Documenting the American South Logo

The Free Negro in North Carolina:
Electronic Edition.

Taylor, Rosser H. (Rosser Howard), b. 1891.

Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.

Text transcribed by Apex Data Services, Inc.
Images scanned by Ellen Decker
Text encoded by Apex Data Services, Inc., Matthew Kern and Melissa Meeks
First edition, 2002
ca. 70K
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

        © This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Source Description:
Taylor, Rosser H. (Rosser Howard), b. 1891.
26 p.
Chapel Hill, [N. C.]
Published by the University

Call number C970 J28 v. 16-17 c.3 (North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Appears in James Sprunt Historical Publications ; v. 17, no. 1.

        The electronic edition is a part of the UNC-CH digitization project, Documenting the American South.
        The text has been entered using double-keying and verified against the original. The text has been encoded using the recommendations for Level 4 of the TEI in Libraries Guidelines.
        Original grammar, punctuation, and spelling have been preserved. Encountered typographical errors have been preserved, and appear in red type.
        All footnotes are inserted at the point of reference within paragraphs.
        Any hyphens occurring in line breaks have been removed, and the trailing part of a word has been joined to the preceding line.
        All quotation marks, em dashes and ampersand have been transcribed as entity references.
        All double right and left quotation marks are encoded as " and " respectively.
        All single right and left quotation marks are encoded as ' and ' respectively.
        All em dashes are encoded as --.
        Indentation in lines has not been preserved.
        Running titles have not been preserved.
        Spell-check and verification made against printed text using Author/Editor (SoftQuad) and Microsoft Word spell check programs.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Languages Used:

LC Subject Headings:

Revision History:



[Cover Page Image]



[Half-Title Page Image]

THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINAThe James Sprunt Historical Publications
The North Carolina Historical Society


VOL. 17
No. 1



Page iii



Assistant Professor of History
The Citadel

Page 5


        1 This paper was prepared as a thesis in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the University of North Carolina.


        The most pathetic figure in North Carolina prior to the Civil War was the free negro. Hedged about with social and legal restrictions, he ever remained an anomaly in the social and political life of the State.

        The origin of this class of people may be attributed to many sources, the most common of which are (1) cohabitation of white women and negro men, (2) intermarriage of blacks and whites, (3) manumission, (4) military service in the Revolution, and (5) immigration from adjoining States. As early as 17232

        2 State Records, Vol. XXIII, pp. 106-107. Hereafter the Colonial Records and State Records will be referred to as "C. R.", and "S. R."

many free negroes, mulattoes and persons of mixed blood had moved into the Province and had intermarried with the white inhabitants "in contempt of the acts and laws in those cases provided." In the year 1715 in order to discourage intermarriage between white women and negro men, a penalty of £50 was imposed upon the contracting parties, while clergymen and justices of peace were forbidden to celebrate such marriage under a like penalty.3

        3 Ibid., p. 65.

However regrettable it may be, it is certain that there were a few disreputable white women who had illegitimate children by negro men, and such children inherited the legal status of the mother. The laws of 17154

        4 Ibid.

take cognizance of this fact by imposing a penalty on any white woman "whether bond or free", who shall have a bastard child by any negro, mulatto or Indian.

        Probably the most fruitful origin of the free negro class was manumission. While it is doubtful whether many slaves were set free prior to 1740, it is certain that the Quakers in their Yearly Meeting began to agitate the question of emancipating

Page 6

slaves in that year,5

        5 Negro Year Book, 1913.

and they never ceased to advocate emancipation both by precept and example.

        The free negro class was slightly augmented by the addition of certain negroes who had served in the continental line of the State during the Revolutionary War, many of whom had been promised their freedom before they enlisted. It was easy in such cases to allege meritorious service as a ground for emancipation. To the before-mentioned causes for the existence of the free negro in North Carolina should be added one other; namely, immigration, particularly from Virginia. Despite the law to the contrary, many free negroes drifted across the State line from Virginia into North Carolina and quietly settled on the unproductive land adjacent thereto.6

        6 S. R., Vol. 24, p. 639.

        In every instance except one (service in the Revolution) the free negro came into being against the will of the State either expressed or implied; but once given a place in the social order of the commonwealth, his tribe increased in spite of adverse laws and customs prescribed by the dominant race.


        It has been previously noted that manumission does not appear to have been a well-established practice before 1741; however the practice was not unknown to the early planters. In the laws of 17237

        7 Atlantic Monthly, January, 1886.

complaint was made that the law which required all free negroes to leave the State within six months after being set free had been disregarded by the negroes, who returned after a time. In order to discourage their return to the State, the law specifically stated that all such free negroes returned contrary to law should be arrested and sold into slavery for seven years,8

        8 S. R., Vol. 23, pp. 106-107.

and the sale repeated in case the negro returned a second time. One may readily infer from the very language of the act that it was "obeyed but not executed." That provision of the law which required all free negroes to leave the State within six months after being liberated does not occur in the laws of 1741
Page 7

--a fact that would seem to indicate that the law continued to be disregarded.

        Prior to 1741 a master could renounce ownership of his slave without leave of court, and according to an opinion rendered by Justice Ruffin in the case of Sampson vs. Burgwin9

        9 20 N. C., 21.

he could probably do so until 1796; however such a renunciation on the part of a slave owner was equivalent to a forfeiture of the slave to the public, which in turn might seize him and sell him into slavery.

        The law of 1741, which is the first comprehensive statute on the subject of emancipation, was probably enacted as a safeguard against promiscuous emancipation of slaves by the Quakers. By virtue of this law10

        10 Revisal of 1804, ch. 24, p. 66.

no negro or mulatto slave could be set free on any pretense whatever, "except for meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed of by the county court, and license therefrom first had and obtained."11

        11 Weeks' Southern Quakers and Slavery, pp. 209-210.

For the first time since the element of meritorious service enters into the law as a determining factor in emancipation. By reason of the fact that the law of 1741 was flagrantly violated by certain Quakers in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, it was reaffirmed by the General Assembly of 1777.

        During the latter part of the year 1726 the Quakers, already restive under the restrictions of the law regarding the emancipation of slaves, took advantage of the uncertainty of the times to set free a number of slaves in the counties of Perquimans and Pasquotank.12

        12 Ibid.

These illegally-emancipated slaves were promptly seized and sold into slavery, whereupon the Quakers brought suit in the Superior Court of the Edenton District for the purpose of testing the legality of the seizure and sale of the negroes. The Superior Court held that the slaves had been unlawfully deprived of their liberties, and as a result of the decision of the Court many of the negroes, in question, were again set at liberty.13

        13 Remarks. on Slavery, by John Parrish, p. 210 (Weeks Collection).

In order to silence any further controversy,
Page 8

the legislature of 1779 passed a law confirming the sale of illegally-liberated slaves.14

        14 Weeks' Southern Quakers and Slavery, p. 210.

        The Quakers were ever the unrelenting foes of slavery and they never lost an opportunity to impress upon the people of the State their conception of the iniquity of slave holding. They petitioned the legislature in 1790 to the end that the law of 1741 be repealed and an act passed "whereby the free citizens of this State, who are conscientiously scrupulous of holding slaves may legally emancipate them, etc.."15

        15 Ibid., p. 221.

        Due probably to the Santo Domingo revolt in 1791, a law was passed requiring any and all free persons of color who "shall come into this State by land or water or shall hereafter be emancipated" to give bond in the sum of £200, such bond to be held as surety for the good behavior of the sojourning negro.16

        16 Martin's Revisal, ch. 16, p. 79.

        Emancipation came to be quite onerous in 1801, when the legislature passed a law17

        17 Ibid., ch. 20, p. 179.

placing a further restriction on emancipators by requiring them to enter into bond "in the sum of £100 for each slave so liberated." Undoubtedly the law was disregarded in a great many instances. For example, we find in the case of Sampson vs. Burgwin18

        18 20 N. C., 21.

that a county court emancipated a slave notwithstanding the fact that meritorious service was not alleged. The Supreme Court held that an emancipation of that kind was valid because the county court had exclusive jurisdiction. Justice Ruffin observes in the case of Sampson vs. Burgwin that the non-enforcement of the law by the county courts probably resulted in a transference of their jurisdiction over the matter of emancipation to the Superior Courts in 1830.

        The act of 1796 did not require a petition in writing in order to emancipate19

        19 Stringer vs. Burcham, 34 N. C., 43.

; accordingly a free negro could not always show conclusively that he had been legally set free. The Supreme Court, however, consistently held the opinion that where the people had quietly permitted a negro to enjoy his or her freedom
Page 9

for a number of years "every presumption is to be made in favor of his or her actual emancipation."20

        20 Stringer vs. Burcham, 34 N. C., 43.

        From 1801 to 1828, notwithstanding the constant fear of a negro insurrection, the active work of the American Colonization Society and the persistent efforts of the Quakers to secure more lenient emancipation laws, there was a period of comparative legislative inactivity with reference to the free negro. In fact, during this period there was considerable sentiment in the State favoring the liberation of slaves, thanks to the work of the Colonization Society and the North Carolina Manumission Society.

        The North Carolina Manumission Society was organized by the Quakers of Guilford, Chatham and Randolph counties in 1816, and remained in existence for more than twenty years; however it did its most efficient work and had its largest membership between the years 1825-1830. Among other things, it investigated cases of kidnapping, helped to raise the necessary money for purchasing slaves, and used its influence to obtain more lenient emancipation laws.21

        21 Trinity Historical Papers, Vol. 10, p. 48.

. The Manumission Society was very active in sending slaves to free territory to be set free. In 1826 two boat loads of negro slaves were sent to Africa22

        22 Ibid., Vol. 10, p. 36.

and in 1828 the Society sent 119 negroes to Haiti. So many negro slaves were sent to Illinois and Indiana by the Manumission Society that these States became alarmed and enacted very stringent laws against admitting free negroes.23

        23 Weeks' Southern Quakers and Slavery, p. 232.

        Another interesting feature of the benevolent work of the Quakers deserves special mention. On account of the rigidity of the emancipation laws, the Quakers devised a scheme by which "Certain parties were authorized to act as agents and receive certain consignments of slaves from masters who wished to be rid of them."24

        24 Trinity Historical Papers, Vol. 10, p. 37.

While these slaves were under the tutelage of the Quakers they were virtually, though not nominally free. They were held ostensibly for the purpose of being transported to
Page 10

free territory and there set free. In 1826 the Quakers were caring for 600 slaves.25

        25 Atlantic Monthly, January, 1886.

From 1825 to 1830 the slave holders of North Carolina placed in the hands of Quakers hundreds of slaves on condition of their removal to Liberia.26

        26 12 N. C., 190.

Much of this work, however, was undertaken in conjunction with the American Colonization Society.

        The Supreme Court held in the case of Trustees vs. Dickenson27

        27 Johns Hopkins Studies, Vol. 27, p. 189.

that the trustees of "the Religious Society and Congregation, usually known by the name of Quakers", had a right to receive and hold property for its own benefit, but it could not hold property in trust for another. The Court held that nothing was wanting to make the condition under which Quakers held slaves complete emancipation except the name. This decision was rendered in 1827 and did much to interrupt the work of the Religious Society and Congregation of the Friends in their efforts to abolish slavery.

        One would not be justified in assuming that the numerous negro insurrections in Virginia and South Carolina were primarily responsible for the legislative enactment concerning free negroes in 1830; nevertheless these outbreaks on the part of the negroes, no doubt, influenced the action of the legislature. It is more reasonable to suppose that the abolition movement which reached the State certainly by 183028

        28 Atlantic Monthly, January, 1886.

was a more direct cause. There is a popular conception abroad that the Southampton Rebellion in Virginia was largely responsible for the stringent anti-free negro legislation of the year 1830. Strangely enough, the negro uprising in Sampson and Duplin counties took place in 1831,29

        29 Tarborough Free Press, Sept. 20, 1831.

and the Southampton Rebellion occurred in the same year. The Southampton Rebellion marks a pronounced change in the policy of Virginia towards the free negro,30

        30 Johns Hopkins Studies, Vol. 31, p. 452.

but so far as is ascertainable, only one law of any importance (that which forbade negroes to preach)31

        31 Revisal of 1855, ch. 107, p. 576.

was enacted in North Carolina as a direct consequence of the Southampton Rebellion.

Page 11

        As 1832 marks the turning point in Virginia's policy towards the free persons of color, just so the year 1830 marks the beginning of a pronounced change of policy in North Carolina. Sweeping aside all laws and clauses of laws to the contrary, the legislature of 1830 passed a law, which on account of its significance is, I quoted, verbatim:

        "Any inhabitant of this State desirous of emancipating a slave shall file a petition in writing with the Superior Court, setting forth name, sex and age of said slave and praying permission to emancipate. The Court shall grant permission on the following conditions: Petitioner shall show that he gave public notice of his intended action six weeks prior in the State Gazette and at county courthouse. Petitioner shall enter into bond with two good securities payable to State of North Carolina in the sum of $1,000 for each slave."32

        32 Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, p. 585.

        The bond, of course, was required for the good conduct of the slaves as long as they remained in the State, and to insure their departure from the State within ninety days after emancipation became effective, never to return.33

        33 Ibid., ch. 111, p. 585.

On the same terms any person could emancipate his or her slaves by will.34

        34 Ibid., ch. 111, p. 585.

        It is further provided (Sec. 4) that any one could lawfully emancipate any slave over fifty years of age upon petition filed and order of the Superior Court, by satisfying the Court that said slave had performed meritorious services and giving bond in the sum of $500. In all cases if an emancipated slave returned to the State he could be arrested and sold, or if he failed to leave the State the same fate awaited him. Action could also be brought against the bond of the emancipator and the recovery applied to the support of the poor.35

        35 Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, p. 586.

The claims of creditors had to be satisfied before emancipation was complete, since no emancipation could work to invalidate such claims. This law remained in force until the actual emancipation of all slaves in North Carolina took place; however at least one of its most drastic features was frequently evaded, as I shall take occasion to show later.

Page 12

        The law of 1830 makes three notable changes in the old process of emancipation: (1) the substitution of perpetual exile for meritorious service for all slaves under the age of fifty years, (2) the requirement of a written petition, and (3) a transfer of jurisdiction from the county courts to the Superior Courts of the State. Despite the apparent severity of the law governing manumission Booker T. Washington in his book, "The Story of the Negro", says that the conditions and laws relative to the Negro in North Carolina were more lenient than those of any other Southern State. With the exception of a law passed in 1861 which forbade the emancipation of slaves by will36

        36 Laws of North Carolina, Session 1860-61, ch. 36, p. 69.

there was no further legislation in North Carolina with reference to the emancipation of slaves.

        We thus see that the State discouraged the practice of manumitting slaves by making it both expensive and troublesome. The only way out of the difficulty was to send slaves out of the State to be set free. Such action was perfectly legitimate, provided the act was done with the bona fide intention that they should remain out of the State,37

        37 Green vs. Long, 43 N. C., 70.

and in the case of Redding vs. Long38

        38 34 Jones Equity, 216.

the Court held that "a deed conveying slaves to one in trust for the grantor during her life and then to send them to Liberia or some other free State . . . after grantor's death is not against the provisions or policy of our statutes on the subject of slavery."

        Occasionally the legislature assumed the responsibility of emancipating certain slaves,39

        39 Laws, 1854-55, ch. 108, pp. 89-90.

but aside from the regular, voluntary method of setting slaves free without remuneration, many negroes bought their freedom for a specified sum of money. It frequently happened that an especially industrious and ambitious negro slave hired his time of his master for a stipulated amount of money, and all he made in excess of that amount was set aside as a redemption fund. Lunsford Lane brought his freedom in this manner.40

        40 Hawkins, Life of Lunsford Lane.

Page 13

        It seems to be a demonstrable fact that when a slave owner voluntarily set his slaves free without remuneration, they were usually sent to free territory but instances can be multiplied of negroes who bought their freedom and remained in the State, the law to the contrary notwithstanding. Sam Morphis, a free negro of Chapel Hill, who earned his living by driving a hack, bought his freedom and continued to live in Chapel Hill.41

        41 Information from Mr. John Huskey, an old citizen of Chapel Hill.

Dave Moore, another slave, bought his freedom and remained at Chapel Hill.42

        42 This was also told me by Mr. Huskey.

Thomas Gosset, a slave blacksmith of Guilford county, bought his freedom of his master about the year 1850 and remained on the same plantation.43

        43 J. J. Brittain, Box 144, Salem Station, Winston-Salem, N. C.

It was not an uncommon thing for a negro slave to buy his own freedom and then bargain for and procure the freedom of his wife and children by the labor of his hands.


        As Judge Gaston pointed out, in the celebrated case of State vs. Manuel44

        44 20 N. C., 144.

, that under the British Colonial Government in Carolina there were only two classes of people recognized by the law; namely, citizens and aliens. It necessarily followed that the native-born free negro was by the principle of jus soli a native-born citizen of the State. The fact that he was a citizen, however, did not necessarily entitle him to exercise the privilege of the franchise except by sufferance on the part of the dominant race. While political discrimination against the free person of color during pre-revolutionary times was not so pronounced as it was in 1835, we find very little evidence which tends to show that the free negroes and mulattoes voted to any considerable extent prior to the Revolutionary War.

        In the instructions of the Proprietors to the Governor of the Province in 1667, he was ordered to hold an election in which all freemen should help to choose members of the Assembly. This order on the part of the Proprietors was modified in 173445

        45 C. R., Vol. 1, p. 167.

so that none but free holders could vote; but not until 1760 was
Page 14

a free holder defined.46

        46 Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 3.

In that year a freeholder was defined to be a person "who bona fide, hath an estate real for his own life-time or for the life of another, etc." The prescription of the property qualification for voting served to deprive the indigent free negro of the franchise. One would hardly feel safe in saying that the free person of color voted regularly prior to 1760. In a petition of the colonists to the crown in 170347

        47 Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 639.

it was recited that in the election to choose members of the General Assembly "all sorts of people, even servants, negroes, aliens, Jews and common sailors were admitted to vote in elections." In regard to this election, it is said that "it was conducted with very great partiality and injustice,"--the inference being that it was an uncommon occurrence for negroes to vote.

        The framers of our State Constitution of 1776, imbued with exalted notions concerning the rights of man, provided that every freeman with a freehold of fifty acres could vote for members of the State Senate, and that every freeman who had paid public taxes could vote for members of the House of Commons. Of course, under the terms of this section of the Constitution a free negro was entitled to vote; but it is hardly fair to assume that the framers of the Constitution were especially solicitous concerning the political privileges of the free negro when they gave the ballot to all freemen.

        Notwithstanding the fact that the negro vote in the State was practically negligible except in a few counties, such as Halifax,48

        48 Political Science Quarterly, Dec., 1894, p. 626.

white people came more and more to resent the participation of the free negroes in politics. They had been disfranchised in the neighboring States, Virginia having disfranchised her free negroes in 172349

        49 Johns Hopkins Studies, Vol. 31, p. 418.

; consequently North Carolina in 1835 was the only one of the slaveholding states that allowed the free negro to exercise the franchise. Lacking in intelligence and correspondingly venal, the free negro's support of any aspirant for political office finally came to be regarded as a sort of reproach to the candidate.50

        50 Atlantic Monthly, January, 1886.

It was asserted in the Convention
Page 15

of 1835 that the negro vote could be bought with "a little to drink . . . like a lot of poultry."51

        51 Debates in Convention, 1835.

It is claimed that the free negroes lost the franchise in Granville county by persistently supporting Robert Potter. Robert Potter was a notorious politician who later disgraced himself by committing "a brutal mayhem upon two of his wife's relatives."52

        52 Wheeler, Reminiscences, p. 184.

        Indicative of the general attitude of the white people toward the negro is an act of the legislature of 1832,--"an act to vest the right of electing the clerks of the County and Superior Courts in the several counties in this State in the free white men thereof.53

        53 Hoke vs. Henderson, 15 N. C., 1.

No mention is made of the free negro as being a qualified voter in this election.

        In 1835 there were 300 colored voters in Halifax county, 150 in Hertford, 50 in Chowan, and 75 in Pasquotank.54

        54 Political Science Quarterly, December, 1894, p. 676.

Of course, there were colored voters in many other counties of the State; however the free negro was not a regular voter in many western counties, notably Iredell. Mr. King, of Iredell, could not recall that a free negro had ever voted in his county.55

        55 Debates in Convention, 1835, p. 353.

        Many broad-minded men in the Convention saw and pointed out the injustice of depriving the free negro of the franchise when "he possessed the same property and other qualifications required of other citizens,"56

        56 Ibid., p. 356.

and to correct this injustice amendments were offered which excepted the property-owning class from the general operation of the law disfranchising free negroes. The amendments were defeated by a small majority. In the main, we may say that the colored voter was disfranchised on grounds of expedience rather than upon the grounds of abstract right.


        Before the establishment of an independent state government in 1776, not many laws were enacted which abridged the civil rights of the free negro. As a British subject he was required to pay the same tithes as the other inhabitants of the

Page 16


        57 S. R., Vol. 23, p. 262.

In 1746 "all negroes and mulattoes bond and free to the third generation (extended to the fourth in 1776) were disqualified to appear as witnesses in any cause whatsoever, except against each other.58

        58 Ibid., p. 262.

This law was never repealed. While the law protected a white man against one of the fatal weaknesses of the negro mendacity, it undoubtedly gave to white people an undue advantage over their incompetent neighbor, the free negroes.

        About 1787 a series of laws were enacted regulating the conduct of free persons of color. For instance, they were forbidden to trade with slaves in property of any kind59

        59 S. R., Vol. 24, p. 956.

under penalty of £10 or three months in prison, they were forbidden to entertain any slave in their houses during the Sabbath or between sunrise and sunset,60

        60 Ibid., p. 891.

and in the towns of Wilmington, Washington, Edenton and Fayetteville free negroes were required to wear a badge of cloth on the left shoulder, "and written thereon the word 'Free' ". In addition they had to register with the town clerk and pay a fee of ten shillings three days after arrival in these towns.61

        61 Ibid., pp. 728-729.

These laws were passed for the purpose of preventing free negroes from harboring runaway slaves, and from receiving stolen goods from slaves.

        The first law making it a criminal offense to bring slaves into the State from a State which had already liberated its slaves was enacted 1786.62

        62 Martin's Revisal, ch. 6, p. 414.

The law fixed a penalty of £50 for each slave brought in, such fine to take the form of a bond as security for the removal of said slave to the place from whence he came. A similar law was passed in 1826,63

        63 Laws of North Carolina, Session of 1828-29, ch. 34, p. 21.

by virtue of which a free negro was forbidden to enter the State of his own accord under penalty of $500 or a period of ten years in servitude. A period of twenty days was given the intruder in which to leave the State. This law was passed upon recommendation of Governor Gabriel Holmes, who became alarmed at the return of a large of free negroes from Haiti, at which
Page 17

place they had become inoculated with ideas of freedom. The Virginia legislature passed a law in 1806, banishing all free negroes thereafter set free,64

        64 Johns Hopkins Studies, Vol. 31, p. 418.

many of whom came to North Carolina; however no action was taken at that time to prevent the free negroes from Virginia from entering the State. In order to protect the free negro in the enjoyment of his liberty, the State legislature made the act of kidnapping and selling a free negro into slavery in another state a capital offense without benefit of clergy,65

        65 Martin's Revisal, ch. 11, Laws of 1779.

but on account of the law which forbade a negro to testify against a white man, it was frequently difficult to prove a man guilty of kidnapping. A rather singular feature of the law was that the penalty for stealing and selling a free negro within the bounds of the State could not exceed a fine of $1,000 or imprisonment for more than 18 months.

        The legislature of 1830, not satisfied with the task of making manumission more difficult, proceeded to restrict the movements of those negroes already free by ordering that no free negro could return to this state after being absent for a period of ninety days or more.66

        66 Revisal of 1837, ch. 34, p. 208.

Provision was made for providential hindrance. This law served a double purpose; namely, it was a means of getting rid of an undesirable element of the population, and in the second place it prevented the dissemination of radical ideas concerning freedom which itinerant negroes might bring back from the North by reason of having come in contact with abolitionists.

        For the purpose of protecting a free person of color in the enjoyment of his property, the legislature extended the law respecting insolvent debtors to free persons of color.67

        67 Laws of North Carolina, Session of 1841, ch. 30, p. 61.

This law was repealed in 1841.68

        68 Revisal of 1855, ch. 802, p. 1196.

In the same year (1841) the rating of a free negro with respect to citizenship was further discounted by the enactment of a law which excluded him from the ranks of the State militia except in the capacity of musician.69

        69 Revisal of 1855, ch. 828, p. 1218.

A rather singular situation prevailed. Here was a
Page 18

class of people who paid public taxes and voted, but were not allowed to bear arms in defense of their State.

        On account of the difficulty of collecting taxes from many free negroes, due to the fact that they had very little property which could be levied on, the General Assembly in 1828 required a person on whose land free negroes resided to "pay a poll tax on the same residing there with their consent."70

        70 Laws of North Carolina, Session 1828-29, ch. 34, p. 21.

By act of the legislature of 1831, when a free person of color was convicted of a criminal offense and was unable to pay the fine, he should be hired out to any person who would pay the fine in exchange for the negro's services for the shortest length of time--not to exceed five years.71

        71 Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, pp. 591-592.

        In 1838 for the first time in the history of North Carolina the constitutionality of one of the special laws applicable to a particular class of so-called citizens was tested in the case of State vs. Manuel.72

        72 20 N. C., 144.

Manuel, a free negro of Sampson county, was convicted of assault and battery and fined $20.00 by the court. Upon declaring his inability to pay the fine, he was sentenced to be hired out according to law; whereupon he took an appeal to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Judge Gaston in a lengthy and able opinion stated two important principles: (1) that the free person of color was a citizen of North Carolina, and (2) that the law requiring free negroes to be hired out in certain cases was constitutional. It had been argued with much show of reason in the Convention of 1835 that the free negro was not a citizen, mainly for the reason that he was not free to move from State to State. Setting aside this argument, Judge Gaston demonstrated that the right of suffrage did not necessarily accompany citizenship. After postulating that "all free persons born within the State are born citizens of the State," he proceeded to show that the removal of the disability of slavery would automatically work to make a citizen of a slave born within the State. He justified the unusual mode of punishment prescribed for a particular class of citizens on the ground that the legislation was given a large grant of power in the suppression of crime, and by reason of this fact it could
Page 19

discriminate as between different classes of citizens, for what would constitute a punishment for one class of citizens might not be a punishment for another.

        On the case of State vs. Newson73

        73 27 N. C., 250.

which was decided in 1844, the constitutionality of the law forbidding free negroes to own or carry weapons was tested. Judge Nash, who rendered the opinion of the Court, took occasion to refer to the case of State vs. Manuel, saying in part, that the hiring out of free negroes introduced a different mode of punishment in the case of a colored man and a white man for the same offense, thereby inferring that such punishment was in contravention of the third article of our State Constitution, which forbids the granting of "exclusive or separate emolument . . . but in consideration of public services." In concluding his opinion he justified the discriminating character of the laws addressed to the free negro by saying that they "are not to be considered citizens in the largest sense of the word."

        Notice has been taken of the fact that a quietus was put on negro preachers in 1831. The rights of the free person of color were further circumscribed during the forties. For example, it was made unlawful to sell spiritous liquors to such people, except on prescription of practicing physicians for medicinal purposes.74

        74 Laws of North Carolina, Session 1858-59, ch. 31fi p. 71.

The marriage of a free negro and a slave was absolutely prohibited by law,75

        75 Revisal of 1855, ch. 107, p. 577.

and a free negro was not allowed to bear arms or to have weapons in his possession unless he had a license from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions.76

        76 Ibid., ch. 107, p. 577.

However restrictive this legislation may appear, it is not comparable to many laws on the same subject enacted in Virginia. Free negroes could not own slaves in North Carolina until 1861.77

        77 Laws of North Carolina, Session 1860-61, ch. 37, p. 69.

They were not only forbidden to own a gun in Virginia, but they were likewise forbidden to own a dog.78

        78 Johns Hopkins Studies, Vol. 31, p. 418.

After 1832 free negroes were not allowed benefit or trial by jury in Virginia, while in North Carolina this fundamental right was never abridged.

Page 20

        One might seriously inquire as to what remained of the civil rights of the hybrid citizen, known in legal parlance as the free person of color, save the right of trial by jury, road duty, and the poll tax requirement. In answer to this inquiry, I quote a portion of Governor Graham's letter to Holderby written in 1866:

        Free negroes have always been regarded as freemen in North Carolina, and as such, entitled to the privilege of habeas corpus, trial by jury, ownership of property, even slaves, to prosecute and defend suits in courts of justice . . . and to prove by their own oath, even against white men accounts to the amount of sixty dollars for work and labor done on goods sold under the Book Debit Law.79

        79 The Daily Sentinel, February 8, 1866.

        To the foregoing let me add an excerpt from Governor Worth's message to the General Assembly in 1866:

        Such rights as were accorded to the free colored people of North Carolina were ever most scrupulously observed and maintained. For ages it had been a most ignominous offense to kidnap . . . or to endeavor to enslave a person of African descent who was free. . . . In all criminal accusations tried by jury, he was allowed the rights of challenge and other safeguards of the common law. Property was acquired and held by them with all the privileges of transfer, devise and descent.80

        80 Ibid., January 20, 1866.

        After all has been said, the lot of the free negro in North Carolina was a hard one. He had very little to strive for--no high and worthy goal spurred his ambition. The avenues of opportunity were closed by legal and social restrictions; consequently he passed among the white people for a sort of worthless incubus on society. Had the old slavery regime survived a few years longer it is probable that all the free negroes would have been compelled to leave the State, or at least an attempt to expel them would have been made. During the session of the legislature of 1858-59 two bills, one originating in the House and the other in the Senate, were introduced, providing for the removal from the State of all free persons of color by January 1, 1860, or the enslavement of those who remained.[81]

        81 Bills found in the Weeks Collection, U. N. C. Library.

Page 21


        Socially the free negro was supposed to take a little higher rank than the slave; however not every slave would acknowledge the social supremacy of his free brother. The attitude of envy and sometimes of contempt for the "old issue," as the free negro was commonly called, was probably encouraged by the slave owners, who wished to discourage the association of the two classes of negroes. It has already been noted that free negroes were finally absolutely forbidden to marry slaves, and amongst other laws designed to prevent a too great intimacy between free negroes and slaves, there was one which forbade them to gamble with one another.82

        82 Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, p. 590.

In spite of the laws designed to prevent social intercourse between the two classes of negroes, there was a great deal of clandestine association, especially in the towns. Mr. John Huskey, an old citizen of Chapel Hill, recalls the time when the magistrate's court in Chapel Hill was crowded with offenders against the gambling law.83

        83 A considerable number of free negroes lived in the town of Chapel Hill.

It was a common occurrence on Monday morning to see a group of these offenders led out into the bushes and there given thirty-nine lashes. The relation between free negroes and slaves was probably more cordial in the towns than in the country. Occasionally a free negro married a slave, and, indeed, a slave wife was often preferred on account of the fact that she was supported by her master.

        Free negroes and white people were, of course, forbidden to marry on any terms;84

        84 Laws of North Carolina, Session 1830-31, ch. 4, p. 9.

at the same time there are many well-known instances of illicit cohabitation between free negro men and white women. O. W. Blacknall tells the story85

        85 Atlantic Monthly, January, 1886.

of a white woman in Granville county who contrived to circumvent the law prohibiting her marriage to her negro lover by having a portion of his blood injected into her veins. She could then swear that she had negro blood in her veins. The free negro women, especially the single ones, were mercenary, and the fact that 55% of the free negro population of North Carolina in
Page 22

1860 consisted of mulattoes86

        86 Atlantic Monthly, January, 1886.

is very good evidence that the moral standard of many white men was decidedly low.

        The poor white man was ever an object of contempt in the sight of the free negro. "Big white folks are all right, but poor white folks ain't no better than us niggers." Such was the general opinion the colored citizen held of his indigent white neighbor.

        As a rule, the Quakers were much more cordial in their relations with the free people of color than was any other element of the white population in the State.87

        87 Rev. J. W. Wellons, Elon College, N. C. Mr. Wellons witnessed the execution of Nat Turner in 1831.

Rev. J. W. Wellons, of Elon College, N. C., relates an interesting experience he had in attempting to preach to a group of free negroes in Randolph county many years before the Civil War. The free negroes referred to were known as Waldens. They owned considerable land and were withal respectable farmers. The Quakers had allowed them to sit in the congregation with the white folks, and also to come to the white "mourner's bench." On the particular occasion in question, Reverend Mr. Wellons assigned them a certain space in which to sit, and invited them to a separate "mourner's bench," whereupon they became insulted, raised their tents, and left the camp meeting. As a rule, the free negroes did not attend church, possibly for the reason that in nearly all the churches they had to sit with the slaves.88

        88 Pleasant Grove Church in Randolph county contained a reservation for free negroes.

        There are no available figures which show the percentage of crime and criminals among the free colored people as compared to the slaves. The fact that their criminal record was sometimes pointed out as an argument against the general emancipation of slaves, does not indicate that they were any worse than the slaves. The slave owners always regarded the free negro with suspicion because he was known to be in sympathy with the desire of the slaves to be free; he might aid slaves in planning a revolt, in running away from their masters and in disposing of stolen goods.

Page 23

        A glance at the table on the opposite page will show that the counties of Halifax, Wake, Craven, Robeson, Granville and Pasquotank had the heaviest free negro population,--Halifax leading with 2,452. Probably the largest group of free negroes to be found in North Carolina was the exclusive "old issue" settlement known far and wide as The Meadows, near Ransom's Bridge on Fishing Creek in Halifax County. The people still bear the appellation "old issue," and are heartily detested by the well-to-do negroes in the adjoining counties.

        The United States Census Reports show the following increase in the free negro population of North Carolina, beginning with 1790:

1790 free black population 4,975
1800 free black population 7,043
1810 free black population 10,266
1820 free black population 14,612
1830 free black population 19,543
1840 free black population 22,732
1850 free black population 27,463
1860 free black population 30,463

        In 1816 the General Assembly of North Carolina memorialized Congress to set apart "a certain portion of the United States, situate on the Pacific Ocean for an asylum for persons of color . . . heretofore emancipated or shall hereafter be emancipated under the laws of this State or any other State."89

        89 Hoyt, Murphey Papers, p. 61.

The Federal Government was to provide free transportation. Of course, no action was taken; but the petition throws light on the prevailing sentiment in North Carolina in 1816 with reference to the emancipated negroes. As a matter of fact, there never was a time that the people of North Carolina would not have rejoiced to see a wholesale exodus of the free colored population from the State.

        The pronounced indolence and shiftlessness of the free negroes led to the enactment of a law respecting idleness and vagrancy among this class of people, and provided for the hiring out of any free negro convicted of idleness for a term of service and labor not to exceed three years for any single offense.90

        90 Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, p. 588.

Page 24



Alamance 422
Alexander 24
Alleghany 33
Anson 152
Ashe 142
Bertie 319
Bladen 435
Brunswick 260
Buncombe 111
Burke 221
Cabarrus 115
Caldwell 114
Camden 274
Carteret 153
Caswell 282
Catawba 32
Chatham 306
Cherokee 38
Chowan 150
Cleveland 109
Columbus 355
Craven 1,332
Cumberland 109
Currituck 223
Davidson 149
Davie 161
Duplin 371
Edgecombe 389
Forsyth 218
Franklin 566
Gaston 111
Gates 361
Granville 1,123
Greene 154
Guilford 693
Halifax 2,452
Harnett 103
Haywood 14
Henderson 85
Hertford 1,112
Hyde 257
Iredell 26
Jackson 6
Johnston 195
Jones 113
Lenoir 178
Lincoln 81
McDowell 273
Macon 115
Madison 17
Martin 451
Mecklenburg 293
Montgomery 46
Moore 184
Nash 687
New Hanover 640
Northampton 659
Orange 528
Onslow 162
Pasquotank 1,507
Perquimans 395
Person 318
Pitt 127
Polk 106
Randolph 432
Richmond 345
Robeson 1,462
Rockingham 409
Rowan 136
Rutherford 123
Sampson 488
Stanly 45
Stokes 86
Surry 184
Tyrrell 143
Union 53
Wake 1,446
Warren 402
Washington 299
Watauga 81
Wayne 737
Wilkes 261
Wilson 281
Yancey 67

Page 25

        How did the free negroes employ their time? While there were exceptions, the majority of the free colored people hired themselves to work for white people for a daily wage, others became blacksmiths, tinkers, barbers, farmers, small merchants and fiddlers. In almost every community there was a free negro well-digger or ditcher. Where they could rent land, many of them attempted farming on a small scale in connection with their work as wage earners. Free negro women usually made better house servants than slave negro women and were consequently frequently employed in that capacity.91

        91 Reverend J. W. Wellons, Elon College, N. C.

        With practically no education, and with very little incentive to accumulate property in any of its forms, one is not surprised to learn that the free negroes, in the words of an old-timer, "never amounted to much."

        This paper would not be complete without reference to a few notable free negroes who achieved distinction in the State and nation. Lunsford Lane, the slave of Mrs. Haywood, of Raleigh, bought his freedom and then went North to collect funds with which to buy his wife and children. On returning to the State, he began to negotiate for the purchase of his family, but before he could effect their release from bondage he was forced to leave the State. Not content to leave his wife and children in North Carolina, he came back a second time on the assurance of influential friends that he would not be molested. Upon his arrival in Raleigh, he was arrested, tried and acquitted of being an abolition lecturer. He was subsequently tarred and feathered, but on leaving the State the second time he carried his family. He later became famous as an abolition lecturer.92

        92 Hawkins, Life of Lunsford Lane.

        John Chavis is another famous free negro. He was a regular ordained minister until 1832, when as a result of Nat Turner's Rebellion, all colored preachers were silenced. After 1832 he followed the teaching profession with signal success, conducting schools in Wake, Chatham and Granville counties, and numbering among his pupils such prominent men as Governor Charles Manly, Priestly Mangum, son of Senator Mangum, and

Page 26

Mr. James H. Horner, founder of the Horner School. He seems to have had a very successful theory of teaching the English language, and his school was reputed to be the best preparatory school in the state at that time.93

        93 The Southern Workman, February, 1914.

        John C. Stanley, another prominent free negro, began work as a barber and eventually acquired several plantations and sixty-four slaves.94

        94 Johns Hopkins Studies, 1899, p. 360.

Lewis Sheridan, a successful negro farmer and business man, the owner of nineteen slaves, was regarded by Judge Samuel Wilkeson, of New York, as a man of high character, moral worth and mercantile ability.95

        95 Ibid., Vol. 37, p. 35.

        Other free negroes worthy of special mention are James D. Sampson, John Good, of New Bern, and Henry Evans, a fullblooded free negro from Virginia, a shoemaker by trade, who founded the Methodist Church in Fayetteville during the late eighteenth century.

        After taking into account the entire policy of the State relative to the free negro--a policy characteristic of the entire South, one feels that in many respects it was a mistaken one. For instance, should not the State have provided for the education and general uplift of its free negroes? While there were no laws to prohibit the teaching of free negroes, the State did not adopt any positive measures for training them in the duties of citizenship; consequently they remained for the most part in abject and vicious ignorance. It is quite probable that the history of reconstruction in North Carolina would have a brighter aspect had there been an enlightened element of negroes as a nucleus around which the great mass of freedmen could have arrayed themselves. Instead of being led by carpet-baggers, they could have had the leadership of conservative, law-abiding negroes, already instructed in the duties of citizenship.