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The Standing on the Shoulders of Giants "Teach & Learn" Black History Curriculum​​

Specially designed for Parents, Teachers, Homeschool, or Independent Study, grades 5+

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Unit 5: Slavery in the U.S. (1619 – 1865)

Class 8: Free Blacks During Slavery

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Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students 
will be able to:
  • Understand the quality of life for free Blacks in the South.

  • Discuss ways in which many free Blacks fought against slavery and racial oppression despite their free status.

  • Recognize the legacies that free Blacks were able to pass down to future generations.

Class Overview: 

There are many misconceptions about slavery. One is that all Blacks were enslaved and all whites owned slaves. This is far from the truth. According to the 1860 census, for instance, there were 250,000 free Blacks living in the South and another 250,000 free Blacks in the North. Interestingly, less than 10% of the white population owned slaves at the time.

The first Africans to arrive in Jamestown on a Dutch ship were considered indentured servants (even though many would argue that the conditions of indentured servitude were just as bad as slavery). Racism and race-based slavery had not yet been invented. In fact, one of those Africans, Anthony Johnson, was able to gain his freedom, own property, and buy slaves of his own. Through a successful lawsuit that he filed in 1655, Johnson was able to retain John Casor, another African, as his slave for life.

The majority of free Blacks were born free. Some received their freedom through manumission, or the granting of freedom by the master, usually upon the death of the master. Others worked and purchased their own freedom, and often that of relatives. Yet and still, people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman obtained their freedom by escaping. It is estimated that over 20,000 enslaved Blacks ran away each year. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 were enacted to help Southern slaveowners re-capture Africans who ran away to the “free” North. 

Free Blacks were often highly skilled artisans, doctors, educators, entrepreneurs, planters, entertainers, writers, cooks, and hairdressers. They owned a significant amount of land – in some cases more than the average whites around them. This was certainly the case in Virginia. In his book, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, Ervin L. Jordan Jr. notes:

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Free Afro-Virginians were a nascent Black middle class under siege, but several acquired property before and during the war. Approximately 169 free Blacks owned 145,976 acres in the counties of Amelia, Amherst, Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Prince William and Surry, averaging 870 acres each. Twenty-one Petersburg Blacks each owned property worth $1,000 and continued to purchase more despite the war...Some free Black residents of Hampton andNo rfolk owned property of considerable value; 17 Black Hamptonians possessed property worth a total of $15,000...
Jordan continues, "Thirty-six black men paid taxes as heads of families in Elizabeth City County and were employed as blacksmiths, bricklayers, fishermen, oystermen and day laborers. In three Norfolk County parishes 160 blacks owned a total of $41,158 in real estate and personal property.”

Indeed, not all free Blacks supported their enslaved brothers and sisters. In some instances, free Blacks like April “William” Ellison of South Carolina amassed great wealth and became slave owners themselves. Although born a slave, Ellison gained his freedom through manumission and sought to imitate the white planter class. He started a successful business manufacturing cotton gins and also worked as a cotton planter and slave “breeder.” Ellison invested heavily in Confederate war bonds and even had his sons fight in the Confederate army to preserve the institution of slavery. After the war, his fortune declined. He died a friend of the Confederacy.

The case of April “William” Ellison is an extreme one. In reality, many free Blacks fought against the enslavement of other Blacks. They participated in the Underground Railroad, purchased enslaved Blacks out of slavery when possible, and taught slaves how to read and write against the will of the law. In 1794, Richard Allen, a free Black man from Philadelphia, started the first independent Black church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Other free Blacks became ministers who preached a revolutionary gospel, even though preaching was illegal for free Blacks in many Southern states. Furthermore, thousands of free Blacks literally went back to Africa and colonized Liberia through the aid of the controversial American Colonization Society. Free Blacks also started anti-slavery petitions and weekly magazines and newspapers including Freedom's Journal, founded in 1827 John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, the Ram's Horn founded in 1847 by Willis Hodges, and Frederick Douglass's North Star also founded in 1847.  

Despite being "free," free Blacks were not free in the same sense as whites. There were many restrictions placed upon them and some states even prohibited free Blacks from settling within their borders. In the face of racial discrimination, a number of free Black families, like the Hodges, were able to amass substantial fortunes that they passed onto their children. They also fought tirelessly against the enslavement and mistreatment of other free Blacks. In this lesson, you will read a first-hand account of the trials and tribulations of a free Black family from Virginia, and how they worked to overcome and undermine slavery and white supremacy.