When Americans think of African-Americans in the deep before the Civil War, the first image that most comes to mind is one of slavery. However, many African-Americans were able to secure their freedom and live in a state of semi-freedom even before slavery was abolished by war. Free blacks lived in all parts of the United States. It is estimated that by 1860 there were about 1.5 million free blacks in the southern states. How did African-Americans become free? Some slaves bought their own freedom from their owners, but this process became more and rarer as the 1800s progressed. Many slaves became free through manumission, the voluntary emancipation of a slave by a slave-owner. Manumission was sometimes offered because slaves had outlived their usefulness or were held in special favor by their masters. The children of interracial couples were often set free. Some slaves were set free by their masters as the abolitionist movement grew. Occasionally slaves were freed during the master's lifetime, and more often through the master's will. Many African-Americans freed themselves through escape.
Were free blacks offered the same rights as free whites? The answer is quite simply no. Free blacks in the South were more at risk of being enslaved than were black northerners. All southern states (except Louisiana) assumed African Americans were slaves unless they could prove otherwise. Free black people had to carry free papers, which they had to renew periodically. They could be enslaved if their papers were lost or stolen, and sheriffs in the upper south routinely arrested free black people on the grounds they might be fugitive slaves. Even when those arrested proved they were free, they were sometimes sold as slaves to pay the cost of imprisoning them. Free African Americans who got into debt in the South risked being sold into slavery to pay off their debtors.
As the antebellum period progressed, the distinction between free and enslaved African Americans narrowed in the South. Although a few northern states allowed black men to vote, no southern state did after 1835 when North Carolina revoked the privilege. Free black people of the upper south also had more problems traveling, owning firearms, congregating in groups, and being out after dark than did black northerners. Although residential segregation was less obvious in southern cities in the North, African Americans of the south were thoroughly excluded from hotels, taverns, trains, and coaches, parks, theaters, and hospitals. They also experienced difficulties earning a living. Free persons of color were generally tenant farmers. Some of them had to sign labor contracts that reduced them to semi-slavery. Free African Americans also worked as unskilled day laborers, waiters, whitewashers and women worked as laundresses and domestic servants.
Blacks in the North:
African Americans living in the south viewed the North as a land of freedom and opportunity. To an extent, they were right. Northern blacks did have more rights than those who lived in the South. Since the revolutionary war, most African Americans in the North had the right to vote. They could serve on juries and had more careers open to them. Additionally, black citizens in the North had more freedom to move around from place to place than did free blacks in the south. Northern free blacks still faced discrimination though and overtime their rights were stripped away. Even in the North, few white people considered black people as their equals and the prejudice showed. In Philadelphia, for example, African Americans were not admitted into concert halls, churches, and orphanages or on public transportation. Gradually, they were also banned from certain careers. During the Antebellum period, black voting rights slowly eroded as well. New Jersey banned free blacks from voting in 1807, as did Pennsylvania in 1838. Connecticut and New York placed voting restrictions on black men. The only states in which voting rights were never limited for black men were Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.
Urban neighborhoods, with their more concentrated black populations, nurtured black community life. As they became free, northern African Americans left their masters and established their own households. By the 1820s, the average black family in northern cities had 2 parents and 2 children. The rising tide of immigration from Europe hurt northern African Americans economically. As Europeans came to the US, the job opportunities for African Americans became limited. White people refused to work with African Americans and often African Americans were denied apprenticeships. They also used violence to keep them from working. AS a result, most northern black men were forced to work menial labor jobs such as coachmen, waiters, barbers, carpenters, masons, and plasters.