Free Blacks Lived in the North, Right?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: During slavery, some blacks were free. But where did they live?

Free blacks in Richmond in June 1865
Free blacks in Richmond in June 1865 Alexander Gardner/The Library of Congress Prints and Photo Division

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 38: Before Emancipation, didn’t most free blacks live in the Northern half of America?

The 1860 U.S. Census

I hope it’s clear by now I love facts, especially those that surprise — even shock — us out of our assumptions. Don’t get me wrong. All of us, including scholars in various fields, have so much information to assimilate on a daily basis that it is difficult to avoid shorthand in conversation. The problem arises when we simplify and thereby distort. This is especially true when it comes to the history of slavery.

Most of us know that before the American Civil War there were so-called slave states and free states. Knowing this, our minds fill in the map with logic. If such a line as “Mason-Dixon” existed (actually, there were a series of lines drawn by “compromising” Congresses throughout the first half of the 19th century), slaves must have resided below it and free black people above it, with every man, woman and child in chains trying to escape to the North just as soon as they could — following the proverbial North Star to a new life of unbounded opportunity — while those already up there remained vigilant against being kidnapped back into slavery down in the South (as we saw in last week’s column about the Gettysburg campaign).

Then a book comes along — a once-in-a-generation masterpiece of research and analysis — that shakes up our constellation of inherited “facts” to the point that we no longer feel comfortable assuming anything about what was so in the black past, and why it occurred. That’s exactly what the great historian Ira Berlin did in his book, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (initially published in 1974, and reissued by the New Press in 2007), a book I read as a graduate student, then returned to recently, to help me understand a puzzling fact in my own family tree.

Genealogists for our Finding Your Roots PBS series told me that I had descended from three sets of fourth great-grandparents who had been freed well before the Civil War. (Unless, like comedian Wanda Sykes, you descend from a mulatto child born to a white mother, all of your African-American ancestors were once slaves; the only question is when they became free, which for 90 percent of us was either during the Civil War or with the ratification of the 13th Amendment following the war.) Two sets of my own ancestors (the Cliffords and the Redmans) were free people by the time of the American Revolution, and the other set, the Bruces, were freed in the will of their master in 1823.

As if this weren’t surprising enough, it was another fact that drove me to re-read Ira Berlin’s book about freed slaves. All of these people, and their descendants, continued to live in slave-holding Virginia, even during the Civil War. (Their part of Virginia would join the Union as the state of West Virginia in the middle of the war, but they had no way of knowing this when they decided to remain there, rather than flee.) Why didn’t my great-great-great-great-grandparents run away to safety in the North, rather than remain in the Potomac Valley region of slave-holding western Virginia, about 30 miles, as a matter of fact, from where I was born? Free Negroes headed north just as soon as they could, right? Didn’t my ancestors’ decision to stay put in the Confederacy run counter to what we all understood about the history of slavery?