Part I: Charles Chesnutt In Context

“Free” People of Color

The circumstances shaping Chesnutt’s time—and indeed that of any mixed-race American of African ancestry—begins in 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying twenty African male indentured servants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Along with European indentured servants, the African indentured servants were obliged to work for a fixed period of time, to provide free labor and to comply with the commands of a slave master. Once their time of indenture was complete, the servants would be considered free. Once free, they would be assigned land and eligible to vote. In 1640, three servants—two Europeans and one African– escaped from their master. All were recaptured. However, once recaptured, a Virginia court ruled an additional year of indenture to be added to the European servants, while the African was mandated to serve the master for the rest of his life. The ruling marked the beginning of a distinct pattern of towards Africans that continued throughout the southern colonies.  In 1701, South Carolina repealed voting rights for free blacks; in 1715, North Carolina followed suit, as did Virginia in 1723, and Georgia in 1754. Once the pattern was established, inequality between black and white indentured servants increased. The result was greater numbers of indentured Africans designated as slaves. The tendency was made manifest in 1788 with the 54th Federalist Paper, which proclaimed slaves to be both people and property, thereby laying the groundwork for chattel slavery a particular type of slavery unique to America.

Records show that the first significant mixing of Africans and Europeans occurred in Virginia and Maryland in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries. Of interest is that the first mixed race Americans were not the offspring of white masters and slave women, but of white indentured servants who worked in close proximity with blacks, free and slave. While not encouraged, race-mixing was tolerated in part because of the “science” of muleology, which held that mulattoes, like mules, would not be able to procreate and would disappear within three generations. Nevertheless, the rapid increase in the mulatto population disproved the hypothesis. In 1662, the Virginia state assembly passed a series of rulings designed to discourage race mixing, declaring mulattoes of free parentage to be inferior and mulatto children born to white fathers and slave women to be slaves. Although interracial marriage was not illegal, white participants were levied a six-month jail sentence or banished from the colony. If unmarried, white mothers of mulatto children were either fined or sentenced to five years as indentured servants and their children sold into servitude for thirty years.

Despite attempts to control race-mixing by legislation, the practice continued, often complicated by racial categories and classifications. For example, in 1785, a mulatto with a black parent or black grandparent was defined as “Negro,” and mulattoes with less than one-quarter black blood defined as “white.” This meant that mulattoes who were visibly identifiable as Negro could be legally classified as white, with all the rights and privileges reserved for white citizens. Equally problematic was the rapid increase in the mulatto population, which threatened to disrupt the racial balance and prompted various measures for control. In states like South Carolina and Louisiana, for example, where slaves on large plantations outnumbered white planters, free mulattoes were used as a buffer class between black and white. Other attempts to prevent such disruption included legislation as early as 1723 that enabled the sale of a free, mulatto indentured servant in Virginia to be sold into slavery as payment for his master’s debts. In 1816, despite a federal law prohibiting such action, in any free black or mulatto entering North Carolina could be taken into slavery and sold by the state. This practice was amended by 1830 to a mandate that any free person of color entering the state had to post a $500 bond and failure to do so resulted in an indentured slavery up to ten years.

The United States census of 1850 was the nation’s first attempt to count mulattoes as a separate category within the black population.  By then, visible mulattoes made up 11.2%, or 3,639,000, of the black population and 1.8%, or 406,000, of the national population. Within the total mulatto population, 247,000 were slaves and 159,000 were free. Of interest is that 39%, or 137,000, of mulattoes lived in the lower South, where the ratio of free mulattoes to slave mulattoes was two to one. Moreover, in the decade between the census of 1850 and the census of 1860, although the black slave population increased 19.8%, the mulatto slave population increased 66.9%. The trend was characteristic of the upper South, which included North Carolina, where, as a result of the lighter mulatto slaves mixing with blacks, the increase in visibly mulatto slaves rose from 62.9% to 72.3%. And while the increase in mulatto slaves was considered acceptable, the increase in free mulattoes was not.  As a result, the increase in free people of color revived attacks on interracial marriage throughout the south. In South Carolina, seventeen grand juries denounced the dangers of free people of color. In Louisiana, white citizens urged passage of a bill that would expel all free people of color from the state by a certain date and enslave those who remained beyond the proposed deadline. In Mississippi and Alabama attempts were made to pass laws barring all free people of color from living in the states.


In North Carolina, the category of free Negroes consisted of blacks, mulattos, and mustees (mixed black and Indian). Before 1850, the policy of dealing with free Negroes was to regulate their activities within the state. For example, in 1785, the General Assembly passed an act that required people of color who were not slaves to pay ten shillings–two to the town clerk and eight to other officials–to receive a badge of cloth with the word “free,” which they were to wear on their left shoulder whenever they were in public. In 1795, any free Negro considered to be dangerous had to post a bond for security. Those who could not pay the bond would be sold in slavery. Should a free Negro as much as  promise to assist a slave in act of escape, the penalty was death without the benefit of trial or clergy. In 1833, while teaching figures was acceptable, any free Negro teaching a slave to read or write was subject to fine, imprisonment, or no more than thirty-nine and no less than twenty lashes on his or her bare back. Unless they were granted a license by seven justices, a free person of color could not sell wares outside of his or her county of residence. The cost of the license was eighty-cents. The cost of the infraction was fifty dollars or six months in jail. A free Negro could not serve on juries, testify against a white man, or leave the state for more than ninety days and, if so, could never return. Free Negroes were subjected to a nine o’ clock curfew, could not drink liquor, or own a gun or a dog without a license. While free Negroes could teach one another, there was no provision for schools beyond Sabbath School.  In 1835, while free Negroes could own property, they lost the right to vote.

By 1850, however, the question of North Carolina in relation to Union prompted even more restrictions on the population. Free Negroes were faced with three choices: colonization, migration beyond the state, or enslavement within the state. Between 1851 and 1860, 265 free Negroes from North Carolina emigrated to Africa with the American Colonialization Society. The majority of these emigres were from urban areas, skilled tradesmen who were most affected by work restrictions. Those who could not afford to emigrate were subjected to increasing pressure. Although slavery had never been as profitable in North Carolina as in other southern states, by the end of the 1850s, it had become a declining source of capital. As a result, free Negroes came to be seen as a caste within a caste, threatening economic and social institutions across the state. Petitions launched from counties over the state flooded the General Assembly, all advocating the expulsion of the free Negro population. One such petitions signed by residents of Dublin County accused the 345 free Negroes living in the county of fostering discontent and dispiritedness among the slaves. Another from Lincoln County claimed the same, adding that the thirty-six free Negroes living in the county should be forced to emigrate to Abolition and Free Soil States. This, the petition argued, would give such states a dose of “strong black medicine out of their own black bottle.”  An editorial in the Goldsboro Patriot laid the blame for the problem on Northern Abolitionists, concluding that the “safety of our people and a proper regard for the welfare and future subordination of the slave population” demanded the eviction of all free Negroes from the state. Citizens of Sampson County requested the Assembly address attention to the “evil disposition” of free Negroes as the cause of their attempts to “equalize themselves with the white population.” The petition went on to suggest taxing all free people of color and using the funds for their removal to Africa or to a location in the “far West.” By 1858, slaveholders, by then preoccupied with protecting the system of slavery, believed the complete elimination of free Negroes was an absolute necessity. A petition from the Cleveland County proclaimed:

We, the Grand Jury of Cleveland County, North Carolina do present, that free Negroes in general are a nuisance to society and that it would be expedient to have a law requiring them to leave the State, and for a failure to do so that they should be exposed to public sale, the proceeds arising there from be applied to the Literary Fund of our State. (Franklin, Free Negroes, p. 214)


In 1858, on the brink of the Civil War, the General Assembly came close to passing legislation that would either banish its free Negro population or force them into slavery. A law was proposed mandating free Negroes to vacate the state by January 1, 1860 or be assigned to “perpetual slavery.” The measure, which was similar to one passed in Arkansas and Mississippi, passed the state’s House of Representatives but was postponed in the Senate. The postponement,  in turn, prompted white citizens to threaten vigilante action if the state didn’t pass some type of legislation to contain free people of color. During the 1858 Assembly, Senator Lott Humphrey proposed two bills.  The first delineated restrictions on the migration of free persons of color within the state, including the obligation of the sheriff to sell such persons into slavery on behalf of the county. The second, entitled A Bill to permit Free Persons of African descent to select their own Masters and become Slaves” focused on the third choice: voluntary enslavement. Among other things, the bill stated:

That it shall be lawful for any free person of African descent, now in this state, or who may hereafter be within its limits, being over the age of fourteen years, to choose his or her master, and become a slave…. Whenever any free person of African descent…desires to choose a master, such a person may file a petition in the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions of the country in which he or she resides, setting forth his or her desire to choose an owner, stating the name of such person as he or desires to select as an owner…. (Weekly Standard)

Moreover, it is worth noting that every year between 1858 and 1861, several free people of color made such petitions for voluntary enslavement, nearly all of whom were women.


In 1850, the population of Fayetteville, North Carolina, included approximately 3,000 whites, 1,500 slaves, and 495 free Negroes (Keller, p. 25). As was the case in the rest of the state, the free people of color in Fayetteville could do little against the increasing confinement and rising hostility. The state’s attempt to prevent free blacks and mulattos from disrupting the social balance had resulted in policies that consistently isolated free people of color, confining them to their own communities. They were restricted from interacting with slaves and prohibited from visiting plantations where family members were slaves. At the same time whites were prohibited from hiring them for any type of work, a free Negro without work would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and, once charged, could be sold by the court into slavery. With conditions prohibiting employment, no contact with either the white or slave population, no physical resources, no means of training, and no effective means of protest, the situation was both desperate and dangerous.  In 1856, John Patterson Green, Chesnutt’s older cousin, who would become the first African American elected to the Ohio legislature, described the climate in North Carolina as a “reign of terror.” It was in 1856 that Chloe Sampson and her daughter, Anne Maria, left Fayetteville. They traveled in caravan of covered wagons and would travel north nearly six hundred miles, across North Carolina, through the Virginia territory, and into Ohio, where they would settle in Cleveland.


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Charles Chesnutt in the Classroom by Adrienne Johnson Gosselin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.