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In United States history, a free negro or free black was the legal status in the territory of the United States of an African American person who was not a slave. The term was in use before the independence of the Thirteen Colonies and elsewhere in British North America until the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, which rendered this distinction irrelevant.
Slavery was legal and practiced in each of the Thirteen Colonies at various times. Not all African Americans came to America as slaves; a few came even in the 17th century as free men, sailors working on ships. In the early colonial years, some Africans came as indentured servants, as did many of the immigrants from the British Isles. Such servants became free when they completed their term of indenture; they were also eligible for headrights for land in the new colony in the Chesapeake Bay region, where indentured servants were more common. As early as 1619, a class of free black people existed in North America.
The free negro population increased in a number of ways:
In most places black workers were either house servants or farm workers. Black labor was of economic importance in the export-oriented tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland, and the rice and indigo plantations of South Carolina. About 287,000 slaves were imported into the Thirteen Colonies, or 2% of the 12 million slaves brought across from Africa. The great majority went to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil, where life expectancy was short and the numbers had to be continually replenished.
Life expectancy of slaves was much higher in the U.S. Combined with a very high birth rate, the numbers grew rapidly as the number of births exceeded deaths, reaching nearly 4 million by the 1860 census. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American slaves was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice as rapid as that of England. This was sometimes attributed to very high birth rates: "U.S. slaves, then, reached similar rates of natural increase to whites not because of any special privileges but through a process of great suffering and material deprivation".
The southern colonies imported more slaves, initially from established English colonies in the West Indies. Like them, the mainland colonies rapidly increased restrictions that defined slavery as a racial caste associated with African ethnicity. In 1663 Virginia (followed by others) adopted the principle in slave law of partus sequitur ventrem: that children were born into the status of their mother, rather than taking the status of their father, as was then customary for English subjects under English common law. This meant that children of slave mothers were also slaves, regardless of their fathers and ethnicity. In some cases, this also could result in a person being legally white under Virginia law of the time, although born into slavery.
According to Paul Heinegg, most of the free black families established in the Thirteen Colonies before the American Revolution were descended from unions between white women, whether indentured servant or free, and African men, whether indentured servant, free, or slave. These relationships took place mostly among the working class, reflecting the more fluid societies of the time. Because the mixed-race children were born to free women, they were free. Through use of court documents, deeds, wills, and other records, he traced such families as the ancestors of nearly 80 percent of the free Negroes or free blacks recorded in the censuses of the Upper South from 1790–1810.
In addition, slaveholders manumitted some slaves for various reasons: to reward long years of service, because heirs did not want to take on slaves, or to free slave concubines and/or their children. Slaves were sometimes allowed to buy their freedom; they might be permitted to save money from fees paid when they were "hired out" to work for other parties. In the mid-to-late 18th century, Methodist and Baptist evangelists in the first Great Awakening encouraged slaveholders to free their slaves, in their belief that all men were equal before God. They converted many slaves to Christianity and approved black leaders as preachers; blacks developed their own strain of Christianity. Prior to the American Revolutionary War, few slaves were manumitted.
The war greatly disrupted the slave societies. Beginning with Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, the British colonial governments recruited slaves of rebels to the armed forces and promised them freedom in return. The Continentals gradually also began to allow blacks to fight with a promise of freedom. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped from plantations or other venues during the war, especially in the South. Some joined British lines or disappeared in the disruption of war. After the war, when the British evacuated New York, they transported more than 3,000 Black Loyalists and thousands of other Loyalists to resettle in Nova Scotia and Ontario. The British evacuated thousands of other slaves when they left southern ports, resettling many in the Caribbean and others to England.
In the first two decades after the war, the number and proportion of free Negroes in the United States rose dramatically: northern states abolished slavery, some on a gradual basis. But also many slaveholders, in the Upper South especially, manumitted their slaves, inspired by the war's ideals. From 1790 to 1810, the proportion of free blacks in the Upper South rose from less than 1% to overall, and nationally, the proportion of free blacks among blacks rose to 13%. The spread of cotton cultivation to the Deep South drove up the demand for slaves after 1810, and the number of manumissions dropped after this period. In the antebellum period, many slaves escaped to freedom in the North and Canada by running away through networks like the Underground Railroad, assisted by former slaves and abolitionist sympathizers.
Most organized political and social movements to end slavery did not begin until the mid-18th century. The sentiments of the American Revolution and the equality evoked by the Declaration of Independence rallied many black Americans toward the revolutionary cause and their own hopes of emancipation; both enslaved and free black men fought in the Revolution on both sides. In the North, slaves ran away from their owners in the confusion of war, while in the south, some slaves declared themselves free and abandoned their slave work to join the British.
In the 1770s, blacks throughout New England began sending petitions to northern legislatures demanding freedom; by 1800, all of the northern states had abolished slavery or set measures in place to gradually reduce it. While free, blacks often had to struggle with reduced civil rights, such as restrictions on voting, as well as racism, segregation, or physical violence. Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, while it was still independent, and when it joined the United States as the 14th state in 1791 it was the first state to have done so. All the other Northern states abolished slavery between 1780 and 1804, leaving the slave states of the South as defenders of the "peculiar institution". Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780, and several other Northern states adopted gradual emancipation. In 1804, New Jersey became the last original Northern state to embark on gradual emancipation. Slavery was proscribed in the federal Northwest Territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed just before the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The free black population increased from 8% to 13.5% from 1790 to 1810; most of whom lived in the Mid-Atlantic States, New England, and the Upper South, where most of the slave population lived at the time.
The rights of free blacks fluctuated and waned with the gradual rise in power among poor white men during the late 1820s and early 1830s. The National Negro Convention movement began in 1830, with black men holding regular meetings to discuss the future of the black race in America; some women such as Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth made their voices heard through public lecturing. The National Negro Convention encouraged a boycott of slave-produced goods. These efforts were met with resistance, however, as the early 19th century brought renewed anti-black sentiment after the spirit of the Revolution began to die down.
Due to the compromise in the Constitution, Southern states could count three-fifths of their slave populations toward the state populations for purposes of Congressional apportionment and the electoral college. This resulted in those states having political power in excess of the white voting population. The South dominated the national government and the presidency for years. Congress adopted legislation that favored slaveholders, such as permitting slavery in territories as the nation began to expand to the West. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was strengthened by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, requiring even the governments and residents of free states to enforce the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Famous fugitives such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth gained support of white abolitionists to purchase their freedom, to avoid being captured and returned to the South and slavery. In 1857, the ruling of Dred Scott v. Sandford effectively denied citizenship to black people of all statuses.
Southern states also passed harsh laws regulating the conduct of free blacks, in several cases banning them from entering or settling in the state. In Mississippi, a free negro could be sold into slavery after spending ten days in state. Arkansas passed a law in 1859 that would have enslaved every free black person still present by 1860; although it was not enforced, it succeeded in reducing Arkansas's population of free blacks to below that of any other slave state. A number of Northern states also restricted the migration of free blacks, with the result that emancipated blacks had difficulty finding places to legally settle.
The abolitionist cause attracted interracial support in the North during the antebellum years. Under President Abraham Lincoln, Congress passed several laws to aid blacks to gain a kind of freedom during the American Civil War; the First Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed fugitive slaves who escaped to behind Union lines to remain free, as the military declared them part of "contraband" from the war and refused to return them to slaveholders; the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 guaranteed both fugitive slaves and their families everlasting freedom; and the Militia Act allowed black men to enroll in military service.
In January 1863, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in Confederate-held territory only. Black men were officially admitted to serve in the Union Army and the United States Colored Troops were organized. Black participation in fighting proved essential to Union victory.
In 1865, the Union won the Civil War, and states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery (except as punishment for a crime) throughout the entire country. The Southern states initially enacted Black Codes in an attempt to maintain control over black labor. The Mississippi Black Code (the first to pass and the best known) distinguished between "free negroes" (referring to those who had been free before the war, in some places called "Old Issues"), (newly free) "freedmen", and "mulattoes" — though placing similar restrictions on freedom for all. US-born blacks gained legal citizenship with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, followed by the Fourteenth Amendment Citizenship Clause.
The lives of free blacks varied depending on their location within the United States. There was a significant free-black bias towards cities, as many rural free blacks migrated to cities over time, both in the North and the South. Cities were the chief destinations for migrating free blacks in the South, as cities gave free blacks a wider range of economic and social opportunities. Most southern cities had independently black-run churches as well as secret schools for educational advancement. Northern cities also gave blacks better opportunities. For example, free Negroes who lived in Boston generally had more access to formal education.
Before the American Revolution, there were very few free blacks in the Southern colonies. The Lower South, except for its cities, did not attract many free blacks. The number of urban free Negroes grew faster than the total free black population, and this growth largely came from a mass migration of rural free Negroes moving to cities, such as Richmond and Petersburg of Virginia, Raleigh and Wilmington of North Carolina, Charleston of South Carolina, and Savannah (and later Atlanta) of Georgia. The South overall developed two distinct groups of free Negroes; those in the Upper South were more numerous, but those free blacks in the Lower South were more urban, educated, wealthier, and were generally of mixed race with white fathers, compared to free blacks in the Upper South. Despite these differences, the Southern states passed similar laws to regulate black life, borrowing from one another.
Even with the presence of significant free black populations in the South, free blacks often migrated to northern states. While they presented some problems, overall free blacks found more opportunities in the North. During the nineteenth century, the number and proportion of population of free blacks in the South shrank as a significant portion of the free black population migrated northward. Some of the more prominent and talented free black figures moved to the North for its opportunities, draining the south of potential free black leaders. Some returned after the Civil War to participate in the Reconstruction era, establishing businesses and being elected to political office. This difference in the distribution of free blacks persisted until the Civil War, at which time about 250,000 free blacks lived in the South.
The system of white supremacy that provided cultural justification of slavery also affected the status of free blacks, who were perceived as members of an inferior race. The judiciary confirmed this subordinate status even when explicitly racialized laws were not available. A South Carolina judge editorialized in an 1832 case:
Free negroes belong to a degraded caste of society; they are in no respect on an equality with a white man. According to their condition they ought by law to be compelled to demean themselves as inferiors, from whom submission and respect to the whites, in all their intercourse in society, is demanded; I have always thought and while on the circuit ruled that words of impertinence and insolence addressed by a free negro to a white man, would justify an assault and battery."
Free blacks could not enter many professional occupations, such as medicine and law, because they were barred from the necessary education. This was also true of occupations that required firearm possession, elective office, or a liquor license. Many of these careers required large capital investments that most free blacks could not afford. As people developed their lives, there were notable exceptions to these limitations, as was the case with physicians Sarah Parker Remond and Martin Delany in Louisville, Kentucky.
The 1830s saw a significant effort by white communities to oppose black education, coinciding with the emergence of public schooling in northern American society. Public schooling and citizenship were linked together, and because of the ambiguity that surrounded black citizenship status, blacks were effectively excluded from public access to universal education. Paradoxically, the free black community of Baltimore in the antebellum years made more significant strides in increasing black access to education than did Boston and New Haven. But, essentially most southern states had no public education systems until these were established during Reconstruction by the new biracial legislatures.
Free black males enjoyed wider employment opportunities than free black females, who were largely confined to domestic occupations. While free black boys could become apprentices to carpenters, coopers, barbers, and blacksmiths, girls' options were much more limited, confined to domestic work such as being cooks, cleaning women, seamstresses, and child-nurturers. Despite this, in certain areas, free black women could become prominent members of the free black community, running households and constituting a significant portion of the free black paid labor force. One of the most highly skilled jobs a woman could have was to be a teacher.
Many free African-American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia became landowners and some also became slave owners. In some cases, they purchased members of their own families to protect them until being able to set them free. In other cases, they participated in the full slave economy. For example, a freedman named Cyprian Ricard purchased an estate in Louisiana that included 100 slaves.
Free blacks drew up petitions and joined the army during the American Revolution, motivated by the common hope of freedom. This hope was bolstered by the 1775 proclamation by British official Lord Dunmore, who promised freedom to any slave who fought on the side of the British during the war. Blacks also fought on the American side, hoping to gain benefits of citizenship later on. During the Civil War, free blacks fought on the Confederate and Union sides. Southern free blacks who fought on the Confederate side were hoping to gain a greater degree of toleration and acceptance among their white neighbors. The hope of equality through the military was realized over time, such as with the equalization of pay for black and white soldiers a month before the end of the Civil War.
Within free black marriages, many women were able to participate more equally in their relationships than elite white women. This potential for equality in marriage can be seen through the example of the "colored aristocracy" of the small black elite in St. Louis, where women were often economic partners in their marriages. These small groups of blacks were generally descended from French and Spanish mixed marriages. Under the French, the women in these marriages had the same rights as white women and could hold property. These black women hoped to remain financially independent both for themselves and for the sake of protecting their children from Missouri’s restrictive laws. This level of black female agency also made female-centered households attractive to widows. The traditional idea of husband dominating wife could not be the central idea in these elite marriages because of women’s importance in bringing income into the family. Women had to exercise caution in married relationships, however, as marrying a black man who was still a slave would make the free black woman legally responsible for his behavior, good or bad.
There are multiple examples of free black women exerting agency within society, and many of these examples include exerting legal power. Slavery and freedom coexisted with an uncertainty that was dangerous for free blacks. From 1832 to 1837, the story of Margaret Morgan and her family presents a prime example of the danger to free blacks from the ambiguous legal definitions of their status. The Morgan family's legal entanglement led to the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania in which it was decided that their captors could supersede Pennsylvania's personal liberty law and claim ownership of the Morgans. This case highlighted the constitutional ambiguity of black rights while also illustrating the active effort by some in the white community to limit free blacks' rights.
In New England, slave women went to court to gain their freedom while free black women went to court to hold onto theirs; the New England legal system was unique in its accessibility to free blacks and the availability of attorneys. Women's freedom suits were often based on technicalities, such as the lack of legal slave documents or mixed-race ancestry that exempted some from slave service. In New England in 1716, Joan Jackson became the first slave woman to win her freedom in a New England court.
Elizabeth Freeman brought the first legal test of the constitutionality of slavery in Massachusetts after the American Revolution, asserting that the state's new constitution and its assertions of men's equality under the law meant that slavery could not exist. As a land owner and tax payer, she is considered to be one of the most famous black women of the revolutionary era. Couverture limited the ability of some free black women to file lawsuits on their own, but a few women still filed jointly with their husbands.
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