XXI: Free Negroes – Part 1
In the colonial period slaves were freed as a rule only when generous masters rated them individually deserving of liberty or when the negroes bought themselves. Typical of the time were the will of Thomas Stanford of New Jersey in 1722 directing that upon the death of the testator’s wife his negro man should have his freedom if in the opinion of three neighbors named he had behaved well, and a deed signed by Robert Daniell of South Carolina in 1759 granting freedom to his slave David Wilson in consideration of his faithful service and of L600 currency in hand paid. So long as this condition prevailed, in which the ethics of slaveholding were little questioned, the freed element remained extremely small.
[Footnote 1: New Jersey Archives, XXIII, 438.]
[Footnote 2: MS. among the probate records at Charleston.]
The liberal philosophy of the Revolution, persisting thereafter in spite of reaction, not only wrought the legal disestablishment of slavery throughout the North, but prompted private manumissions far and wide. Thus Philip Graham of Maryland made a deed in 1787 reciting his realization that the holding of his “fellow men in bondage and slavery is repugnant to the golden law of God and the unalienable right of mankind as well as to every principle of the late glorious revolution which has taken place in America,” and converting his slaves into servants for terms, the adults to become free at the close of that year and the children as they reached maturity. In the same period, upon his coming of age, Richard Randolph, brother of the famous John, wrote to his guardian: “With regard to the division of the estate, I have only to say that I want not a single negro for any other purpose than his immediate liberation. I consider every individual thus unshackled as the source of future generations, not to say nations, of freemen; and I shudder when I think that so insignificant an animal as I am is invested with this monstrous, this horrid power.” The Randolph estate, however, was so cumbered with debts that the desired manumissions could not then be made. At Richard’s death in 1796 he left a will of the expected tenor, providing for a wholesale freeing as promptly as it could legally be accomplished by the clearance of the mortgage. In 1795 John Stratton of Norfolk, asserting his “full persuassion that freedom is the natural right of all men,” set free his able-bodied slave, Peter Wakefield. Robert K. Moore of Louisville mingled thrift with liberalism by setting free in 1802 two pairs of married slaves because of his conviction that involuntary servitude was wrong, and at the same time binding them by indenture to serve him for some fourteen years longer in consideration of certain small payments in advance and larger ones at the ends of their terms.
[Footnote 3: These were restricted for a time in North Carolina, however, by an act of 1777 which recited the critical and alarming state of public affairs as its occasion.]
[Footnote 4: MS. transcript in the file of powers of attorney, I, 243, among the county records at Louisville, Ky.]
[Footnote 5: H.A. Garland, Life of John Randolph of Roanoke (New York, 1851), I, 63.]
[Footnote 6: DeBow's Review, XXIV, 285-290.]
[Footnote 7: MS. along with many similar documents among the deed files at Norfolk, Va.]
[Footnote 8: MSS. in the powers of attorney files, II, 118, 122, 127, at Louisville, Ky.]
Manumissions were in fact so common in the deeds and wills of the men of ’76 that the number of colored freemen in the South exceeded thirty-five thousand in 1790 and was nearly doubled in each of the next two decades. The greater caution of their successors, reinforced by the rise of slave prices, then slackened the rate of increase to twenty-five and finally to ten per cent. per decade. Documents in this later period, reverting to the colonial basis, commonly recited faithful service or self purchase rather than inherent rights as the grounds for manumission. Liberations on a large scale, nevertheless, were not wholly discontinued. John Randolph’s will set free nearly four hundred in 1833; Monroe Edwards of Louisiana manumitted 160 by deed in 1840; and George W.P. Custis of Virginia liberated his two or three hundred at his death in 1857.
[Footnote 9: Garland, Life of Randolph, II, 150, 151.]
[Footnote 10: Niles' Register, LXIII, 245.]
[Footnote 11: Daily True Delta (New Orleans), Dec. 19, 1857.]
Still other large proprietors while not bestowing immediate liberty made provisions to bring it after the lapse of years. Prominent among these were three Louisianians. Julien Poydras, who died in 1824, ordered his executors to sell his six plantations with their respective staffs under contracts to secure the manumission of each slave after twenty-five years of service to the purchaser, together with an annual pension of $25 to each of those above sixty years of age; and years afterward a nephew of the testator procured an injunction from the supreme court of the state stopping the sale of some of the slaves by one of their purchasers in such way as would hazard the fulfilment of the purpose. Stephen Henderson, a Scotch immigrant who had acquired several sugar plantations, provided as follows, by will made in 1837 and upheld by the courts: ten and twenty slaves respectively were to be chosen by lot at periods five and ten years after his death to be freed and sent to Liberia, and at the end of twenty-five years the rest were to fare likewise, but any who refused to be deported were to be kept as apprentices on the plantations. John McDonogh, the most thrifty citizen of New Orleans in his day, made a unique bargain with his whole force of slaves, about 1825, by which they were collectively to earn their freedom and their passage to Liberia by the overtime work of Saturday afternoons. This labor was to be done in McDonogh’s own service, and he was to keep account of their earnings. They were entitled to draw upon this fund upon approved occasions; but since the contract was with the whole group of slaves as a unit, when one applied for cash the others must draw theirs pro rata, thereby postponing the common day of liberation. Any slaves violating the rules of good conduct were to be sold by the master, whereupon their accrued earnings would revert to the fund of the rest. The plan was carried to completion on schedule, and after some delay in embarkation they left America in 1842, some eighty in number, with their late master’s benediction. In concluding his public narration in the premises McDonogh wrote: “They have now sailed for Liberia, the land of their fathers. I can say with truth and heartfelt satisfaction that a more virtuous people does not exist in any country.”
[Footnote 12: Poydras vs. Mourrain, in Louisiana Reports, IX, 492. The will is quoted in the decision.]
[Footnote 13: Niles' Register, LXVIII, 361. The original MS. is filed in will book no. 6 in the New Orleans court house.]
[Footnote 14: J.T. Edwards ed., Some Interesting Papers of John McDonogh (McDonoghville, Md., 1898), pp. 49-58.]
Among more romantic liberations was that of Pierre Chastang of Mobile who, in recognition of public services in the war of 1812 and the yellow fever epidemic of 1819 was bought and freed by popular subscription; that of Sam which was provided by a special act of the Georgia legislature in 1834 at a cost of $1,800 in reward for his having saved the state capitol from destruction by fire; and that of Prince which was attained through the good offices of the United States government. Prince, after many years as a Mississippi slave, wrote a letter in Arabic to the American consul at Tangier in which he recounted his early life as a man of rank among the Timboo people and his capture in battle and sale overseas. This led Henry Clay on behalf of the Adams administration to inquire at what cost he might be bought for liberation and return. His master thereupon freed him gratuitously, and the citizens of Natchez raised a fund for the purchase of his wife, with a surplus for a flowing Moorish costume in which Prince was promptly arrayed. The pair then departed, in 1828, for Washington en route for Morocco, Prince avowing that he would soon send back money for the liberation of their nine children.
[Footnote 15: D.W. Mitchell, Ten Years in the United States (London, 1862), p. 235.]
[Footnote 16: Georgia Senate Journal for 1834, p. 25. At a later period the Georgia legislature had occasion to reward another slave, Ransom by name, who while hired from his master by the state had heroically saved the Western and Atlantic Railroad bridge over the Chattahoochee River from destruction by fire. Since official sentiment was now hostile to manumission, it was resolved in 1849 that he be bought by the state and ensured a permanent home; and in 1853 a further resolution directed the chief engineer of the state-owned railroad to pay him just wages during good behavior. Georgia Acts, 1849-1850, pp. 416, 417; 1853-1854, pp. 538, 539. Old citizens relate that a house was built for Ransom on the Western and Atlantic right of way in Atlanta which he continued to occupy until his death many years after the Civil War. For these data I am indebted to Mr. J. Groves Cohen, Secretary of the Western and Atlantic Railroad Commission, Atlanta, Ga.]
[Footnote 17: "Letter from a Gentleman of Natchez to a Lady of Cincinnati," in the Georgia Courier (Augusta), May 22, 1828. For a similar instance in colonial Maryland see the present work, p. 31.]
Most of the negroes who procured freedom remained in the United States, though all of those who gained it by flight and many of those manumitted had to shift their location at the time of changing their status. At least one of the fugitives, however, made known his preference for his native district in a manner which cost him his liberty. After two years in Ohio and Canada he returned to the old plantation in Georgia, where he was welcomed with a command to take up the hoe. Rejecting this implement, he proposed to buy himself if a thousand dollars would suffice. When his master, declining to negotiate, ordered him into custody he stabbed one of the negroes who seized him. At the end of the episode the returned wanderer lay in jail; but where his money was, or whether in truth he had any, is not recorded. Among some of those manumitted and sent out of their original states as by law required, disappointment and homesickness were distressingly keen. A group of them who had been carried to New York in 1852 under the will of a Mr. Cresswell of Louisiana, found themselves in such misery there that they begged the executor to carry them back, saying he might keep them as slaves or sell them–that they had been happy before but were wretched now.
[Footnote 18: Cassville, Ga., Standard, May 31, 1858, reprinted in the Federal Union (Milledgeville, Ga.), June 8, 1858.]
[Footnote 19: DeBow's Review, XIV, 90.]
The slaves manumitted for meritorious service and those who bought themselves formed together an element of substantial worth in the Southern free colored population. Testamentary endorsement like that which Abel P. Upshur gave on freeing his man David Rich–”I recommend him in the strongest manner to the respect, esteem and confidence of any community in which he may live”–are sufficiently eloquent in the premises. Those who bought themselves were similarly endorsed in many instances, and the very fact of their self purchase was usually a voucher of thrift and sobriety. Many of those freed on either of these grounds were of mixed blood; and to them were added the mulatto and quadroon children set free by their white fathers, with particular frequency in Louisiana, who by virtue oftentimes of gifts in lands, goods and moneys were in the propertied class from the time of their manumission. The recruits joining the free colored population through all of these channels tended, together with their descendants, to be industrious, well-mannered and respected members of society.
[Footnote 20: William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston, 1855), pp. 215, 216. For a similar item see Garland's Randolph, p. 151.]
Each locality was likely to have some outstanding figure among these. In Georgia the most notable was Austin Dabney, who as a mulatto youth served in the Revolutionary army and attached himself ever afterward to the white family who saved his life when he had been wounded in battle. The Georgia legislature by special act gave him a farm; he was welcomed in the tavern circle of chatting lawyers whenever his favorite Judge Dooly held court at his home village; and once when the formality of drawing his pension carried him to Savannah the governor of the state, seeing him pass, dragged him from his horse and quartered him as a guest in his house. John Eady of the South Carolina lowlands by a like service in the War for Independence earned a somewhat similar recognition which he retained throughout a very long life.
[Footnote 21: George R. Giltner, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia (New York, 1855), pp. 212-215.]
[Footnote 22: Diary of Thomas P. Porcher. MS. in private possession.]
Others were esteemed rather for piety and benevolence than for heroic services. “Such,” wrote Bishop Capers of the Southern Methodist Church, “were my old friends Castile Selby and John Bouquet of Charleston, Will Campbell and Harry Myrick of Wilmington, York Cohen of Savannah, and others I might name. These I might call remarkable for their goodness. But I use the word in a broader sense for Henry Evans, who was confessedly the father of the Methodist church, white and black, in Fayetteville, and the best preacher of his time in that quarter.” Evans, a free-born full-blooded black, as Capers went on to relate, had been a shoemaker and licensed preacher in Virginia, but while journeying toward Charleston in search of better employment he had been so struck by the lack of religion and morality among the negroes in Fayetteville that he determined upon their conversion as his true mission in life. When the town authorities dispersed his meetings he shifted his rude pulpit into the woods outside their jurisdiction and invited surveillance by the whites to prove his lack of offence. The palpable improvement in the morals of his followers led erelong to his being invited to preach within the town again, where the white people began to be numerous among his hearers. A regular congregation comprising members of both races was organized and a church building erected. But the white attendance grew so large as to threaten the crowding out of the blacks. To provide room for these the side walls of the church were torn off and sheds built on either flank; and these were the conditions when Capers himself succeeded the aged negro in its pulpit in 1810 and found him on his own score an inspiration. Toward the ruling race, Capers records, Evans was unfailingly deferential, “never speaking to a white but with his hat under his arm; never allowing himself to be seated in their houses…. ‘The whites are kind to me and come to hear me preach,’ he would say, ‘but I belong to my own sort and must not spoil them.’ And yet Henry Evans was a Boanerges; and in his duty feared not the face of man.” 
[Footnote 23: W.W. Wightman, Life of William Capers (Nashville, 1858), pp. 124-129.]
In the line of intellectual attainment and the like the principal figures lived in the eighteenth century. One of them was described in a contemporary news item which suggests that some journalists then were akin to their successors of more modern times. “There is a Mr. St. George, a Creole, son to the French governor of St. Domingo, now at Paris, who realizes all the accomplishments attributed by Boyle and others to the Admirable Creighton of the Scotch. He is so superior at the sword that there is an edict of the Parliament of Paris to make his engagement in any duel actual death. He is the first dancer (even before the Irish Singsby) in the world. He plays upon seven instruments of music, beyond any other individual. He speaks twenty-six languages, and maintains public thesises in each. He walks round the various circles of science like the master of each; and strange to be mentioned to white men, this Mr. St. George is a mulatto, the son of an African mother.” Less happy was the career of Francis Williams of Jamaica, a plaything of the human gods. Born of negro parents who had earned special privilege in the island, he was used by the Duke of Montague in a test of negro mental capacity and given an education in an English grammar school and at Cambridge University. Upon his return to Jamaica his patron sought his appointment as a member of the governor’s council but without success; and he then became a schoolmaster and a poet on occasion in the island capital. Williams described himself with some pertinence as “a white man acting under a black skin.” His contempt for his fellow negroes and particularly for the mulattoes made him lonely, eccentric, haughty and morose. A Latin panegyric which is alone available among his writings is rather a language exercise than a poem. On the continent Benjamin Banneker was an almanac maker and somewhat of an astronomer, and Phyllis Wheatley of Boston a writer of verses. Both were doubtless more noted for their sable color than for their positive qualities. The wonder of them lay in their ambition and enterprise, not in their eminence among scientific and literary craftsmen at large. Such careers as these had no equivalent in the nineteenth century until its closing decades when Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. DuBois set new paces in their several courses of endeavor.
[Footnote 24: News item dated Philadelphia, Mch. 28, in the Georgia State Gazette and Independent Register (Augusta), May 19, 1787.]
[Footnote 25: Edward Long, History of Jamaica (London, 1774), II, 447-485; T.H. MacDermott, "Francis Williams," in the Journal of Negro History, II, 147-159. The Latin poem is printed in both of these accounts.]
[Footnote 26: John W. Cromwell, The Negro in American History (Washington, 1914), pp. 77-97.]
Of a more normal but less conspicuous type was Jehu Jones, the colored proprietor of one of Charleston’s most popular hotels who lived in the same manner as his white patrons, accumulated property to the value of some forty thousand dollars, and maintained a reputation for high business talent and integrity. At New Orleans men of such a sort were quite numerous. Prominent among them by reason of his wealth and philanthropy was Thomy Lafon, a merchant and money lender who systematically accumulated houses and lots during a lifetime extending both before and after the Civil War and whose possessions when he died at the age of eighty-two were appraised at nearly half a million dollars. Prosperity and good repute, however, did not always go hand in hand. The keeper of the one good tavern in the Louisiana village of Bayou Sara in 1831 was a colored woman of whom Anne Royall wrote: “This nigger or mulatto was rich, owned the tavern and several slaves, to whom she was a great tyrant. She owned other valuable property and a great deal of money, as report said; and doubtless it is true. She was very insolent, and, I think, drank. It seems one Tague [an Irishman], smitten with her charms and her property, made love to her and it was returned, and they live together as man and wife. She was the ugliest wench I ever saw, and, if possible, he was uglier, so they were well matched.” One might ascribe the tone of this description to the tartness of Mrs. Royall’s pen were it not that she recorded just afterward that a body-servant of General Ripley who was placed at her command in St. Francisville was “certainly the most accomplished servant I ever saw.”
[Footnote 27: W.C. Nell, Colored Patriots, pp. 244, 245.]
[Footnote 28: New Orleans Picayune, Dec. 23, 1893. His many charitable bequests are scheduled in the Picayune of a week later.]
[Footnote 29: Anne Royall, Southern Tour (Washington, 1831), pp. 87-89.]
[Footnote 30: Ibid., p. 91.]
The property of colored freemen oftentimes included slaves. Such instances were quite numerous in pre-revolutionary San Domingo; and some in the British West Indies achieved notoriety through the exposure of cruelties. On the continent a negro planter in St. Paul’s Parish, South Carolina, was reported before the close of the eighteenth century to have two hundred slaves as well as a white wife and son-in-law, and the returns of the first federal census appear to corroborate it. In Louisiana colored planters on a considerable scale became fairly numerous. Among them were Cyprien Ricard who bought at a sheriff’s sale in 1851 an estate in Iberville Parish along with its ninety-one slaves for nearly a quarter of a million dollars; Marie Metoyer of Natchitoches Parish had fifty-eight slaves and more than two thousand acres of land when she died in 1840; Charles Roques of the same parish died in 1854 leaving forty-seven slaves and a thousand acres; and Martin Donato of St. Landry dying in 1848 bequeathed liberty to his slave wife and her seven children and left them eighty-nine slaves and 4,500 arpents of land as well as notes and mortgages to a value of $46,000. In rural Virginia and Maryland also there were free colored slaveholders in considerable numbers.
[Footnote 31: Reverend Charles Peters, Two Sermons Preached at Dominica, with an appendix containing minutes of evidence of three trials (London, 1802), pp. 36-49.]
[Footnote 32: LaRochefoucauld-Liancourt, Travels in the United States (London, 1799), p. 602, giving the negro's name as Pindaim. The census returns of 1790 give no such name, but they list James Pendarvis in a group comprising a white man, a free colored person and 123 slaves, and also a Mrs. Persons, free colored, with 136 slaves. She may have been Pindaim's (or Pendarvis') mulatto daughter, while the white man listed in the Pendarvis item was perhaps her husband or an overseer. Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States: South Carolina (Washington, 1908), pp. 35, 37.]
[Footnote 33: For these and other data I am indebted to Professor E.P. Puckett of Central College, Fayette, Mo., who has permitted me to use his monograph, "Free Negroes in Louisiana," in manuscript. The arpent was the standard unit of area in the Creole parishes of Louisiana, the acre in the parishes of Anglo-American settlement.]
[Footnote 34: Calvin D. Wilson, "Black Masters," in the North American Review, CLXXXI, 685-698, and "Negroes who owned Slaves," in the Popular Science Monthly, LXXXI, 483-494; John H. Russell, "Colored Freemen as Slave Owners in Virginia," in the Journal of Negro History, I, 233-242.]
Slaveholdings by colored townsmen were likewise fairly frequent. Among the 360 colored taxpayers in Charleston in 1860, for example, 130, including nine persons described as of Indian descent, were listed as possessing 390 slaves. The abundance of such holdings at New Orleans is evidenced by the multiplicity of applications from colored proprietors for authority to manumit slaves, with exemption from the legal requirement that the new freedmen must leave the state. A striking example of such petitions was that presented in 1832 by Marie Louise Bitaud, free woman of color, which recited that in the preceding year she had bought her daughter and grandchild at a cost of $700; that a lawyer had now told her that in view of her lack of free relatives to inherit her property, in case of death intestate her slaves would revert to the state; that she had become alarmed at this prospect; and she accordingly begged permission to manumit them without their having to leave Louisiana. The magistrates gave their consent on condition that the petitioner furnish a bond of $500 to insure the support and education of the grandson until his coming of age. This was duly done and the formalities completed.
[Footnote 35: List of the Taxpayers of Charleston for 1860 (Charleston, 1861), part 2.]
[Footnote 36: Many of these are filed in the record books of manumissions in the archive rooms of the New Orleans city hall. Some were denied on the ground that proof was lacking that the slaves concerned were natives of the state or that they would be self-supporting in freedom; others were granted.]
[Footnote 37: For the use of this MS. petition with its accompanying certificates I am indebted to Mr. J.F. Schindler of New York.]
Evidence of slaveholdings by colored freemen occurs also in the bills of sale filed in various public archives. One of these records that a citizen of Charleston sold in 1828 a man slave to the latter’s free colored sister at a price of one dollar, “provided he is kindly treated and is never sold, he being an unfortunate individual and requiring much attention.” In the same city a free colored man bought a slave sailmaker for $200. At Savannah in 1818 Richard Richardson sold a slave woman and child for $800 to Alex Hunter, guardian of the colored freeman Louis Mirault, in trust for him; and in 1833 Anthony Ordingsell, free colored, having obtained through his guardian an order of court, sold a slave woman to the highest bidder for $385.
[Footnote 38: MSS. in the files of slave sales in the South Carolina archives at Columbia.]
[Footnote 39: MSS. among the county archives at Savannah, Ga.]
It is clear that aside from the practice of holding slave relatives as a means of giving them virtual freedom, an appreciable number of colored proprietors owned slaves purely as a productive investment. It was doubtless a group of these who sent a joint communication to a New Orleans newspaper when secession and war were impending: “The free colored population (native) of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land, … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defence. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana…. They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought in 1814-’15…. If they have made no demonstration it is because they have no right to meddle with politics, but not because they are not well disposed. All they ask is to have a chance, and they will be worthy sons of Louisiana.” Oral testimony gathered by the present writer from old residents in various quarters of the South supports the suggestion of this letter that many of the well-to-do colored freemen tended to prize their distinctive position so strongly as to deplore any prospect of a general emancipation for fear it would submerge them in the great black mass.
[Footnote 40: Letter to the editor, signed "A large number of them," in the New Orleans Daily Delta, Dec. 28, 1860. Men of this element had indeed rendered service under Jackson in the defence of the city against Pakenham, as Louisianians well knew.]
The types discussed thus far were exceptional. The main body of the free negroes were those who whether in person or through their mothers had been liberated purely from sentiment and possessed no particular qualifications for self-directed careers. The former slaves of Richard Randolph who were colonized in accordance with his will as petty landed proprietors near Farmville, Virginia, proved commonly thriftless for half a century afterward; and Olmsted observed of the Virginia free negroes in general that their poverty was not due to the lack of industrial opportunity. Many of those in the country were tenants. George Washington found one of them unprofitable as such; and Robert Carter in 1792 rented farms to several in spite of his overseer’s remonstrance that they had no adequate outfit of tools and teams, and against his neighbors’ protests. Not a few indeed were mere squatters on waste lands. A Georgia overseer reported in 1840 that several such families had made clearings in the woods of the plantation under his charge, and proposed that rent be required of them; and travellers occasionally came upon negro cabins in fields which had been abandoned by their proprietors. The typical rural family appears to have tilled a few acres on its own account, and to have been willing to lend a hand to the whites for wages when they needed service. It was this readiness which made their presence in many cases welcome in a neighborhood. A memorial signed by thirty-eight citizens of Essex County, Virginia, in 1842 in behalf of a freedman might be paralleled from the records of many another community: “We would be glad if he could be permitted to remain with us and have his freedom, as he is a well disposed person and a very useful man in many respects. He is a good carpenter, a good cooper, a coarse shoemaker, a good hand at almost everything that is useful to us farmers.” Among the free negroes on the seaboard there was a special proclivity toward the water pursuits of boating, oystering and the like. In general they found a niche in industrial society much on a level with the slaves but as free as might be from the pressure of systematic competition.
[Footnote 41: F.N. Watkins, "The Randolph Emancipated Slaves," in DeBow's Review, XXIV, 285-290.]
[Footnote 42: Seaboard Slave States, p. 126.]
[Footnote 43: S.M. Hamilton ed., Letters to Washington, IV, 239.]
[Footnote 44: Carter MSS. in the Virginia Historical Society.]
[Footnote 45: Plantation and Frontier, II, 155.]
[Footnote 46: E. g., F. Cumming, Tour to the West, reprinted in Thwaites ed., Early Western Travels, IV, 336.]
[Footnote 47: J.H. Russell, The Free Negro in Virginia, p. 153.]
[Footnote 48: Ibid., p. 150.]