In the years leading up to the Civil War, you would expect to find free men and women of color living in non-slave states. Depending on the year and the state in question, the designation between white and free colored could mean the difference between the ability to vote or not, having your children educated or not, being required to have certified documents attesting to your freedom or not, and being allowed to legally live within the boundaries of certain states or not.
But would it surprise you to know that there were free persons of color living in the Southern States prior to the Civil War? A survey of the 1850 census records on Ancestry.com gives the following information for four of the Southern States.
Individuals listed as free black, colored or mulatto 3. 287
Individuals presumed white 429, 413
Individuals counted as slaves 312,997
Individuals listed as free black, colored or mulatto 983
Individuals presumed white 299, 825
Individuals counted as slaves 293, 235
Individuals listed as free black, colored or mulatto 27, 657
Individuals presumed white 554, 708
Individuals counted as slaves 289, 002
Individuals listed as free black, colored or mulatto 54, 847
Individuals presumed white 949, 261
Individuals counted as slaves 421, 542
Let’s contrast this with two of the Northern States – Ohio and New Jersey.
Individuals listed as free black, colored or mulatto 25, 157
Individuals presumed white 1, 860, 501
Individuals counted as slaves 0
Individuals listed as free black, colored or mulatto 25, 393
Individuals presumed white 467, 859
Individuals counted as slaves 235
So how is it that roughly 3.84% of Virginia’s citizens were classified as free colored, black or mulatto before the civil war?
The answer falls into one of four categories.
1. The first, and by far the most controversial reason, is that while the indigenous Native American population technically no longer existed in the State of Virginia, there were those who had assimilated into the population as a whole. Many had intermarried with both European and African American inhabitants, and since they were not white by their white neighbors’ standards, they were considered free black, mulatto or colored.
Not all scholars agree with this assessment, and the idea is disputed by some.
2. Some slaves who fought in the Revolutionary War were given their freedom at the close of the war, contributing to a free colored class within the state.
3. Sometimes masters, for whatever reason, emancipated their slaves.
4. In the very beginning, the early African American arrivals to the Virginia colony were considered indentured servants not slaves. When their time of indenture was over, they were freed in the same manner as their white counterparts. Though even with this freedom, they still led more restricted lives than their white neighbors did.
By the late 17th century, the law changed so that the term of indenture for African Americans was extended for life, in other words slavery. But that first generation of Black settlers was free, and more importantly, so were their descendents.
Note: Figures used were based on Ancestry.com’s indexed returns of the 1850 US Federal census, and 1850 US Federal Slave Schedules for the states of Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Jersey. The term presumed white is used to mean individuals listed either as white or no racial information given.