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

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I turned to Ira Berlin’s book for answers, and I was astonished to learn that my ancestors’ presence in the South and their decision to stay put during the war were not as uncommon as I had imagined. And perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that professor Berlin explained the mystery of my ancestors’ (and many others’) seemingly counterintuitive decisions using numbers in plain sight, including those in the 1860 U.S. Census.

In that raging year of Lincoln’s election and Southern secession, there were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South, in 15 states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) plus the District of Columbia. Let me break that down further: A few months before the Confederacy was born, there were 35,766 more free black people living in the slave-owning South than in the North, and removing D.C. from the equation wouldn’t have shifted the result. And they stayed there during the Civil War.

Don’t believe it? You can now fact-check the numbers yourself on the U.S. Census Bureau website. Amazing, right? Even if, as Berlin illustrates in a companion table, 100 percent of the African Americans living in the North were free in 1860 (compared to only 6.2 percent in the South), it still is a puzzle to figure out why the majority lived below the Mason-Dixon Line. And here’s the kicker: At no time before the Civil War (at least not after the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790 and future states were added) did free blacks in the North ever outnumber those in the South!

To me, learning about this aspect of African-American history was as astonishing as any of the “amazing” facts on Joel A. Rogers’ original list of 100. (Rogers didn’t include this one on his list, but he did claim that some of these Southern Free Negroes fought for the Confederacy, a claim that we shall examine in another column.) Despite countless stories I’d read and heard about the Underground Railroad, with abolitionists on one side and fire-eaters on the other, there was, I now knew, a more complex landscape underfoot. Black history is full of surprises and contradictions, and this is one of the most surprising and seemingly contradictory ones that I have encountered.

First things first: How did more free blacks end up living in the South? Weren’t their lives a living hell? In this week’s column, I plan to address those questions. Next week, I’ll tackle why so many, like several generations of my own ancestors, stayed.

Luckily, Ira Berlin has the answers, and if you seek them, too, I urge you to read his book, since there’s no way I can possibly capture its many dimensions — or its brilliance — in this column. There’s a reason Slaves Without Masters won the National History Society’s Best Book Prize, and Berlin is the Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland in College Park (fitting also because Maryland was the state with the largest population of free blacks in 1860 — 83,942 — and the highest proportion of free versus enslaved blacks, with 49.1 percent free).

Who They Were and How They Got There

To understand how the South created — and acquired — its majority of free black people, you would have to travel back further in time to the Revolutionary War, when natural rights fever and military necessity (first, among the British) stimulated the first major surge of free blacks in America. Before then, there were a scant few, Berlin writes (in 1755, Maryland, the only English colony to keep track, counted 1,817; Virginia had about the same in 1782). By 1810, there were 108,265, representing “the fastest-growing element in the Southern population,” with a dramatic 89.3 percent spike between 1790 and 1800 and another 76.8 percent jump between 1800 and 1810.