African Americans in the British New World

6e. Free African Americans in the Colonial Era

Benjamin Banneker, mathematician
Library of Congress
Benjamin Banneker, a free black born in Maryland, 1731, was an almanac publisher

When Crispus Attucks earned his unfortunate claim to fame as a victim in the Boston Massacre, he was not a slave. He was one of the relatively few African Americans to achieve freedom in colonial America. Although freedom is clearly desirable in comparison to a life in chains, free African Americans were unfortunately rarely treated with the same respect of their white counterparts.

There were several ways African Americans could achieve their freedom. Indentured servants could fulfill the terms of their contracts like those brought to Jamestown in 1619. In the early days, when property ownership was permitted, skilled slaves could earn enough money to purchase their freedom. Crispus Attucks and many others achieved liberty the hard way — through a daring escape. It only stands to reason that when faced with a perpetual sentence of bondage many slaves would take the opportunity to free themselves, despite the great risks involved.

Another way of becoming free was called manumission — the voluntary freeing of a slave by the master. Masters did occasionally free their own slaves. Perhaps it was a reward for good deeds or hard work. At times it was the work of a guilty conscience as masters sometimes freed their slaves in their wills. Children spawned by slaves and masters were more likely to receive this treatment. These acts of kindness were not completely unseen in colonial America, but they were rare. In the spirit of the Revolution, manumission did increase, but its application was not epidemic.

Free African Americans were likely to live in urban centers. The chance for developing ties to others that were free plus greater economic opportunities made town living sensible. Unfortunately, this "freedom" was rather limited. Free African Americans were rarely accepted into white society. Some states applied their slave codes to free African Americans as well. Perhaps the most horrifying prospect was kidnapping. Slave catchers would sometimes abduct free African Americans and force them back into slavery. In a society that does not permit black testimony against whites, there was very little that could be done to stop this wretched practice.

On the Web
Anthony Johnson
Anthony Johnson had acquired close to a thousand acres of land by the middle of the 17th century and was among the first generation of free blacks whose relative affluence have forced scholars of the Colonial south to revise their original views on the origins of American slavery and the fine line between this peculiar" institution and indentured servitude. What makes Anthony Johnson a central figure in the debate is an utterly bizarre and "politically incorrect" twist of fate. From evidence found in the earliest legal documents extant, it is Anthony Johnson who we now must recognize as the nation's first slaveholder." This provocative site is from the PBS show "Frontline."
Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England
The Christian Science Monitor's in depth feature article on free and enslaved black in colonial New England.
Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period
Learn about individual accomplishments of free blacks, the emergence of the black church, the African colonization movement, free black newspapers, and more, with links to facsimiles of original documents and images. Part of the African American Odyssey exhibit of the Library of Congress.
The African-American Mosaic Exhibition
The "back-to-Africa" movement is chronicled in the first section of the African-American Mosaic Exhibition of the Library of Congress. Includes photos, paintings and documents from the Library's holdings about the American Colonization Society and the colonization of Liberia by African Americans.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Bringing the stories of the Underground Railroad to light is an ongoing process, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is at the forefront of the effort.
One of the wealthiest men in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 1805 was Venture Smith, a former slave who had bought his own freedom. He was a legend-maker's dream. This son of an African king was said to be so large he had to turn sideways to pass through a doorway.
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