Free Blacks... how "free" were they?

Tin cup

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Folk are always bringing up that "free blacks" were in, or somehow "joined" the Confederate Army. I am curious as to how much "freedom" they actually had in the slave South? Folk seem to throw that term "free blacks" around like those who were free, had special privileges.
Did they?

Kevin Dally
 
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W. Richardson

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I don't think they were very free. They probably had a few rights more than slaves. I think they went around very scared that at any moment they may be taken back into slavery. Also I think they had to have their "papers" with them at all times.


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Respectfully,
William
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Weren't they disallowed in some states? Or some states during specific times? Laws probably changed so quickly it was tough keeping up. How did a free black person know what a new law might be?

Elizabeth Keckley's journal is pretty good with some of what it was like although she remains extremely emotionless on her white/black feelings. She had them- just keeps them locked down from white eyes. It's a very good book to read since she buys her freedom. So many nuances, living free in the South. Great book anyway, kind of a pity she is so closely linked to poor Mary Lincoln because Keckley's story is 9/10's Keckely's story is ' Southern, incredible black women '.
 

W. Richardson

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I also feel that free slaves in the South had lesser freedom than those in the North, but let's not forget it was not a piece of pie for the free blacks in the North, as they were some laws that kept the free blacks from enjoying total freedom. Then also there was a good deal of racism in the North as well, but over all the free blacks were treated better in the North than in the South, but that is another argument for another thread. This thread was on free blacks in the South so I will end the comparisons.

JPK is correct many laws changed, sometimes daily, and as she said, "How did a free black person know what a new law might be?" I think at times laws being changed were done intentionally, so as to be able to re-slave the free black, and to be able to say it was done "justifiably"..................Which it was by law but was evil and underhanded.


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Respectfully,
William
 
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Chattahooch33

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Weren't they disallowed in some states? Or some states during specific times? Laws probably changed so quickly it was tough keeping up. How did a free black person know what a new law might be?

Elizabeth Keckley's journal is pretty good with some of what it was like although she remains extremely emotionless on her white/black feelings. She had them- just keeps them locked down from white eyes. It's a very good book to read since she buys her freedom. So many nuances, living free in the South. Great book anyway, kind of a pity she is so closely linked to poor Mary Lincoln because Keckley's story is 9/10's Keckely's story is ' Southern, incredible black women '.

Several of the Midwest states such as Ohio and Indiana restricted free blacks from coming into their states.
 

brass napoleon

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Several of the Midwest states such as Ohio and Indiana restricted free blacks from coming into their states.

And yet by the start of the Civil War Ohio had as large a free black population as all the Cotton 7 states combined. Ohio's law didn't actually prohibit blacks from entering - it required them to post a security bond insuring that they were free. The bond was very expensive ($500), but it was only sporadically enforced. It was in part a Democratic reaction to the Underground Railroad, which was extremely active in Ohio. It was repealed in 1849 when the Free Soilers got control of the balance of power in the state legislature.
 
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W. Richardson

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And yet by the start of the Civil War Ohio had as large a free black population as all the Cotton 7 states combined. Ohio's law, which was repealed in 1849 when the Free Soilers got control of the balance of power in the state legislature, didn't actually prohibit blacks from entering - it required them to post a security bond insuring that they were free. The bond was very expensive ($500), but it was only sporadically enforced.


How many of the "free blacks" in Ohio were actually free and not fugitive slaves, who by law should have been returned ?

Wasn't the law of posting a bond by blacks entering into Ohio, just as bad as changing the laws to unjustly enslave a free black, especially as you stated "The bond was very expensive" knowing the biggest majority of "free" blacks would not have the money to pay the bond ?....................I think South and North used a lot of underhanded and evil minded laws to keep blacks either as slaves or keep them out of a state...................due to racism.



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William
 

brass napoleon

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How many of the "free blacks" in Ohio were actually free and not fugitive slaves, who by law should have been returned ?

Nobody knows. Although the vast majority of Ohio's blacks came from the South, some of them were legally free and others were not. In fact many Southern slaveholders brought their slaves to Ohio specifically in order to free them, which they were not allowed to do by the laws of their home states.

Wasn't the law of posting a bond by blacks entering into Ohio, just as bad as changing the laws to unjustly enslave a free black, especially as you stated "The bond was very expensive" knowing the biggest majority of "free" blacks would not have the money to pay the bond ?

No, I don't think it was "just as bad". I know of no black person in Ohio who was ever enslaved as a result of that law. Generally victims of that law moved to a more tolerant community or escaped to Canada. It was, of course, an oppressive law, but not nearly as oppressive as the Fugitive Slave Law, which enslaved untold number of Ohio blacks - including free blacks.

....................I think South and North used a lot of underhanded and evil minded laws to keep blacks either as slaves or keep them out of a state...................due to racism.



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Respectfully,
William

Agreed.
 

civilken

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The actual number of freed blacks and stop was about 488,000 give or take a couple thousand which was almost double the amount in the North. And when you are speaking of black freedom is relative to each individual County. But I can assure you what we consider free and what they considered free back in the 1850s is two different worlds. And P. S. You are correct it about the North we certainly have nothing to be proud of.
 

ForeverFree

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Folk are always bringing up that "free blacks" were in, or somehow "joined" the Confederate Army. I am curious as to how much "freedom" they actually had in the slave South? Folk seem to throw that term "free blacks" around like those who were free, had special privileges.
Did they?

Kevin Dally

The term "free" means many things to many people. I try to make it simple: prior to the war, a "free black" was someone who was not enslaved. It had no meaning beyond that, and we should not give it any meaning beyond that. Under this definition, there were in fact several hundred thousand free blacks, and it is appropriate to call them such.

Separate from the condition of freedom, was the condition of citizenship, or full citizenship. And beyond that, there was the condition of equality. All of these were different.

The Dred Scott decision, like it or not, established that African Americans were not citizens of the United States. That is, the protections of the US Constitution, as detailed in the Bill of Rights, did not apply to them.

The states could provide such rights to free black under their state constitutions, but these rights were not portable to other states or the federal government. So, for example, Free African Americans were able to vote in several New England states. They could vote in NY state if they met a property requirement. Mixed-race people could even run for office in Ohio, which said that persons with a certain amount white ancestry were considered white.

But as a rule, free blacks did not enjoy the same citizenship and civil rights as whites.

The answer to your question then: free blacks were absolutely "free," as in un-enslaved. However, they did not enjoy the condition of equality. The level of rights and privileges they did enjoy varied from state to state. Free blacks certainly were better off from enslaved blacks, whose status as unfree and chattel property introduced a number of restrictions which did not encumber free blacks.

- Alan
 

ForeverFree

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US_SlaveFree1861.gif

Map of Free States and Slave States, 1861. During the Antebellum Era, the term “slave states” was synonymous with “the South,” and the term “free states” was synonymous with “the North.” In the latest (2010) US Census, all the states which had slaves before the war are listed as part of the South except Missouri and New Jersey. New Jersey, which established a plan for gradual emancipation during the war, had 18 elderly slaves when the Civil War began.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.


There were 488,000 or so free blacks in 1860, of which 262,000 (53.7%) lived in the slave states (the “South”) and 226,000 (46.3%) lived in the free states and the territories (the “North”).

FYI, this is the free black population for various groups of states:
Preformatted:
State/Area      % of the Slave Pop    % of the Freeman Pop

Free States            0.0                   46.1
DC-MD-DE               2.3                   23.5
KY-MO                  8.6                    2.9
Upper South           30.6                   19.7
Lower South           58.5                    7.5

TOTAL                100.0%                  99.7%*
=========================================
Union                 10.9                   72.5
Confederacy           89.1                   27.2

Total                100.0%                  99.7%*

* Numbers off due to rounding and small number of freemen in territories.

Lower South = SC, FL, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX
Upper South = VA, AR, NC, TN

- Alan
 

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The best sources are scholars like Ira Berlin, Julie Winch and others in the academy who have spent their careers studying this population. The term "free black" was a legal term in those days that meant blacks who were not enslaved. The term was used in both North and South, although there were few slaves remaining in the free states by the second quarter of the 19th century.

Most blacks in the North were free, but far from full citizens, and their rights were strictly circumscribed by so -called "black laws", which were introduced early (Ohio's in 1804 and 1807, for example), partly as a way of discouraging what many whites in the North feared would be an influx of escaped slaves and others many considered "vile," "ignorant'" or "morally debased" (quoting some of their many descriptions). Even those whites that opposed slavery did not usually want a bunch of black faces suddenly taking up residence in their neighborhood.

The Southern free black experience lasted till 1865. There are numerous examples of blacks achieving some level of success and even wealth in Southern communities, but their numbers were relatively small and their social circle intermingled with local slave families in most cases. I think a book like Israel on the Appomattox by Ely is a good community study that can introduce you to this topic. If you want a small sampling, you can download free articles on this topic, North and South on my website. "Freedom Earned, Equality Denied" on a free black community in New Hampshire, and "To Laugh in One Hand and Cry in the Other" on free blacks and slaves in Civil War Rome Georgia
 
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The term "free" means many things to many people. I try to make it simple: prior to the war, a "free black" was someone who was not enslaved. It had no meaning beyond that, and we should not give it any meaning beyond that. Under this definition, there were in fact several hundred thousand free blacks, and it is appropriate to call them such.

Separate from the condition of freedom, was the condition of citizenship, or full citizenship. And beyond that, there was the condition of equality. All of these were different.

The Dred Scott decision, like it or not, established that African Americans were not citizens of the United States. That is, the protections of the US Constitution, as detailed in the Bill of Rights, did not apply to them.

The states could provide such rights to free black under their state constitutions, but these rights were not portable to other states or the federal government. So, for example, Free African Americans were able to vote in several New England states. They could vote in NY state if they met a property requirement. Mixed-race people could even run for office in Ohio, which said that persons with a certain amount white ancestry were considered white.

But as a rule, free blacks did not enjoy the same citizenship and civil rights as whites.

The answer to your question then: free blacks were absolutely "free," as in un-enslaved. However, they did not enjoy the condition of equality. The level of rights and privileges they did enjoy varied from state to state. Free blacks certainly were better off from enslaved blacks, whose status as unfree and chattel property introduced a number of restrictions which did not encumber free blacks.

- Alan

Well said
 

Allie

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It's a mystery to me why free blacks would choose to support the Confederacy, but there's evidence that some of them did. There was a free black community in Petersburg called Pocahontas, on Pocahontas island. There's still a sign marking it today, and apparently a little museum. I happened across a news article published during the war which claimed that a company of free blacks from this community presented themselves, desiring to serve the Confederacy "in any capacity." What little I was able to discover about them through further research seemed to indicate that the white man who was their "officer" ended up hiring them out to work on various fortifications and that sort of thing. They don't appear to have been allowed to enter the military. However, they did apparently support the Confederacy, and they got a fancy write up in the paper. There's a thread I started about this somewhere if I can find it which has the original article.

The interesting thing is that Pocahontas started as a haven for escaped slaves, and had Underground Railroad involvement. It doesn't seem to have been a likely hotbed of Confederate sentiment, but then it spontaneously fielded a company of free blacks. History is more peculiar than anyone could predict.

Here's more about Pocahontas:
http://rvanews.com/news/the-worlds-most-fascinating-place-pocahontas-island/126408
 

Borderruffian

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It's a mystery to me why free blacks would choose to support the Confederacy, but there's evidence that some of them did. There was a free black community in Petersburg called Pocahontas, on Pocahontas island. There's still a sign marking it today, and apparently a little museum. I happened across a news article published during the war which claimed that a company of free blacks from this community presented themselves, desiring to serve the Confederacy "in any capacity." What little I was able to discover about them through further research seemed to indicate that the white man who was their "officer" ended up hiring them out to work on various fortifications and that sort of thing. They don't appear to have been allowed to enter the military. However, they did apparently support the Confederacy, and they got a fancy write up in the paper. There's a thread I started about this somewhere if I can find it which has the original article.

The interesting thing is that Pocahontas started as a haven for escaped slaves, and had Underground Railroad involvement. It doesn't seem to have been a likely hotbed of Confederate sentiment, but then it spontaneously fielded a company of free blacks. History is more peculiar than anyone could predict.

Here's more about Pocahontas:
http://rvanews.com/news/the-worlds-most-fascinating-place-pocahontas-island/126408
There was also a Creole Miltia Company in Naw Orleans who volunteered themselves upon the secession of Louisana for defense of the state. They were also told their services were not required.
 

ForeverFree

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It's a mystery to me why free blacks would choose to support the Confederacy, but there's evidence that some of them did. There was a free black community in Petersburg called Pocahontas, on Pocahontas island. There's still a sign marking it today, and apparently a little museum. I happened across a news article published during the war which claimed that a company of free blacks from this community presented themselves, desiring to serve the Confederacy "in any capacity." What little I was able to discover about them through further research seemed to indicate that the white man who was their "officer" ended up hiring them out to work on various fortifications and that sort of thing. They don't appear to have been allowed to enter the military. However, they did apparently support the Confederacy, and they got a fancy write up in the paper. There's a thread I started about this somewhere if I can find it which has the original article.

The interesting thing is that Pocahontas started as a haven for escaped slaves, and had Underground Railroad involvement. It doesn't seem to have been a likely hotbed of Confederate sentiment, but then it spontaneously fielded a company of free blacks. History is more peculiar than anyone could predict.

Here's more about Pocahontas:
http://rvanews.com/news/the-worlds-most-fascinating-place-pocahontas-island/126408

Supporting the Confederacy was really the only thing that free blacks could do, or at least, the only thing they could do out in the open.

Consider the case of the Louisiana Native Guards. The Guards, who were part of the Louisiana state militia, consisted of so-called free “black Creole” soldiers. As noted here, "On November 23, 1861 – after the start of the Civil War – the 33 black officers and 731 black enlisted men of the Guards marched along the banks of the Mississippi River next to their white counterparts in the Louisiana militia."

One would think that the state of Louisiana would happy to receive the help of anyone who would support their cause. But just two months after the Native Guards did their march, Louisiana passed an "Act to Reorganize the Militia" which stated in its first section:

Militia Law of Louisiana January 23 1862.jpg


Why would the state of Louisiana pass a law barring black men from military service? Just guess.

When New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862, men from the Native Guards were asked by the governor to help defend the French Quarter. They never fired a shot. Meanwhile Confederate forces fled north of the city.

Gen Benjamin Butler was dispatched to command the Union occupation of New Orleans. In testimony before the Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, he stated:

I had read carefully two of the daily journals of New Orleans published since the rebellion, and I ascertained that they had raised a colored regiment... and I got a hold of the order under which it was raised. I then found that one of the captains was a translator in the Provost Court of German Spanish and French, Mr. Sauvenet. I sent for him, and asked him—(he was a colored man, hardly a mulatto)—“You are a captain in the colored regiment?” “Yes, sir.” “Are the other captains of that regiment here?” “Yes, sir.” “Why didn't you go away with the rest of the Confederate forces, when they away?” “We didn't choose to go. The whole regiment stayed.” “You had white officers?” “Yes, sir.” (Sauvenet was probably referring to the field officers Lieut. Col. Henry D didn't and Maj. Henry Bizou, because all of the line officers were black.)

“But,” I (Butler) said, "how came you, free colored men fighting fighting here for the confederacy –fighting for slavery?” (Perhaps Butler was ignorant of the fact that free black creoles considered themselves a different “thing” from enslaved negroes, and that many of these black creoles were slave owners.) “Ah!,” he said, "we could not help it. If we had not volunteered, they would have forced us into the ranks, and we would have been suspected. We have property and rights here, and there is every reason why we should take care of ourselves.”

{Butler:} “Didn't you do it out of loyalty to the Confederate government?” "Not at all. There are not five men in the regiment fighting on the side of the Confederacy.””Are you willing to enlist on our side?” “Yes!”

…He (Sauvenet) brought in the captains and some of the lieutenants—15 or 16 I think and I found them all very glad to text service with us.​

Eventually, the Union army raised three "Native Guards" regiments, although these consisted of both free blacks and former enslaved blacks. Note that, only a portion of persons from the Louisiana militia signed up with the Union army.

Now: was Mr Sauvenet correct when said that “There are not five men in the (militia) regiment fighting on the side of the Confederacy?” That, in my mind is doubtful. The fact is, as free people, those African Americans were part of a larger free culture, which was predominately white; and as such, many free blacks undoubtedly shared the values of free whites. In fact, many free blacks shared the genetics of free whites; those freemen had more of an affinity for their white cousins than their black ones. In places like Louisiana or Gulf Coast Alabama or Florida, or South Carolina, many free blacks did not even see themselves as "black." And indeed, they were effectively in a caste that was separate from free whites and enslaved blacks.

But another comment made by Sauvenet rings true: “Ah!... we could not help it. If we had not volunteered, they would have forced us into the ranks, and we would have been suspected. We have property and rights here, and there is every reason why we should take care of ourselves.” Free blacks, as members of this middle caste, were in a precarious position. Their black blood, whether a drop in content or much more, always made their racial allegiance dubious, and their degraded status inherent.

As Sauvenet put it, free blacks could not afford to appear disloyal. And if this service was the price of seeming loyal, so be it. Indeed, the same motivations that led free blacks to join the Louisiana militia, may have led them to join the Union army when it occupied their home city.

- Alan
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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One's true loyalties are not often outwardly visible. As I like to say, Robert Smalls was to all appearances a willing participant on the Confederate side of things--- right up until he managed the escape of himself and his family, and offered himself for Union service.

It wasn't just a "black" thing, either-- not long ago I read about a man, a German immigrant, who had found himself in the South when the war began and could not easily get away, so he professed to be a secessionist and worked as a clerk on a steamboat, hoping for an opportunity to escape to the North. (Gunther, Charles F. and Allardice, Bruce S. (ed.) Two Years Before the Paddlewheel: Charles F. Gunther, Mississippi River Confederate. Abilene, Tex.: State House Press, 2012. 350 pp.)
 

ForeverFree

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As noted earlier, less than a year into the war, Louisiana passed a law which barred African Americans from joining militia units, such as the Native Guard. Consider also the case of free blacks in Mobile, Alabama:

black-enslistment-seddon-kirby-smith-copy-jpg.jpg


In this situation, there are free black creoles in Mobile, AL, who are "anxious" to be in the Confederate service. CSA Gen. Dabney Maury observes that "many of them (have) negro blood in the degree that it disqualifies other persons of the negro race from the rights of citizens." Translation: many these folks are of negroes, and I know that the enlistment of blacks is prohibited. But Gen. Maury wants the army to make an exception for these men.

Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon (J. A. S.) gives a brief, straightforward response: "Our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes."

This is perhaps the ultimate rejection of "free blackness." These men were apparently willing to fight and give their lives for a country that "disqualified" them "from the rights of citizens"- and were denied. I wonder if they expected anything more or less than that.

- Alan
 

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