Researching Free Blacks
Unfortunately, most African American genealogists assume that their ancestors were enslaved at the time the Civil War broke out. While this is true for the majority, at least one out of ten African Americans was already free when the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter. The 1860 census records indicate that 200,112 free blacks were living in the North, but another 287,958 free blacks were living in the slave-owning states of the South.
Those who research African Americans must therefore be open to the possibility of encountering an antebellum, free black ancestor. Before searching for slaves, researchers should check for free status by looking on the 1860 census population schedules for free inhabitants. In 1850 and 1860 there are separate free census schedules and slave census schedules.
“Free persons of color,” as they were known, were a diverse group of farmers, servants, artisans, and sailors. Many came from families that had been free for several generations, perhaps stemming from the manumission of an ancestor or a liaison between an indentured white woman and a slave. Some were never enslaved, having entered the United States free. Others were runaways who lived in the Northern states. Many were themselves slave owners, particularly elites in Charleston and Louisiana. (See Koger’s Black Slave Owners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860.)
Many blacks descended from the slave populations in the Northeast, which existed when slavery was found above the Mason-Dixon Line. Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition act in 1780, although slavery in the state of New York was not completely abolished until 1827. Approximately ten thousand enslaved blacks were enumerated in New York in the 1820 census. In parts of Ohio and Indiana, the existence of a free black population was due largely to the efforts of North Carolina Quakers who manumitted their slaves when they settled in those states. Many were immediately indentured, thus living in legalized slavery in the north.
In the border states, especially in Maryland, free blacks made up a substantial proportion of the total black population, while in much of the Deep South they were only a tiny minority who occupied a precarious position at best. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the sum of the free Negro populations in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania was only about a thousand more than the number of free Negroes in Virginia.
Records for Free Persons of Color
In many instances, the records that are of genealogical value for antebellum free blacks are the same as records for whites. For example, the census enumerated all free people, black or white, on the same schedules. Free blacks had to pay taxes and were also listed in city directories.
On the other hand, the United States was a “house divided,” and blacks did not legally become citizens until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1866. This delay in citizenship created many unique records.
Blacks were required in many states to register proof of their free status with the county government. Such documentation could take the form of copies of manumission papers, Free Negro Registers, Certificates of Freedom, or affidavits attesting one’s birth to a free woman. Without such proof, free blacks risked abduction and enslavement, even in the North. These registers were also common in the upper South and border states, where they not only provided protection for free blacks but also helped to prevent slaves from passing as free people. The free black registers of Virginia counties have increasingly found their way into print. In one such register is the following noteworthy example:
- “I William Moss Clerk of the County Court of Fairfax do hereby certify that the bearer hereof Levi Richardson a light coloured black boy about twenty one years of Age five feet seven Inches high, large nose thin visage . . . a scar on the left side of his head is the son of Sally Richardson a free woman emancipated by Genl. George Washington deceased as appears by an Original Register heretofore granted by the County Court of Fairfax and this day surrendered. Whereupon at the request of the said Levi Richardson I have caused him to be Registered in my office according to law. Given under my hand this 19th day of November 1834.”
Similar documentation can also be found in the courthouses of many Midwestern counties. For example, Wright State University microfilmed such records for the counties of Greene, Logan, Miami, and Montgomery in Ohio. More were transcribed by Joan Turpin in Register of Black, Mulatto and Poor Persons in Four Ohio Counties, 1791–1861.
- Larry Kloger, Black Slave Owners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 1985).
- Donald Sweig, Registrations of Free Negroes Commencing September Court 1822 ... (Fairfax, Va.: Fairfax County History Commission, 1977), 97.
- Stephen Haller and Robert Smith, comps., Records of Black and Mulatto Persons ... A printed abstract of these records entitled Register of Blacks in the Miami Valley: A Name Abstract (1804-1857).
- Joan Turpin, Register of Black, Mulatto and Poor Persons in Four Ohio Counties, 1791-1861 (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1985).