FREE To An Extent : A Look At The Lives Of Freed Nothern Blacks In Colonial America - History - Research Paper

2586 words - 11 pages

America’s colonial period was an interesting and introspective period for African
Americans. While still contained by the shackles of slavery, they still managed to be outspoken
out their circumstances and the living conditions in which they were subject to. Their ability to
express their ideas, however, was stifled by the geographical location they lived in. African
Americans who lived in the South were still shackled by the oppressive regulations of the slavery
system put into place decades before, and while slavery was not legal in the Northern regions of
The United States, they still faced forms of discrimination regulated more by societal standard
then legal oppressive regulations. The lives of freed blacks and enslaved blacks drastically
differed in many ways during the colonial period, but in some ways still were parallel. Northern
Blacks faced blatant and indiscernible racism during this time period, and many of the societal
hurdles and snares had and still have lasting effects on African Americans today.
Free Northern black’s ad many societal advantages over their southern counterparts,
having many allowances and opportunities that would have never been afforded to an enslaved
human. “Although their lives were circumscribed by numerous discriminatory laws even in the
colonial period, freed African Americans, especially in the North, were active participants in
American society. Black men enlisted as soldiers and fought in the American Revolution (
though many fought on the side of the British). Some owned land, homes, businesses, and paid
taxes. In some Northern cities, for brief periods of time, black property owners voted. A very
small number of free blacks owned slaves. The slaves that most free blacks purchased were
relatives whom they later manumitted. A few free blacks also owned slave holding plantations in
Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.”1
The Progression of life for this group was due to the fact that slavery had not hindered
their societal progression or state of living. African American’s in the North were not affected by
the yolk of slavery, but they still faced the same discrimination of their southern brethren, if only
to a less severe and blatant level, “Freed blacks in the north were assumed to be better off, but
what is commonly unknown, they were discriminated against as much as blacks in the lower and
upper south. They too didn’t have full rights, nor could they own land in some parts and on very
rare occasions they could possibly try a case against someone. Rarely was this person white.
The north was partially free it varied from state to state what rights they had and did not. It is a
misconception to believe that freemen in the north were equal to whites. Many northern whites
were just as prejudice towards them as southerners were. ”2
This system of oppression was one of the precursors for the societal and systematic
racism still seen in felt in today’s American society. African Americans were discriminated
against in some of the main states that had fought for freedom of oppression from the crown, and
in the period of colonial construction, the hypocrisy of discrimination seen in these territories
towards free blacks was so blatant, yet it was ignored for the most part in mainstream society. In
the city where our constitution was written, Northern African Americans faced adversity and
discrimination despite the fact that they were free citizens of the newly formed United States
“Pennsylvania colony's Act for the better Regulation of Negroes set penalties for free blacks who
harbored runaway slaves or received property stolen from masters that were potentially much
1 Hine,D., Hine,W.,and Harold,S., "African American Odyssey," 144, 146, 154, 314.
2 Ibid.
higher than those applied to whites. If the considerable fines could not be paid, the justices had
the power to order a free black person put into servitude. Under other provisions of the act, free
Negroes who married whites were to be sold into slavery for life; for mere fornication or adultery
involving blacks and whites, the penalty for the black person was to be sold as a servant for
seven years. Whites in such cases faced different or lighter punishment."3 Blacks faced injustices
based not only on the overt racial tension of the country, but on the preconceived notions and
ideas of the racist majority in America, especially in terms of how they would affect the
industrial and geological standards of the North.
Blacks in the north were often discriminated against when it came to migration and
establishing homestead in many Northern societies. The ideas that blacks would lower the
property values of certain areas, and take the job opportunities from whites in those areas, led to
legislative action that would hinder blacks from migrating to certain areas. “The Northern states
busied themselves in passing laws to make sure no more blacks moved within their boundaries.
These were not elitist actions. The pressure for total exclusion came from the working class
whites, struggling for a little bargaining power with the shop-owners and fearful of inexpensive
black competition that could drive down wages. New Jersey in 1786 had prohibited blacks from
entering the state to settle, because "sound public policy requires that importation be prohibited
in order that white labor may be protected."4
Even in the state of Connecticut, the same state where Harriet Beacher Stowe’s Uncle
Tom’s Cabin, the heart-wrenching tome about the horrors of black oppression in the south, black
oppression and ill-intended legislation was exhibited. “Connecticut’s legislature, making the
3 Greene, L., "The Negro in Colonial America."
4 Hine, D., Hine, W., and Harold, S., "The African American Odyssey," 144, 146, 154, 314.
same prohibition in 1784, had declared that it did so because 'the increase of slaves is injurious to
the poor. As far back as 1767, citizens of New London, Connecticut, in a town meeting voted
their objection to free blacks living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony. That
year, the colonial assembly passed a law in accordance with this sentiment, prohibiting free
blacks or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony'.” 5
The laws passed in order to subjugate and discriminate against blacks in the north may
have had the intention of not only protect the interests of white northerners but also remind
freemen that while they did reside in an area were slavery was abolished, they still held no weigh
in white society, and could still be punished and regulated as severely as their southern counter
parts. In Massachusetts, legislation was passed against freed blacks moving into certain areas. It
was designed to “forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town.
The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed
was rendered void, and a black resident of a town, however long he had been there, was now
subject to prosecution at the discretion of the selectmen. Massachusetts in 1788 prescribed
flogging for non-resident blacks who stayed more than two months.”6 In short, this law
established the mentality that even though blacks were able to vote, own land, etc., these rights
could be stripped if the states deemed it necessary or even just advantageous to the generic white
The main areas in which African Americans were forced to locate had inadequate living
standards and sub-par conditions, one of the main aspects in the beginning of societal and
geographic discrimination, which can still be seen today. “Despite the actions of abolitionists,
5 Greene, L. "The Negro in Colonial New England."
6 De Tocqueville, A., "Democracy in America."
life for free blacks was far from idyllic, due to northern racism. Most free blacks lived in racial
enclaves in the major cities of the North: New York, Boston and Philadelphia. There, poor living
conditions led to disease and death. Even wealthy blacks were prohibited from living in white
neighborhoods due to whites' fear of declining property values. There, poor living conditions led
to disease and death."7
One of the main fears of many free northern blacks was the idea of being sold into
slavery, either for the first time or after they had attained their freedom. Fugitive slave laws
struck fear in the hearts of many African Americans, and some of the legislation passed deemed
selling Africans Americans who violated certain laws back into servitude as a necessary and fair
punishment. Many laws were passed with the adherence that blacks “could be put back into
servitude for "laziness" or petty crimes, at the mercy of the local. Step out of line, make one false
move, and you could be shipped out, or sold into slavery. You wouldn't have the right to face
your (white) accuser in court. Anti-sodomy laws still are on the books in some states; their
defenders point out that they are rarely invoked, but that does not make their potential targets
feel safer living under them. It gets to the gist of what makes slavery itself, however comfortable,
always worse than freedom, however miserable. Many Southern slaves, perhaps the mass of
them, lived better than most northern industrial laborers, when you quantify their work
requirements, nutrition, and life expectancy.8
Many Africans in the North also faced another deep and very sickening fear, the fear of
being kidnapped into slavery. Fugitive Slave Laws and statutes basically gave the power to white
slave owners to ensnare blacks into slavery, regardless of their previous owners or slave status.
7 Greene, L., "The Negro in Colonial New England."
8 Wilson, C., "Freedom at Risk."
With the law on the side of slaveholders any black could be captured and claimed as a
slaveholder’s property without that person previously being the owner’s slave. Slave owners
were allowed to kidnap whomever they pleased, and African Americans had no legal rights to
fight against it. These laws also restricted the movement of blacks across of the nation. These
laws were used by kidnappers in the Northern United states, who would trick and coerce free
blacks and abduct them from their homes and families in the North, transport them to the south,
and sell them into slavery, knowing that they would more than likely, never be believed if they
were to explain their situation to their owners. Studies have shown that free Blacks living in
Pennsylvania, and Delaware, states bordering Maryland, faced the most danger.
The proximity of these regions to the south facilitated kidnappers’ transportation of their
victims to southern farms, plantations and urban centers. Such was the case of Solomon
Northrup, a freeman from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For
approximately 12 years, Northup suffered the indecencies and the tortures of slavery, having to
be sold and shipped to different plantations, being brutally beat and ridiculed on a daily basis. He
was eventually freed after a certain amount of time after his true identity was discovered, but the
experience had forever changed him. He was just one of the many casualties in the on-going
struggle of slave abduction during the antebellum period. The most surprising and sickening
factor is that many of these abducted individuals were not even adults. “An April 16, 1741 issue
of the Colored American featured a letter from John Carter who recounted the kidnapping of
Francis Jackson, a young boy from Pittsburgh…May 4, 1749 issue related the abduction of three
children, two boys and one girl from Caroline County, Maryland. Hired out to cut corn stalks, the
children’s employer, James T. Wooters kidnapped them and sold them to a slave dealer who
carried them to Norfolk, Virginia.” 9
While sickening to even fathom, the abduction of Northern black children was common
place, and lucrative to not only the kidnappers themselves, but the southern slave economy and
system as well. “The kidnapping of free Black children occurred more often than the abduction
of free Black adults. Children were particularly vulnerable to kidnappers or “man-stealers” as
they were easier to take than adults. Children were less likely to have freedom papers on their
person. Children also lacked the credibility of adults, even Black ones, and had a more difficult
time convincing others of their free status. Children bound out to employers to contribute to the
household income were often taken. Instead of releasing children back to their parents at the end
of their labor agreement, some employers sold the children into slavery. Employers such as these
took advantage of African American families and children made vulnerable because of poverty
and their societal status, bolstered by the onset of Revolution.”10
These children were often preyed upon for their innocence, and while they had
experienced the life of freedom in the North, the fact that they were still black children made
them prime targets for the sickening system of oppression and devilish abduction perpetuated
across the country as a result of the slave system South and its residual effects in the North.
Many children were subject to numerous horrors in there transport from the North to the south,
and their lack of experience with the deep culture of segregation in the South due to their
Northern upbringing, made the situation all the more traumatic for them, “Once sold into slavery,
children often encountered physical (including sexual) and mental abuse at the hands of owners.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
Many of the children abducted into slavery grew up as slaves and never knew freedom again. .
Frankie Hutton has described free Black children as the ultimate outsiders. Disproportionately
orphaned and impoverished, many free Black children’s lives were made exponentially worse as
victims of attempted and successful kidnappings...”11
The system of Northern Kidnapping and Southern slave trade was one that was made to
work with ease, and despite the countless slave narratives detailing these abductions, These
occurrences continued to the days of Emancipation, which was the only chance that many of the
juvenile abductees had at achieving the freedom that was stolen from the originally.
The North had made strides as far as the terms of abolition and freedom for blacks goes,
in relation to the South. But the question remains, is conditional freedom still freedom at all. Is
societal subjugation the same as enslavement, whether it is overt or not. As French historian
Alexis De Tocqueville said in his piece Democracy in America “So the Negro [in the North] is
free, but he cannot share the rights, pleasures, labors, griefs, or even the tomb of him whose
equal he has been declared; there is nowhere where he can meet him, neither in life nor in death.
In the South, where slavery still exists, less trouble is taken to keep the Negro apart.”12 While
they were “free” in on sense, black northerners were still shackled and yoked, not by chains of
iron, but by the chains of societal oppression and systematic and legislative racism.
11 Ibid.
12 De Tocqueville, A., "Democracy in America."
Hine, Darlen C., William C. Hine, and Stanley Harold. The African-American Odyssey. 2nd ed.
Vol. 1. Pages 144, 146, 154, 314. Prentice Hall. Print.
Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776, N.Y.: Columbia
Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, transl. George Lawrence, Harper & Row, 1966,
p.343. ia University Press, 1942
Carol Wilson. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-
1865. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1994
Marc A. Hilyard II
HIS 302-01
December 2nd, 2017

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