Why Did Free Blacks Stay in the Old South?

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

A Barber’s Ship in Richmond, Va., by Eyre Crown Exhibition of the British Institution, 1861

One of the most important reasons Free Negroes stayed in the South, Berlin suggests, was uncertainty: They couldn’t be so sure things would be better for them in the North. In many cases they were right, especially in states that restricted the admission of free blacks, among them Ohio, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois (the last two in their state constitutions). 

Interestingly, an antebellum case from Massachusetts, Roberts v. Boston (1849), upholding segregation in Boston’s public schools, was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its dreaded 1896 opinion reinforcing Jim Crow segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson. Even though the Massachusetts decision was later overruled by legislative action, the point was made. “In the North,” Berlin writes, “blacks were despised and degraded as in the South.” (For more, see James and Lois Horton’s invaluable book, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860).

But comparative dread was not the only reason that most free blacks remained in the South. At the top of the list was family unity. After all, when a slave family was split up, often the free members remained close, attempting to raise the funds needed to buy the remaining members of the family. They built churches in their communities, so they worshipped, and worked, in proximity with family members and friends who were still slaves, sometimes even in the same fields and workshops. And while they “were not a revolutionary caste,” according to Berlin, many did what they could to “help individual slaves to ease the burden of bondage or escape it altogether.”

Another reason they stayed: economic opportunity. While most free blacks in the South remained tied to the land, a number, especially in cities, acquired skills that allowed them to earn and own property as artisans and craftsmen. Over time, some trades became so associated with free blacks that they were known as “nigger trades,” Berlin writes. On those trades free blacks had a virtual lock, in part because whites didn’t want the work or because blacks were willing to accept cheaper wages for it (often to compete with slaves).

In Richmond, Va., in 1860, for example, Berlin shows that there were 174 skilled free blacks, and of those, 19 percent were barbers, 16 percent were plasterers and another 16 percent were carpenters (others included blacksmiths, shoemakers and bricklayers). In Charleston, S.C., in the same year, there were 404 skilled free black craftsmen, dominated by carpenters (33 percent). Working-class whites, especially immigrants, resented them, with some refusing to work by their side. Of course, of all places of work in the South, Berlin reminds us, “Brothels were perhaps the most integrated.”

In some ways, it seemed, the more that white Southerners (especially those who found it impossible to reconcile the presence of free blacks with their defense of slavery as a “positive-good”) pushed for solutions to their free black population “problem,” the more free blacks clung to home out of defiance. “Terrified by the unknown,” Berlin writes, “free blacks resigned themselves to the familiar oppressions of their homeland. Frequently they pleaded with local officials for permission to remain where they had long resided, and sometimes they simply ignored the law and settled on worthless, abandoned land near their former master’s plantation. Some even refused to leave the old homestead and adamantly claimed it as their rightful home despite the stunned objections of their former owners.”

This does not mean they always stayed put. In fact, early on, Berlin shows, blacks manumitted by their owners preferred changing their names and often tried to move away to start new lives. They also “voted with their feet” within the South by migrating back and forth over bordering state lines depending on which government offered a friendlier climate. In a few remarkable cases, blacks in the North even moved into the South, including New Orleans, for economic opportunity (you can imagine how this infuriated white government officials).

But don’t be deceived, Berlin warns. The pull blacks felt toward greater degrees of freedom was real — to the North, including all the way to Canada, and to the South, including the swamps of Florida (see Amazing Fact No. 15, “Where Was the 1st Underground Railroad?”). Over time, this created a “brain drain” that saw some of the South’s most talented free blacks leave for leadership opportunities outside the region. 

As Berlin writes, “During the nineteenth century, the proportion of American free Negroes living in the South shrank steadily, and the center of the free Negro population slowly moved northward. More important, this outward migration stripped the free Negro caste of some of its most talented, ambitious, and aggressive members. Among the blacks born free in the South who later rose to prominence in the North were Martin Delany, Daniel Payne, Robert Purvis, and David Walker.”