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Free Persons of Color

I’ve found that sometimes researchers of African-American descent claim, or want to claim, that their black ancestors have “always been free”.  As much as I would love to subscribe to that possibility, this is highly unlikely unless your ancestors didn’t come to America until during or after the Civil War, or you and your ancestors descend from a mulatto child born to a white parent.  If your family tends to have a reputation for always having been “light skinned”, there is a possibility that they may very well have been free, as slave owners did sometimes have children with slaves and might favor those children, perhaps setting them free and giving them their family surname.  Ira Berlin wrote in a book called Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New Press, 1992), that of the free blacks in the south, those with darker skin tended to live in the upper south (Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.) while those with lighter skin tended to live in the lower south (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, etc.).

Overall, researchers have found that of the total free black population in 1860, over 46% lived in the northern free states, over 26% lived in the border slave states, and over 27% lived in the deep south slave states.  Which means that, contrary to popular belief, the majority of free blacks in 1860 actually lived in slave states.  And of the total free blacks that lived in slave states in 1860, over 77% of them lived in either Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina.  So when conducting your research, if you know your ancestor was free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they lived in a free state.  But generally most, if not all, of your early black ancestors were probably slaves at some point.  So the focus of your research, relative to their being free, should be on when, where, why, and how they became free.  Most free African Americans and mulattoes had to carry freedom papers with them at all times and be registered at their county Clerk of Court.  Registration requirements began in Virginia in 1793.  If your ancestor was a slave but then freed (through a process called manumission, which was rare), then you might be able to find evidence of the manumission through county courthouses and other local historical records.  Manumission records included the name of the slave, the name of the owner, and the reason why the owner was freeing the slave.  Some of these records can also be found through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah (  Some slaves may have purchased their own freedom, some were freed by a will upon the death of their owner, and some just escaped.

Although your ancestor may have been free at some point, they may still have been taken later as a slave.  In Mississippi, if a free black spent more than ten days in the state, they could legally be sold into slavery.  In 1806, Virginia passed a law that all free blacks had to leave the state.  However, many stayed and faced harsh consequences if caught, including being enslaved.  In 1859, Arkansas passed a law to enslave every free black person in the state in 1860.  If fugitive slaves were able to escape behind Union lines, the Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed them to become free, and the Confiscation Act of 1862 allowed them and their families to remain free.  Even after the Union won the Civil War in 1865, some southern states still enacted “Black Codes”.  In Mississippi, the Black Code distinguished between people of color that were free before the war (also called “old issues”), newly freed black people (called “freedmen”), and mulattoes.  American born blacks didn’t obtain legal American citizenship until the Civil Rights Act of 1866.  It should be considered then, that even if you know an ancestor was free at some point, that if they seem to “disappear” for a period of time, it’s a possibility that they may have temporarily lost their freedom then regained it later.

Some free African Americans during the colonial period became landowners and slave owners.  Don’t be discouraged if you find that your black ancestor owned slaves.  Often, in this case, free blacks would purchase their own family members and friends in order to protect them or set them free.  There are some cases however, that free blacks did own slaves for the purpose of, well, slavery.  The names of all free blacks were included in the US Federal Census in 1850 and 1860.  The census didn’t begin to list all African Americans until 1870.  So if you’re able to find your black ancestor in a 1850 or 1860 US federal census, this is definitive indication that they were free.


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