It is difficult to determine how populous free blacks were in the colonies. They were not counted for purposes of taxes, census, or military service, nor
were they generally included in church records. It is estimated that before 1770, approximately 5 percent of northern blacks were free. Larger pockets of
free blacks appeared in some colonies; in 1764, as many as 40 percent of Massachusetts blacks may have been free. In the Southern colonies, fewer
than 5 percent of blacks were free. As slavery became more prominent, the population of free blacks decreased. The first census to record the free black
population came in 1790, and it reported some 13,000 freedmen living in the New England states.
Enslaved blacks were able to obtain their freedom in a variety of ways. Masters sometimes chose to free their slaves through manumission, with freedom
beginning upon the master’s death. In order for manumission to be recorded by the court, a manumission deed was required, a document that generally
necessitated a monetary fee and some knowledge of the legal system. A high proportion of slaves freed in this manner were mulattos, children, and
A less common means of obtaining freedom was through self-purchase. Some slaves were able to earn cash (usually by working on their own after
completing their required labor) and pay their master for their freedom. At times, freedom brokers were involved in the process. Whites would buy slaves
from their masters, with money that the slaves had earned themselves, and then free them. Slaves who attempted to gain their freedom in this manner
were subject to the honesty of the whites who helped them, and some found themselves still enslaved, despite having paid the price of their purchase.
The most common way for a slave to obtain freedom was by running away. Cities with larger populations of free blacks provided anonymity for fugitive
slaves. Runaway slaves occasionally settled into established maroon communities, settlements deep in the frontier areas, where the inhabitants were
generally all runaway slaves.
The colony of Louisiana differed from the British colonies. Before the introduction of sugar and the entrenchment of slave labor, a labor shortage prompted
the Spanish Crown to promote the development of a free black class to fill middle-class working positions and defend the colony. This free black
population grew from just 97 in 1771 to 315 three years later. Free blacks in colonial Louisiana were able to attain a measure of success by working for
wages and operating business enterprises, and through inheritances from whites and other free blacks. Their ability to acquire marketable skills and their
ties to the white community helped to promote the importance of free blacks in the colony.
Some free blacks even owned slaves. This was more often a case of purchasing relatives after obtaining their own freedom, although some free blacks
did mimic the white practice of chattel slavery in an effort to identify with white society.
Laws Governing Free Blacks
The free black population presented a dilemma for colonial leaders. Free blacks hovered in a status somewhere between slave and white. Their color
relegated them to an inferior social status, but their freedom prevented them from being controlled like the slave population. In South Carolina, whites
sought to eliminate the nebulous category of free blacks through the 1740 Negro Act, a law that assumed all blacks were slaves. As slavery became
more firmly entrenched in the colonies, the presence of free blacks proved even more troublesome for whites, resulting in a series of laws throughout the
colonies designed to restrict the free black population. That colonial leaders had difficulty categorizing free blacks is evident in the fact that most laws
designed to govern them were found in the slave codes.
Throughout the colonies, free blacks were prevented from serving as soldiers in local militias. Both Connecticut and New Hampshire excluded free blacks
entirely. Massachusetts required free blacks to serve in the militia; however, they were relegated to such menial tasks as repairing highways and cleaning
city streets rather than drilling and preparing for battle with the regular militia. Only in times of alarm were free blacks allowed to perform other duties, but
even those were limited by the commanding officer and might not have included bearing weapons. Additionally, most colonies passed laws that prohibited
free blacks from bearing weapons. Pennsylvania required free blacks to obtain a special license in order to own a firearm. Virginia and South Carolina
boasted similar provisions; generally licenses were awarded only to those living in frontier areas.
Other typical laws that governed free blacks included punishments restricting freedom. Free blacks who loitered could be bound out for service as
apprentices; the children of indigent free blacks were also subject to forced apprenticeship. Trade between free blacks and slaves was prohibited without
the consent of the slave’s master, and free blacks faced severe fines and penalties for harboring fugitive slaves.
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