Free Blacks in the United States "To be born in a free society and not be born free is to be born into a lie." – James Baldwin, 1966
Even though these words were written 100 years after slavery ended, Baldwin's words showed the challenges Blacks faced in America between 1619 and 1860. Many scholars suggest that during this period, free blacks in America were "more black than free." This means that the discrimination blacks faced in the North made freedom more of an illusion than a reality. For example, educational opportunities were limited, they could only attend certain clubs or social circles, most jobs were closed to them, most housing was denied to them, and personal safety or basic human dignity were not a sure thing.
These free Negroes, as they were called at that time, were scattered throughout three different regions: the North, the Upper South, and the Lower South. Each region had its own flavor. Many of slavery's most vociferous (biggest) critics lived in the Northern region, which is made up of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and the New England states. But that didn’t mean that the North was a perfect place for Blacks.
Growth of African American Population in the United States
Free blacks in America were first documented in Virginia in 1662. By 1776, 60,000 African Americans—approximately 8 percent of the national black population—were free. The free black population continued to rise steadily. This worried many proslavery whites.
By 1810, 4 percent of all African Americans in the Deep South, 10 percent in the Upper South, and 75 percent in the North were free. Most free blacks in the North were in urban cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Between 1800 and 1850 the free black population in the nation's 15 largest cities grew twice as fast as white population. By 1860 close to 500,000 free blacks lived in the United States, which is about 9 percent of the entire black population.
Freedom did not come easily. Thousands of runaway slaves were captured, and these were returned to slavery or executed by whites.
The most common route to freedom came through manumission, which is the formal release of a someone from slavery. A slave could be manumitted privately by an individual or officially by a state law. Vermont became the first state to guarantee immediate manumission when it outlawed slavery in its 1777 constitution. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), many Northern states followed Vermont's lead and changed their laws regarding slavery. Several other Northern states, including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, adopted a policy of gradual manumission, which meant that the children of all current slaves would automatically be free once they reached a certain age, generally 21 or 25.
White Racism towards Free Blacks
Hardship did not end with freedom, even in the North. Free blacks in the North were excluded from most public schools, prohibited from interstate travel, barred from voting in many states, and often harassed by hostile white mobs. Finding a decent job in the North was extremely difficult. Jobs open to free blacks were limited mostly to domestic service and subsistence farming. There were few free black skilled artisans. Furthermore, the jobs that were available to free blacks were found mainly in urban cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. At a time when less than 20 percent of all Americans settled in urban areas, 60 percent of Northern free blacks lived in major urban cities. If you were a free black who wanted to live in the countryside, you were probably out of luck.
Proslavery whites strongly believed that the presence of free blacks anywhere was an immediate threat to slavery everywhere. As a result, free blacks in both the North and the South were systematically isolated and segregated (put in separate places). Says historian Leon F. Litwack, "free blacks were often educated in segregated schools, punished in segregated prisons, nursed in segregated hospitals, and buried in segregated cemeteries." White racism and hatred increased as free blacks and poor whites started competing for jobs.. Some whites saw free blacks as a threat to their jobs and salaries. White mobs attacked and killed free blacks in Philadelphia (1829, 1849), Boston (1843), Providence, Rhode Island (1831), New York (1834), and Washington, D.C. (1835). White mobs also destroyed black churches, businesses, homes, schools, and meetinghouses.
Free Black Communities and Organizations Respond to Racism
Free blacks responded in a variety of ways to the violence and systematic discrimination practiced by many whites. Free blacks often worked within their own communities to establish hundreds of independent black organizations. One of the most important and powerful organizatiosn created by blacks were churches.. By 1787 there were black Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian congregations throughout the country. Most free black churches were located in the North. Two of the most prominent denominations included the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches. They helped African Americans within their communities when people were in need and fought for fair treatment of African Americans in work, school, and other places.
Schools for free blacks were equally important. Other than Boston after 1855, most free blacks were banned from attending white public schools. In response, many free black communities established schools of their own. One of the most successful was the African Free School in New York City. It opened in 1787 after several Northern states abolished slavery and provided elementary education to African Americans in New York City for almost 50 years.
In addition to churches, schools, and mutual aid societies, free blacks organized literary clubs, debating societies, and secret fraternal (brotherhood) organizations, like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows.
Some free blacks thought that becoming politically active would help them get equal treatment in the United States. They worked hard to improve the lives of other African Americans, both free and slave. Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Ellen and William Craft published influential slave narratives describing their lives as slaves and their path to freedom. These narratives brought the cruelty of slavery to an international audience and inspired antislavery activism in many parts of the country. Wealthy free blacks, such as the Forten family in Philadelphia, contributed time and money to the American Anti-Slavery Movement. Whatever the strategy, many free blacks worked tirelessly to improve the chance for freedom for the 4 million blacks who still were slaves on the eve of the Civil War. (1861)