common conditions. It is considered that most free people of color had their beginnings in relations between white women (servant and free) and black men (slave, servant, and free). These relations, moreover, often represented long-term and loving commitments. It was precisely the lowly origins of free people of color–outside the ranks of the propertied classes–that condemned free people of color to poverty and excluded them from “respectable” society in the colonial South. The poverty of their parents–particularly their black fathers–denied free children of color the patrimony and the allied connections necessary for social advancement.
Such egalitarian intermingling ended with the advent of the plantation. Legal proscriptions on sexual relations between white and black, particularly between white women and black men accompanied the transformation of the colonial South from a society-with-slaves into a slave society. With the prohibition on inter-racial sexual unions, mixed race children became illegitimate by definition and could be bound out for upwards of thirty years. Their mothers, if servants, received additional terms of servitude. During their captivity, the term of service of both mother and child could be extended for any one of a number of offenses. As a result, free people of color spent a large portion of their lives in the service of others.
The punitive prohibitions of inter-racial sexual relations was soon followed by the legislative restriction or outright ban on manumission. As the door slammed shut on black freedom, slaves had their privileges curtailed–most prominently, the right to trade independently. Their inability to trade freely all but eliminated the opportunity to purchase their own freedom and that of family and friends. Likewise, free blacks found their legal rights circumscribed. In various colonies, they were barred from voting, sitting on juries, serving in the militia, carrying guns, owning dogs, or testifying against whites.
Many free people pieced together stable, even comfortable lives for their families. The key to their material success, like that of others in the American colonies, was property ownership. Accumulating wealth required years of hard labor and the iron discipline of under-consumption.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, a small cadre of property owning free people of color had emerged in the Southern colonies. Even as slaveholders tightened the noose of proscription and exclusion, these landed, prosperous free men and women made their presence felt. With increasing frequency they appeared in the court, protecting themselves and their property. To assure their legitimacy, many sought out churches to register their marriages and baptize their children, often traveling great distances to do so. While preoccupied with the safety and success of their own families, they sometimes assisted their less fortunate brethren, helping to protect them from unscrupulous men and women who sought to transform free people of color into slaves, either through legal chicanery, illegal subterfuge, or outright force.
Still, most free people of color remained desperately poor, and the prosperity of the propertied minority was fragile and susceptible to rapid erosion. Their marginality, in turn, put all free people at risk and on the move. Genealogists have identified several patterns, the largest of which was the migration from the areas of dense slaveholding settlements–where free people of color originated in the seventeenth century–to the frontiers of the eighteenth-century South.
These free colored people were variously distributed, being most numerous, perhaps, in Maryland, where, in the year 1850, for example, in a state with 87,189 slaves, there were 83,942 free colored people, the white population of the State being 515,918; and perhaps least numerous in Georgia, of all the slave states, where, to a slave population of 462,198, there were only 351 free people of color, or less than three-fourths of one per cent., as against the about 50% in Maryland. Next to Maryland came Virginia, with 58,042 free colored people, North Carolina with 30,463, Louisiana with 18,647, (of whom 10,939 were in the parish of New Orleans alone), and South Carolina with 9,914. For these statistics, we have of course referred to the census reports for the years mentioned. In the year 1850, according to the same authority, there were in the state of North Carolina 553,028 white people, 288,548 slaves, and 27,463 free colored people. In 1860, the white population of the state was 631,100, slaves 331,059, free colored people, 30,463.
These figures for 1850 and 1860 show that between 9 and 10% of the colored population, and about 3% of the total population in each of those years, were free colored people, the ratio of increase during the intervening period being inconsiderable. In the decade preceding 1850 the ratio of increase had been somewhat different. From 1840 to 1850 the white population of the state had increased 14%, the slave population 1%, the free colored population 21%. In the long period from 1790 to 1860, during which the total percentage of increase for the whole population of the state was 70%, that of the whites was 75%, that of the free colored people 72%, and that of the slave population but 45%, the total increase in free population being 75%.
It seems altogether probable that but for the radical change in the character of slavery, following the invention of the cotton-gin and the consequent great demand for laborers upon the far Southern plantations, which turned the border states into breeding-grounds for slaves, the forces of freedom might in time have overcome those of slavery, and the institution might have died a natural death, as it already had in the Northern States, and as it subsequently did in Brazil and Cuba. To these changed industrial conditions was due, in all probability, in the decade following 1850, the stationary ratio of free colored people to slaves against the larger increase from 1840 to 1850. The gradual growth of the slave power had discouraged the manumission of slaves, had resulted in legislation curtailing the rights and privileges of free people of color, and had driven many of these to seek homes in the North and West, in communities where, if not warmly welcomed as citizens, they were at least tolerated as freemen.
This free colored population was by no means evenly distributed throughout the state, but was mainly found along or near the eastern seaboard, in what is now known as the “black district” of North Carolina. In Craven county, more than one-fifth of the colored population were free; in Halifax county, where the colored population was double that of the whites, one-fourth of the colored were free. In Hertford county, with 3,947 whites and 4,445 slaves, there were 1,112 free colored. In Pasquotank county, with a white and colored population almost evenly balanced, one-third of the colored people were free. In some counties, for instance in that of Jackson, a mountainous county in the west of the state, where the Free People of Color were but an insignificant element, the population stood 5,241 whites, 268 slaves, and three free colored persons.
The growth of this considerable element of free colored people had been due to several causes. In the eighteenth century, slavery in North Carolina had been of a somewhat mild character. There had been large estates along the seaboard and the water-courses, but the larger part of the population had been composed of small planters or farmers, whose slaves were few in number, too few indeed to be herded into slave quarters, but employed largely as domestic servants, and working side by side with their masters in field and forest, and sharing with them the same rude fare. Thus, in the earlier history of the state, the civil status of the inhabitants was largely regulated by condition rather than by color. To be a freeman meant to enjoy many of the fundamental rights of citizenship. Free men of color in North Carolina exercised the right of suffrage until 1835, when the constitution was amended to restrict this privilege to white men.
North Carolina was a favorite refuge for runaway slaves and indentured servants from the richer colonies north and south of it. It may thus be plainly seen how a considerable body of free colored people sprang up within the borders of the state. The status of these people, prior to the Civil War, was anomalous but tenable. Many of them, perhaps most of them, were as we have seen, persons of mixed blood, and received, with their dower of white blood, an intellectual and physical heritage of which social prejudice could not entirely rob them, and which helped them to prosperity in certain walks of life. The tie of kinship was sometimes recognized, and brought with it property, sympathy and opportunity which the black did not always enjoy.