Why Did Free Blacks Stay in the Old South?

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

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on July 14, 2013.

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.


Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 39: Why did free black people living in the South before the end of the Civil War stay there?

Like most of you, I suspect, I was raised to believe three things about slavery in America: first, that slaves who gained their freedom did so by escaping on the Underground Railroad to the North; second, that all of  the black people living in the South before and during the Civil War were slaves; and third, that all of the free black people in pre-Civil War America lived in the North. If any of us knew anything at all with certainty about the history of slavery in our country, it was these three things, right? 


But in a previous column we learned that, quite surprisingly, this is not the way it was. In fact, the Free Negro population (to use the contemporary term for them) in the South before the Civil War actually outnumbered that in the North by a substantial margin. Of the 488,070 free African-American people in the United States in 1860 — 11 percent of the total black population — according to the federal census, some 35,766 more lived in the slave-holding South than in the North, as analyzed in Ira Berlin's magisterial study, Slaves Without Masters, and more recently in Eva Sheppard Wolf's graceful book Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia From the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Just as remarkably, the vast majority of these free Southern black people stayed put in the Confederate states even during the Civil War. How was this possible?

As you can imagine, the comments that column received were wide-ranging. "White people back then made the Freeman's life a living hell. It was almost better for them to be slaves than to be free," one reader responded. Another took a rather different view: "All the talk about slavery all these years and now we are finding out it wasn't nearly as bad … a lot of the blacks were actually free." But remember, while almost half a million free black people before the Civil War is no insignificant number, 89 percent of all African Americans in 1860 remained enslaved. 


Moreover, the plight of the Free Negroes, as I pointed out in the previous column, could be quite perilous, leading some people in places such as New Orleans and Pensacola to flee just before and during the Civil War to Mexico, Haiti and Cuba. Some who were living in border cities such as Baltimore chose to move to Northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York, only to return after the War was won.  

Still another reader points out, with a great deal of common sense, that given the fact that Free Negroes were sometimes given land by their masters upon being granted their freedom, we shouldn't be surprised to learn these facts: "I'm not really sure why it's so confusing," this reader added, "moving is hard." And moving away from loved ones, whether slave or free, is even harder. I think this was true in the case of my own freed ancestors, on two of my own family lines, living for about a century in the slave state of Virginia (and from 1823 on another line) rather than resettling in the North. Ira Berlin helps us to understand why the vast majority of these former slaves stayed in the slave states.


So, Why Did They Stay?

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."   


Those who stayed were reminded constantly that whites would never be comfortable with their presence — or, at the same time, be able to let go of such a comparatively cheap labor supply. This push-pull continued through the antebellum period, so that every time it seemed the anti-free black lobby was about to legislate a final solution of deportation to the North, colonization in Africa, the Caribbean or South America, or re-enslavement, the business community prevailed in retaining the status quo. (In many ways, this anticipated the various sides of the immigration debate today.) "The inability to subjugate free Negroes frustrated whites and incited harsher repression, but still the free Negroes remained," Berlin writes. "And they multiplied."

In the Family

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.


Even if, as was reported by Salon, the South today is more racist than the North (at least in making political decisions), this is not necessarily an outgrowth from some mythic (or monochromatic) past defined by absolute slave and free states, Southern and Northern. Rather, these lingering attitudes stem from sources far more complicated and blurred than that simple dichotomy on which my generation was raised. The complex truth of American history, as Joel A. Rogers was so determined to show us, was never simply black and white.

Postscript: In a very gratifying response to my column about the absence of black soldiers at Gettysburg, my friend, Allen Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, informed me that while no black men fought officially, in uniform, for either the Union or the Confederate troops, he did discover that one unidentified black man spontaneously entered the fray, and fought quite nobly. Here is what Professor Guelzo wrote to me, information that is summarized from his fine new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion:

On the left of the 5th Ohio, a sergeant noticed something he had not expected: "an American citizen of African descent had taken position, and with a gun and cartridge box, which he took from one of our dead men, was more than piling hot lead into the Graybacks." There is no way of knowing whether this solitary black fighter was a civilian teamster who decided to join the Ohioans, or a refugee from the town who had come out of hiding to do his bit, or even a member of the Adams County company that had tried, unsuccessfully, to volunteer itself to the all-black 54th Massachusetts. He was certainly not a soldier, since none of the new black regiments recruited since the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation were attached to the Army of the Potomac. Whoever he was, he is the only African-American on record as a combatant, fighting at Gettysburg. "His coolness and bravery was noticed and commented upon by all who saw him," and the Ohio sergeant who described him thought that "if the negro regiments fight like he did, I don't wonder that the Rebs … hate them so."


We are all indebted to professor Guelzo for this important revelation, and I hope that others will find the time, as I now have, to read his book as part of last year's 150th-anniversary commemoration of the battle.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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