There is a good probability that many of us researching our African-American lines will find at least one line that was freed before 1865. In 1860, there were over 400,000 freed blacks in the U.S.. I like this map from the Schomburg migrations website:
Although Northern cities like Philadelphia and Boston had large black populations, over half of all freed blacks lived in the South in cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Savannah, Baltimore and Petersburg. Escaping blacks would often aim for these cities, as they’d have a better chance of blending in with other freed blacks.
I had freed black ancestors living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland which was not surprising since Maryland had over 60,000 freed blacks by the time the Civil War began—the most of any state. More surprising was that I discovered a freed black ancestor living in south west Tennessee in Hardin County. She was one of only 37 freed blacks living there in 1850. That was truly unexpected.
One of the core texts about freed blacks is “Slaves Without Masters: the Free Negro in the Antebellum South” by Ira Berlin. Their lives were only a little bit better than the lives of enslaved people. They worked alongside and many times married enslaved people. They were widely perceived by the white community with suspicion and regarded as an enticement to insurrection among slaves. Some of the most famous slave revolts were planned by freed blacks such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. There have been several very interesting books written about freed blacks who attained great success and wealth, such as in “Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the South” .
As the number of freed blacks grew in states like Virginia and Maryland, state laws also increased drastically limiting their movement and actions. Examples of some of the laws against freed blacks in various states include the inability to vote or testify against whites in court, the need to register movements in and out of state, the inability to own a dog or gun, and the inability to assemble in large numbers without a white person present. Eventually, several states simply legislated that if a black was freed, he or she had to leave the state.
How do you research freed blacks? First, you’d want to find them by looking for your ancestors on census records before 1870. Before that year, only freed blacks would have been included. Sometimes, we assume our ancestors were enslaved before 1870 without first actually checking.
If you discover an ancestor who was freed before 1865, next you’ll want to attempt to discover how they gained their freedom. Slaves could be freed in 5 general ways:
- Born Free (legal status came from the mother, so a freedwoman’s children would be free)
- Manumitted (freed by their slaveowner)
- Purchased their freedom (slaveowner must allow this possibility)
- Military Service (Revolutionary War or the Civil War)
It’s not always easy ascertaining the method by which an ancestor became free. Many states required freed blacks to register their freedom with the county court to prevent escaping slaves from claiming they were free. The Maryland Assembly put it this way in 1805:
“great mischiefs have arisen from slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free under the faith of such certificates”
Therefore, county court minutes are a good place in general to search. That is where I found a reference to my ancestor in Hardin County. The court would grant the person a “freedom certificate” that a freed black was expected to carry on their person at all times and submit it to any white when questioned. Some localities also kept separate sets of these “Freedom Certificates”. If you’re lucky, it will state how the person became free. Here’s an example of one from Anne Arundel County, MD:
Depending on the state and county, there may be separate books of Manumissions (the legal document through which a master frees a slave). A separate book will often contain an index of the slaves’ names. However, the manumission may also be mixed in with the Land Records, or could have been made through the owner’s Will, both records that can be harder to search in the beginning because they are typically indexed by the name of the slaveowner. Here is a portion of a transcribed Manumission:
I haven’t mentioned the fact that in many of the records, there will just be a first name, such as “Negro Sarah”. That complicates the process by forcing us to make sure we are connecting the right “Sarah” with the “Sarah” that we’ve found in the census with a surname attached.
If you have no luck in finding Freedom Certificates or Manumissions, check to see if your ancestor owned land and if so, from whom did he or she purchase that land? Check Indentures, as many freed black children were indentured to whites. They also may be living near the white person who freed them, so use Cluster Research principles. Freed blacks often had a white person who served as “protector”, someone to vouch for and support them when they were challenged or cheated by whites. You may be able to identify that person by evaluating enough documents. Also, try to find out what the laws were regarding freed blacks, for example, this book about the black laws in Virginia. and this blog that discusses laws regarding freed blacks in North Carolina.
This was only the briefest introduction to yet another endlessly fascinating topic. There’s a good discussion of researching freed blacks on the University of South Florida’s website and I also recommend this more scholarly discussion of the topic by James Horton who is one of my favorite historians. If you found an ancestor living as a freed black before 1870, let me know in the comments.