Free Black People in the Antebellum South

 by John Taylor, a Virginian

Much of the way we now view the War between the States is informed by our simplistic view of the two sides in that conflict: northern “good guys,” out to free the slaves and southern “bad guys” out to keep black people in bondage.  This view of antebellum southern society, in turn is based largely on stereotypes of antebellum southern society put forth in pre-war propaganda pieces like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or other articles, speeches and pamphlets published by northern Republicans seeking to differentiate themselves from Americans from the Southern States and to turn that differentiation into partisan political advantage.

In today’s media environment, no one would look to MSNBC for an accurate statement of the Republican Party policy.  Likewise, no one would turn to Fox News Channel for a complete and fair statement of the policy positions of the Democrat Party.  Likewise, we would be wise to treat partisan political pronouncements from 1860 with a degree of skepticism.

On the other hand, a record exists which can help us understand the period, but which does not rely on party propaganda from the period.  This record offers insights into what motivated white and black southerners.  One event from this period, and arguably the most important in the coming of the war, was Harper’s Ferry.  The Abolitionist John Brown of New England and his band of murderers and thieves had attacked the Federal arsenal in Virginia with a view to distributing to slaves the muskets stored there, spreading slave insurrection across the southern states.[1]  In light of the deaths of men, women and children which Virginia had suffered in Nat Turner’s revolt, most white Southerners took a dim view of Brown’s activities.  Further, Brown’s accomplices had drafted a Provisional Constitution for the United States,[2] so Brown was not simply trying to “run off slaves” as he told his captors.[3]  Brown was trying to overthrow the governments of the southern states as well as the Federal government.

Brown was convicted of murder, inciting servile insurrection and treason.[4]  Before his execution, meetings across the north praised Brown’s actions and called for his release.[5]  Of course, white southerners looked at this the same way Americans viewed Arabs praising Osama bin Laden after September 11th, 2001: they were shocked and appalled by foreigners praising someone who had committed such evil.  The difference was that white Southerners in 1860 were looking at people with whom they were in a political union.  Southerners had reason to expect better from their northern countrymen.

The political responses of white southerners were often quick and sometimes quite bold.  At the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Mississippi had laws on her books restricting what slaves could do and where they could go.[6]  “Slave patrols,” for example, were groups of white men who would stop slaves on the road and check their pass, or visit slave quarters to ensure that no contraband was present there.[7]  What Mississippi lacked, many felt, was a law that would control the movements and actions of free black people.  In the winter of 1859-1860, the Mississippi legislature debated a law that would expel all free people of color from the state.  In this way, the only black people in the state would be subject to those laws governing slave actions and movements.

The local reactions to this law were surprising.  In several cases, free people of color, facing expulsion from the state found a unique way to avoid being sent away from Mississippi, if the law should be adopted.  They sought the assistance of white men to petition for them to be allowed to stay because these African-Americans were reliable, industrious or otherwise valuable members of the community.  In the south Mississippi community of Pass Christian, the local leaders of the white community felt that Pass Christian had a large number of “free people of color” that the community needed.  The petitioners “warmly approve” removing negroes with “evil designs and such as are unworthy and dangerous,” yet “some discrimination should be made.”  In Pass Christian were several of the same stock or the same family “by marriage and consanguinity” who ought to be exempted from the law.  The petition listed by names the thirty-seven free black people of Pass Christian who were honest and industrious and whom the white community leaders felt should be allowed to stay.  Almost one hundred white men of Pass Christian signed this petition.  These men were concerned with what black people might be coaxed into doing, but they were also willing to weigh in with the Mississippi Legislature to keep these good black Mississippians in the state.

Some requested to stay for no obvious reason. White men of Kemper County asked the Legislature to allow Gillam, “a free negro, residing in this county, of good character and a carpenter by trade,” to remain, to “exempt him from the provisions of the law in respect to free negroes now before you.  We would represent him as worthy of your leniency as any we know of.”  Twenty-nine white petitioners of Hinds County write to the Legislature for the benefit of Joseph Nelson.  Nelson, according to the white petitioners, was of “good character and has never broken any laws.  Morally, he seemed “to resemble an honest correct white man, rather than a negro or mulatto.”  Without expressing any opinion upon the necessity or policy of the law expelling the free negroes or the policy of admitting any exceptions to its provisions, the signers were “very confident in saying that if the Legislature intend permitting any to remain, it would be difficult to name one more worthy of this favor than Joseph Nelson.”  Seventy-six white men of Clark County, having heard that a law would pass the legislature this term requiring free negroes of this state to emigrate, asked that “Free Lewis” be allowed to remain. He, “by honest industry has purchased his own freedom and that of his wife.”  He holds property, conducts himself with the same humbleness and propriety that made him a favorite while a slave.  If no exception is made, then allow him to remain for two years to “settle his business without sacrifice.”

Similar petitions were signed by the white community leaders of in Shieldsborough, Hancock County.[8]  On January 10, 1860, ten men signed a petition that Peter Antoine, “free negro boy” be allowed to remain after the Mississippi law was passed.  Antoine had a slave wife and children and wanted to be allowed to “remain here on good behavior.”  Another petition asking that Ann Caldwell, “free woman of color,” being married to a slave man and having issue, be allowed to remain in the State, The white man drafting the petition noted that Caldwell had “given ample security for her behavior” and demonstrated “that she will not be chargeable to the State or county in which she may be permitted to reside.”     Perry Melton asked for signatures on a petition that he be exempted from the law “compelling free negroes to leave the State.”  John Thompson signs and added: “I have known Perry Melton for twenty years.  He has a wife on my place & growen (sic) children.  T. J.”  Emmarilla Jeffries, of Holly Springs, a “free woman of color,” had children and was “injured and live[d] with Mr. E. W. Ward, her employer.  She had “a slave husband and [did] not wish to leave.  She would rather remain and “take the condition of slavery for herself and her children.”

Some free people of color were both old and married, and wished to remain close to their spouses and children.  Thirty-three white men of Hinds County, for example, signed a petition for a free black man named Howard Cash.  Cash was “a free man of color,” and of advanced years, asks to be allowed to remain in the State “with their children, all of them slaves.”  In January 1860, eighty white men of Jasper & Clark Counties ask that Dick Dale, a free man of color, married with children and aged 62 years and in bad health, be allowed to stay because he was the body servant of Gen. Samuel Dale in the Indian Wars. January 1860, seventy-nine citizens of Clark County ask that “General” John Lloyd Harkens, aged more than sixty years, be allowed to stay.  Purchased his own freedom through honest industry, “deportment has been satisfactory.”  John Perret, originally of Anson County, North Carolina, then of Kemper County, Mississippi had been apprenticed to Reverend Charles Haily (whom Perret desctribed as “a kind master”).  Perret could not “leave the state on account of his health, and want[ed] to become Rev. Haily’s slave.”  This last phrase was both heart-braking and shows the lengths free people of color would go to remain in Mississippi.  Some were willing to be enslaved or re-enslaved, in exchange for being allowed to remain in Mississippi.

Joe Bind was a “free man of color” living in Mississippi.  He asked to be allowed “to elevate himself (sic) from his present condition” (free negro) to slave.  Note the pro-slavery ideology embedded in that statement.  Being a free negro was an inferior social status from being a slave, at least in the mind of the white man who wrote that for Mr. Bind.  Obviously, Bind shared this view, at least partially, because he signed his petition to become a slave by making his mark.  Bind’s reason for this petition was heart-wrenching.  Joe was married to a slave woman, and had had children by her.  He had been a free negro for twenty years in 1860, but he wanted to become the slave of Robert Graham, “in order that he may be near to and with his wife and children.”[9]

Some requested to be enslaved as a result of debts or money problems.  Wesley Moore was “a free man of yellow complexion” who asked to be allowed to remain in the state, or, if this should not be allowed, to become the slave of Wilson Melton.  Moore was married to a slave woman and had had several children by her.  Wilson Melton agreed, should Moore become his slave, to pay his debts (believed to be $500).  If his debts should be less than that, Melton will give the residue to Moore “for his personal benefit.”  Moore was forty-six at the time, “a negro of good character having been raised in this state and an inhabitant of this county since 1834.” Billard Fillmore (sic), a free mulatto of Itawamba County, had been convicted of assault and battery on a slave, and asked to be made the slave of James Lindsay.  William Jackson of Tippah County asked to be made the slave of James Craig.

Others of a similar vein also petitioned the legislature.  Roseanne of Hinds County, “free woman of color,” asked to be made the slave of Calvin Bolls in 1860.  Jesse Russell, “free man of color” wanted to become the property of James Tapley of Hinds County.    On January 16, 1860, Ann Archie, a twenty-two year old “free woman of color” of Marshall County, ask[ed] to become the slave of Andrew Caldwell.”  Alexander M. Clayton (apparently a local government official) had read this to Ann, and Ann acknowledged that she understood it by making her mark.  On January 31st, 1860, Sallie Walker, another free woman of color, signed a statement that “wishe[d] to be made the slave of Miss Mary E. Heath of Oktibeha County, in order to be exempt from the law on the subject of free negroes.”

Reading twenty-first century histories of the antebellum period War between the States and talking to the historians who write them, we expect to see two processes in race relations in the antebellum South.  First, we expect to see people of color in the South eager to escape the clutches of a violently racist South.  We also expect to see white southerners eager to be rid of all black people whom they cannot control.  What we, in fact, see in these Mississippi legislative petitions are two unexpected trends.  We see white men going well out of their way to ask that free people of color be allowed to remain in their communities because they were well-behaved, industrious and simply because it would be just to allow them to stay.  Next, we see free people of color asking to be allowed to stay in Mississippi to be near their families, and even, in many cases, expressing a willingness to become slaves in exchange for the privilege of remaining in the state.  In some cases, these free people of color valued their home and families more than their freedom.

Some slaves who were manumitted and left for the north found freedom to be not as advantageous as they had supposed.  In February, the Memphis Appeal reported that six negroes had returned to the South.   Six years prior, these slaves had been “set at liberty” and had moved to New York.  After six years of freedom, they had “returned to slavery in Helena Arkansas.”  The free blacks told the whites in Helena that they “preferred Southern slavery to Northern liberty.”[10]  White southerners loved this type of story because it “proved” their notions that slavery was natural for black people, and some blacks preferred it to freedom in the North.  The fact remains, however, that, assuming the story is true,[11] these free black people came back to Arkansas, preferring life in the South to that in the North, even if life in the South meant returning to slavery.

In Louisiana occurred an episode that challenges twenty-first century conceptions of race relations in the antebellum South.  In Pointe Coupée Parish Louisiana, the local government made preparations.  In Louisiana, the local administrative unit is not the county, it is the parish.  The local government in Louisiana is called the Police Jury.  Pointe Coupée is located at the “elbow” of Louisiana.  In 1860, the Parish had a total population of 17,718.  Of this population, only 4,094 were white.  12,903 were slaves and 721 were free blacks.[12]  Thus Pointe Coupée Parish was overwhelmingly black.  In the event of a black on white race war, the whites would be in a distinct disadvantage.  The mobilizing and deployment of the local parish militia companies to other theaters of war would accentuate this imbalance by taking away large numbers of the military-age men of the parish, precisely the men who would be needed if a race war broke out.

In April 1861, the fighting in the War between the States started at Fort Sumter.  At the Parish Police Jury meeting on May 1st, 1861, the Jurors received a resolution from the free black people of Pointe Coupee Parish.  The free blacks declared their loyalty in the armed struggle about to begin.  Further, the free blacks offered to form a military company to assist the state’s war effort.  The Parish Police Jury responded:

Having full and entire confidence in the patriotism and loyalty of the free colored population of this parish, the police jury hereby accepts the offer of their services for the purpose of forming themselves into volunteer military companies for the protection of the parish and state and they are hereby authorized to organize themselves into one or more volunteer companies, under the order of, and subject to such rules and regulations as the commanding officer of the Pointe Coupée Regiment may prescribe.  Further that they shall have the right to elect their own officers, provided the commissioned officers be white [13]


The Parish Police Jury enthusiastically welcomed the offer of their free black neighbors.  Police Juror George Pitcher offered a resolution that the “free colored population of this Parish can act as [slave] patrols, subject to the order of the captains of their respective wards.”[14]  The white parish leadership acknowledged the patriotic offer of the free black population, and they intended to use free blacks to check the conduct of the parish’s slave population.  The peacetime racial balance of the parish was more than three blacks to every white resident, and two white companies of the militia were immediately called away to the war, further exacerbating the parish’s racial imbalance.  The parish white leadership, however, did not show fear of their free black neighbors.  They welcomed the use of free people of color, even arming them for slave patrol duty, to maintain order in the parish while the white militia companies were away to fight the war.

Having noted the relations between whites, free blacks and slaves in these three states, what should we make of this?  The currently dominant interpretation of race relations in the antebellum South has been informed by antebellum (and post-bellum) Republican propaganda.  This propaganda presents an image of unmitigated evil and pervasive hostility between southern whites and southern blacks.  Not that everything in the antebellum South was “moonlight and magnolias,” but a closer look at the primary sources reveals a much more complex relationship, one in which the white and black populations sought some common ground and cooperated with each other in surprising and complex ways.  Looking at the record directly, and not through the partisan political lens of Republican party propaganda, reveals a richer and more accurate picture.


[1] Greenville (Ala.) Southern Messenger, 2 November 1859, p. 3, col. 1.  Among Brown’s papers were maps of southern states with marginal information showing which counties had large black populations, and thus were ripe for a slave revolt.  Brown assured his captors that he merely wanted to run off escaped slaves.  Of course, these maps show this was a lie.

[2] See the Mason Committee Report.

[3] Charleston Mercury, 4 November 1859, p. 1, cols. 3-6.

[4] Charleston Mercury, 21 November 1859, p. 1, col. 5.

[5] Charleston Mercury, 24 November 1859, p. 1, col. 2; Charleston Mercury, 21 November 1859, p. 1, col. 5.

[6] Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, (Cambridge, Mass; Harvard University Press, 2003).  See pp. 106-112 for slave patrol duties.

[7] Contraband would include weapons, poison, or literature of an inflammatory nature, such as abolitionist tracks or speeches.

[8] These petitions are found in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Legislative Petitions, Box 14128.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Natchez Daily Courier, 19 February 1860, p. 3, col. 2.

[11] There is no reason to believe it is a fabrication.

[12] See the Fisher UVA Census Browser,, accessed 26 April 2013.

[13] Pointe Coupée Parish Jury Minutes, 1 May 1861, pg. 177. (microfilm in the LSU Library).

[14] Ibid., pp. 177-79.