Why Did Free Blacks Stay in the Old South?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out what made them stay put during slavery.

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As the sectional crisis intensified in the 1850s, so, too, did whites' fury at their increasingly confident and politically conscious free black populations, but if Berlin's detailed account proves anything, it is that there was and would always be a huge gap between the laws as written on the books and those that operated on the ground. Not only were many whites lax in enforcing their states' black codes, free blacks themselves were nimble, they were resistant, they continued to live where they wanted to live, and when secession finally spilled over in 1860, a majority of them still called the South home.

All of this was the case with my Bruce, Redman and Clifford ancestors (on both my mother's and my father's lines), Free Negroes who remained in Virginia despite the General Assembly's warning that any slaves emancipated after May 1, 1806, would face possible re-enslavement if they stayed in-state longer than a year. Those who wanted to remain in the state beyond this grace year saw petitioning the legislature as the only way to make this possible, and so petition they did. Actually, because my Clifford and Redman fourth-great grandparents had been freed long before this 1806 cutoff date, they and their descendants, living about 30 miles from where I was born, could continue to live as freed people in the state, free of this new necessity of petitioning.

Joe and Sarah Bruce (the third set of my free fourth-great grandparents) and their children weren't as fortunate, however. Following the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1830, the Virginia General Assembly passed a slew of stricter black codes. Joe and Sarah were freed in their master's will in 1823, and were granted permission to remain in the state until the master's wife died, which she did in 1840. But they had no desire to move to the North, especially since the master's wife deeded them a thousand acres of land in her will. But in the aftermath of Nat Turner's Rebellion, the laws changed.

As Eva Sheppard Wolf, a professor at San Francisco State University and an expert on this very subject, explains in Race and Liberty in the New Nation:

The legislature's final act regarding Virginia's African American population in 1832 -- in fact the only legislation actually passed -- was to amend the black code in order (whites hoped) to make future insurrections less likely. The new law barred black Virginians from preaching, placed tighter restrictions on the movements and assembly of slaves, and prescribed harsh punishments for anyone who promoted slave rebellion.

The law also further reduced free blacks toward the status of slaves by requiring that they be tried in the slave courts (courts of oyer and terminer) in cases of larceny or felony instead of before a regular judge and jury and by barring them from owning guns (earlier laws allowed free people of color to own guns if they had a license, which was not required for whites).  Important for the future of manumission in Virginia, the law also made it illegal for free people of color to purchase slaves except immediate family members, thus reducing the ability of the free black community to help enslaved fellow African Americans attain liberty. Surely this provision underscores the legislature's interest in preventing rather than encouraging emancipation.

As if all this wasn't enough, the Virginia legislature did (at least) one more thing to tighten the screws on its free black population after Nat Turner. Amending the state's original 1806 "get out or risk re-enslavement" law, the legislature in 1831 gave local sheriffs the authority to sell free black people at auction. A "slight amendment," Joan W. Peters writes in her introduction to the 1995 edition of June Guild's Blacks Laws of Virginia (1936), but soon the legislature was so flooded with new petitions to remain from free blacks and their white employers that in 1837 it redirected the process to the county courts.

To my amazement, my third-great grandfather Charles Bruce's family appears twice in Guild's book (and I'm most grateful to the genealogist Jane Ailes and to Frances Pollard of the Virginia Historical Society for helping me track this all down; references to my family's petitions can also be found in the Library of Virginia's online database of Free Negro petitioners). From what I can tell, they made their first petition to stay in 1833 after a fellow citizen of Hardy County accused them of remaining in the state past their time. The Virginia legislature granted their petition but only until one year after Abraham's widow Elizabeth died. Of course, "The permit may be revoked," the legislature added, "if any of the persons of color are convicted by a jury of an offense."

So they stayed, and when Elizabeth Van Meter died, my third-great grandfather Charles and nine members of his family petitioned again, to stay indefinitely. In December 1841, they were denied and instead given only another "four years to dispose of the estate" that Elizabeth had willed to them -- I guess that's how long Virginia thought it would take for them to sell off a thousand acres of land! Remarkable to me is that whatever limited time Virginia gave my Bruce ancestors, they never left the Old Dominion, except of course when their farm in Hardy County, Va., became part of the new Northern state of West Virginia in June of 1863. 

By then, the Civil War was in full swing. But to them, just as for most of the other Free Negroes at the time, home was home. What is also counterintuitive is the fact that, for all those years in between Elizabeth Van Meter's death and the war, countless white neighbors ignored the law as well, refusing to inform on my great-great-great grandfather's family or enforce the law all those miles away from Richmond. To read more about these particular African American Lives, as detailed in my PBS television series, follow the trail to PBS.org.