Essay: History of Free Blacks

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History Of Free Blacks as Compared to Slaves in the Late Antebellum South

A common aphorism states that history is written by the victors, making it clear that disadvantaged or misused groups rarely have an opportunity to shape written histories. That was certainly the case for American history, which neglected the stories of black Americans until a few decades ago. That neglect was unfortunate, because African-Americans made huge contributions to American society. Moreover, when American history began to reflect the historical antebellum black experience, it did so in a way that equated all American blacks with slaves. That characterization is inaccurate and fails to fully describe the role that African-Americans played in shaping America. While, as a group, it is true that antebellum free blacks experienced a significant amount of discrimination, it is also true that the discrimination free blacks experienced did not compare to the conditions under which slaves lived. Therefore, it is impossible to actually equate the two groups in terms of their opportunities, complaints, successes, and limitations. On the contrary, in many instances, given the tremendous differences in their day-to-day lives, the only thing that the two groups appear to have shared was African ancestry. However, that appearance is deceiving, since both groups labored under considerable discrimination and were disadvantaged when compared to similarly-situated white people.

In order to compare and contrast free blacks and slaves, it is important to understand how the free black population developed. African-Americans did not immigrate to the United States without European intervention. However, early African-Americans did not all experience slavery in its traditional sense. Instead, one must remember that the concept of the indentured servant, who could be a member of any race and whose period of servitude was limited, was well-established in English colonies. Therefore, in the early days of the country, there were few social distinctions between black slaves and white indentured servants. Children who were the products of those liaisons and whose mothers were indentured servants were born free. Those relationships marked the beginning of the free black class in the United States. After slavery became more institutionalized, such relationships became more taboo, but another class of free black began to arise. In the Deep South, most notably Louisiana, wealthy whites who had children with black women, created another group of free blacks. These children could be the products of relationships between free black women and white men or between slave women and slave-owners. In certain locations, most notably Charleston and New Orleans, there was an entire social scene built upon the notion of relationships between free mixed-race women and white men, and the women had some negotiating power as to the care and upbringing of any children that resulted from those relationships. Therefore, at the time of the early 19th century, there was not one single demographic of free blacks, but numerous free black communities, all of which had the own unique characteristics. For the purpose of simplicity, this paper will focus on the range of opportunities, complaints, successes, and limitations available to that group, while acknowledging that the vast diversity of the group makes it a certainty that there were free blacks who were outliers.

Likewise, it is important to realize that there was tremendous variation in what it meant to be a slave. Without subscribing to the notion that slavery was somehow a beneficial system to slaves, it is important to realize that slavery could be more or less horrifying depending on the particular slave-owner, the state in which the slave lived, the sex of the slave, the slave's job description, the overseer, and the surrounding socio-political climate. Therefore, as with free blacks, this paper will attempt to describe the range available to slaves, while acknowledging that some slaves were outliers.

Free blacks theoretically had a wide range of opportunities. For example, in the early part of the 19th century, there were well-established free-black communities throughout the north and the south. In some locations free blacks had the right to vote, though that right was restricted not only by location, but also by time. Free blacks could generally own property, including land and slaves. In fact, free blacks could participate in federal land programs. Free blacks could marry other free blacks without restriction, regardless of location and place in time. For much of the 19th century, free blacks could marry members of other races, but that ability changed in the South as slavery became more racialized and anti-miscegenation statutes became popular. Likewise, the more entrenched the institution of slavery became, the greater the restrictions on other freedoms, such as the rights to marry and own property. Free blacks were generally able to seek an education. However, by the 19th century, the country was sufficiently racially divided to prohibit blacks from receiving educations at the same locations as white, almost without regard to location, though the frontier did provide greater opportunities than more established communities. Free blacks were able to enlist in the military, and they played a significant role in the war of 1812. Free blacks could obtain passports and other documents indicating that they were, somehow, citizens of the United States. Free blacks were generally able to assemble, and could form organizations like churches, though those rights were more limited in the south. Free blacks were able to work towards abolition, though the freedom to speak out against slavery, whether a person was a free black or white, was limited in many slave-owning states. Free blacks also took opportunities to leave the United States; many went to Canada and a significant number were involved in the effort to colonize Liberia.

In contrast to free blacks, slaves in the 19th century really had very few opportunities. While earlier times in American history had seen slaves receiving educations and working in skilled trades for money, as slavery became more entrenched, there were tremendous restrictions on what type of education a slave could receive. For example, slaves were generally prohibited from learning how to read or write. However, slaves who were able to learn a trade were frequently permitted to practice that trade, which gave them freedom of movement. Really the most important opportunity that slaves had was the opportunity to become free. Historically, masters had been permitted to free slaves whenever they chose to do so. However, the right to free slaves began to be restricted, as did the ability for slaves to purchase their own freedom. Slaves could generally engage in romantic relationships with other slaves and establish families, though the stability of that family structure was threatened by the fact that masters could sell partners and children away from families.

Obviously, for slaves the biggest complaint would be that they were treated as property. While pro-slavery advocates contended that this treatment did not bother slaves, one need only look at things such Dred Scott suing his master in an attempt to obtain freedom to realize that slaves did, indeed, desire freedom. However, while no complaint may have been as philosophically large as the fact that they did not have freedom, many slaves had a wide range of smaller complaints that probably took on greater importance in their daily lives. For example, it was a frequent practice for white slave-owners and overseers to sexually assault female slaves. While some historians have chosen to describe some of these sexual encounters as part of consensual sexual relationships, the reality is that as the restrictions on slaves increased and violence against resistant slaves became the norm, slave women knew that they faced tremendous peril to resist sexual advances by whites in positions of power over them. This sexual abuse of slave women served several purposes for slave-owners and overseers. Obviously, it provided them with a sexual outlet, but it also helped create more slaves. Perhaps the most insidious impact of the practice was that it helped destroy the fabric of slave families. Male partners were upset and jealous when their female partners would have sex with slave owners or overseers. Female partners frequently pretended to the males that the encounters were more consensual than they were, fearing that revealing the truth would incite the males to futile violence. Whites with an interest in a particular female might sell away her romantic partner, so that she have fewer attachments, and could threaten to sell her children in an effort to make her more compliant. Sexual abuse was not the only complaint that slaves had. Slaves also faced a daily threat of physical violence. The use of physical violence varied widely among slave owners and was reported to be much more serious the further south one went. It was this association that made the threat of selling a slave "down the river" a very meaningful one. Slaves faced physical abuse up to and including the legalized murder of slaves by their owners. In fact, even if a non-owner killed a slave, by the 19th century, that act was not considered a crime against the slave, but a crime against the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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