Amongst Slavery: Free Blacks in Antebellum and Colonial America

William Fernandez Hardin, J.D., Ph.D.
Independent Scholar and Attorney
Nashville, TN

Course: United States History
Syllabus Section: Social and Political Movements
Audience: Advanced High School, Undergraduate


In 1860, nearly four million people of African descent were enslaved in the United States. Understandably, discussions of pre-Civil War African American history often center on slavery. But spread amongst the slave population were thousands of free African Americans struggling to secure economic and personal security in the shadow of slavery and in the face of racial prejudice. Numbering around four-hundred and ninety thousand, free African Americans lived in communities clustered around cities and towns. Examining their experiences expands the breadth and depth of American history.

Although we find evidence of free people of color dating back to at least the 1660s in colonial Virginia, it was the American Revolution that initiated a period of expanding opportunities for African Americans. But the promise of liberty was followed by decades of retrenchment as the sectional conflict between the North and South intensified. Despite growing racial animus amongst white Americans, free blacks secured their place in society using religion and law as bedrock ideological foundations that gave rise to community-building institutions. From these positions, black activists joined the fight against slavery. In the South, free people of color could not join the abolitionist cause in public but worked in other ways to undermine slavery. No matter how small or large the acts of resistance, the presence of free black people refuted the antebellum association of blackness with servitude that existed in the minds of many white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. The economic successes and very survival of free African American communities forcefully challenged the notion that blacks could not be responsible citizens of the republic.

Before you continue reading the components of this lesson, please consult the overview essay, Free Blacks in the United States.

I. The Beginnings of Freedom

Prior to the American Revolution, most African Americans were enslaved. The war itself and the political justifications that sanctioned colonial rebellion pushed slavery to the forefront of national political discussion. In the North, states undertook a process of gradual emancipation. In the Upper South, emancipation became a subject of contention, while in the deep South, only a few voices openly called for full-scale emancipation. The following documents demonstrate how African Americans participated in and shaped the history of the new nation at its very beginnings.


Questions for Discussion:

  1. Some African Americans, like Crispus Attucks and Prince Hall, participated directly in the Revolution while others drew inspiration from the rhetoric of liberty espoused by the rebellious colonists. What sort of connections can we draw between the colonists and enslaved African Americans?
  2. How did African Americans modify and expand on the ideas driving the American Revolution? In other words, how did African Americans apply the rhetoric of revolution to their own struggles?
  3. Many believed that the American Revolution would lead to full-scale emancipation. Do we see reason for such optimism in these documents? Did the writers believe freedom from slavery was a realistic possibility?

II. Regional Variations in the Free Black Experience

Despite the optimism of the revolutionary period, the antebellum period was marked by increasing racial animosity directed at African Americans. Gradual emancipation had begun the process of eliminating slavery in the North. As a legal institution, slavery was slowly but ultimately dismantled in the decades following the Revolution. Racial prejudice in free-states, however, was codified in law creating legal obstacles to economic advancement in the North, as the Ohio "Black Code" of 1804 demonstrates. Early racist legal codes, such as Ohio's, inspired later legislation like the Oregon Exclusion Law (1849). In the South, free blacks who did not challenge white social dominance could often negotiate limited opportunities for personal economic advancement if they did not overtly challenge white supremacy. The following primary documents reveal the diversity of the free black experience in America and free blacks' creative responses to the challenges they confronted.


Questions for Discussion:

  1. Based on these accounts, what sort of shared challenges did free African Americans face—legally, economically, socially—in both the North and South?
  2. What sorts of strategies did Smith, the plaintiffs in Boston, and the petitioners from North Carolina adopt in order to better their position in society?
  3. If we could put these writers together in a room and ask them to formulate a plan of action for all free African Americans, what would they agree upon? Where would they disagree?

III. Free Blacks and Slavery

Although some African Americans managed to find freedom in the colonial and antebellum periods, slavery continued to dominate many aspects of their lives. Free people living in the border regions faced the threat of possible enslavement at the hands of zealous and often indiscriminate slave catchers who kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery. Free African Americans and their white abolitionist allies mounted a spirited defense of freedom using any and all means available to them. The following documents present a small picture of the many ways free people and their allies resisted slavery and how slavery, nonetheless, intruded upon the personal freedom of free people.


Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did free African Americans use the law to protect their interests, and each other, from incursions by white authorities and supporters of slavery?
  2. The idea that free blacks were passive actors in the slavery debates has been thoroughly refuted by modern historians. Based on the preceding documents, what were the aims and goals of these writers when it came to confronting slavery?
  3. Free blacks used the law to fight the law of slavery. Based on these documents, how successful were their challenges?

IV. The legacy of racism and slavery in the African American experience

The history of American slavery cannot be uncoupled from racism. Regardless of whether English colonists were culturally pre-disposed to racism against black people or whether racism against those of African descent was developed to justify the economic and physical exploitation of black slaves, there is no denying its long and often debilitating effects. As we have seen, many free African Americans embraced the rhetoric of American equality and ideals and shaped that rhetoric to their own ends. But for some, the association between American society and un-ceasing racism could not be undone. The following documents examine how racism and the legacy of slavery pushed some free people to leave the U.S., and how ending slavery, for some whites, could not be accomplished without the exclusion and ultimate removal of all black people from America.


Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did these former slaves feel about their former masters? Can we imagine how former masters, when confronted by their actions, might have responded?
  2. Could the psychological scars of former slaves ever be healed? What drove them to contact their former masters? What were they seeking from their former masters?
  3. Americans have regarded their country as a place where immigrants came to find freedom. Less often do historians study those who left America. How might we add the experiences of black emigrants into the dominant narrative? If we could ask those free people who left why they did so, what sort of answers might we receive?

Extension Activities

First Option: As we have seen, there was a marked diversity in the experiences of free people of African descent in the United States. Moving beyond the confines of the U.S., scholars have explored how freed slaves and their descendants lived in other parts of the Atlantic world. Using Frank Tannenbaum's seminal work, Slave and Citizen, as a starting point encourage students to compare the legal and societal forces that governed the treatment of former slaves, paying particular attention to the differences in racial attitudes in Latin American societies. How was race viewed differently in other contemporaneous slave societies?

Second Option: Scholars have argued that the black codes of the Northern states served as a basis for Jim Crow laws in the American South after Emancipation. Students should examine some of the Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War and compare their content with what they have learned about the antebellum experience of free African-Americans. What function did these codes serve after slavery ended? How did these codes extend the legacy of slavery into the early twentieth century? Does law in this context respond to, or shape, racial animus?

Third Option: Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, has argued that drug laws, mandatory sentencing, and the political disenfranchisement of convicted felons have extended the legacy of Jim Crow laws, as well as slavery, into twenty-first century America. Reviewing the laws and societal attitudes that governed the conduct of free people and former slaves, do we see resonances of the old legal regime in what some have called "post-racial" America? Students should confront the question of continuities (and discontinuities) between slavery, Jim Crow, and modern incarceration of African Americans using a historical framework.

Further Reading

Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (initially published in 1974, reissued 2007).

Breen, T. H. and Stephen Innes. "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (1980).

Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of the Dream (1981).

Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War (2005).

Horton, James O. Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community (1993).

Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken my Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (2006).

Kendrick, Stephen and Paul Kendrick. Sarah's Long Walk: the free Blacks of Boston and How their Struggle for Equality changed America (2004).

Lebsock, Suzanne. The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (1985).

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (1961).

Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2007).

Whitman, T. Stephen. Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865 (2006).