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African American Lives
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Biography Looking Back
Photo of an African American Union Army soldier


Free People of Color in the Antebellum U.S.

Free people of color made up a relatively small percentage of people of African descent in the antebellum U.S. In 1790, the free black population hovered at 59,000; by the Civil War, there were roughly 488,000 -- with more than half of those in the South. African Americans had contributed to the Revolutionary War as soldiers (some units of the Revolutionary Army were integrated; U.S. forces would not be integrated again until after World War II) and providers of materiel, and worked in a wide variety of professions in the young country. In the North, free African Americans lived mainly in urban centers; in the South there were a number of smaller communities populated mainly by free blacks.

But the status of free African Americans was nebulous as best. For them, freedom was circumscribed by their race and appearance, and their liberty was always in question. They could not vote, some states required them to post a bond or appoint a guardian, and some states, such as Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, would not permit free blacks to settle at all. And whether or not they were required to carry papers with them, freed people needed to be prepared at all times to document their status -- or face enslavement by "speculators" who were prepared to resort to kidnapping, even in the North.

Some enslaved people managed to save enough money to purchase their own freedom or the freedom of their kin. Others escaped bondage by running away. A few won freedom from their masters. Often, the laws of slaveholding states distinguished between manumitted (freed) slaves and freeborn African Americans; some states went so far as to require freedmen and women to leave the state within a specified period of time, usually one year, in order to interrupt any communication (which was seen as politically dangerous) between those formerly and currently enslaved; in the years leading up to the Civil War much of the South had outlawed manumission altogether.

Unfair labor practices, punitive, restrictive laws, limited employment prospects, and the continued servitude of family and friends restricted the mobility and options for free people. Free people found work in a range of occupations including many of the same positions enslaved people held. In rural areas, they worked as farmers, field hands, and domestic laborers. In urban areas, city directories list free people as common laborers, domestic servants; fewer found work as entrepreneurs, craftspeople, and artisans.

Some, such as Richard Allen, the former slave who established the Free African Society and the AME church in Philadelphia in the 1790s, established institutions: churches, benevolent societies, and schools that worked toward abolition, and the creation of free communities. Prominent free blacks in the urban north, perhaps most famously Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, campaigned to abolish slavery, and many free black men were among the 180,000 African Americans -- some 10% of the total number of forces -- who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Host Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s free ancestors faced of many of these hardships. In Hardy County, Virginia (now West Virginia), Gates' paternal great-great-great-great-grandparents, Joseph and Sarah Bruce, along with their 11 children, were emancipated separately by their owners, Abraham and Elizabeth van Meter. On his death, van Meter freed some of his slaves -- but half of the Bruce family remained enslaved, only to be emancipated on Elizabeth van Meter's death years later.

Gates' maternal ancestors had lived as free people since the beginning of the Republic. His maternal great-granduncle, John R. Clifford, served in the Union Army, as part of Company F of the 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment; Gates' fifth great-grandfather, John Redman, born in 1763, served in the Revolutionary War. Another of Gates' fifth great-grandfathers, Issac Clifford, born free in Hardy County around 1776, faced kidnapping by a white slaveowner, but successfully sued for his freedom.

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