The Black Lives Matter movement and the horrific events that triggered it ensured that global attention remained focused on the enduring legacy of African American slavery. There are many ways in which its continued relevance is maintained in the public eye, from the debate about reparations for blacks in the United States and how the history of slavery is taught in schools, to a number of recent major Hollywood films and popular TV shows.
The legacy of racism and violence that arose in slavery and continued throughout the period of Jim Crow’s segregation also persists in many forms today, from persistent inequality to police brutality and denial of black democratic rights.
When discussing slavery, the experience of free black people who coexisted throughout the entire period of enslavement is often lost. Of the 20 Africans who first bargained with British settlers in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, some fulfilled their obligations and became free.
Of course, the number of free blacks was always significantly less than those who were enslaved, but communities existed throughout what would become the United States. On the eve of the American Civil War in 1860 — the conflict over slavery — there were 488,000 free blacks in the United States, compared with 4 million enslaved — a considerable number.
A parallel and often intertwined experience, freedom was not always a permanent condition, but marked by the permeable boundaries between enslavement and freedom. As well-known personalities as Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth, both escaped slaves, abolitionists and reformers, have shown, one could be born into slavery and eventually find freedom.
In my book Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez 1779-1865 I distinguish between those who were born into the slavery system and then freed – the founding generation – and those who were born free, known as the conditional generation. generations.
No matter what generation they belonged to, the ability of a free black person to exist in this ambiguous state of freedom was not guaranteed. Although they were technically free — they didn’t belong to the law — their freedom was limited.
Just like Solomon Northup, whose experiences are described in his autobiography, Twelve Years of Slavery, some people in Natchez, Mississippi, were born free only to be kidnapped and illegally enslaved. Others have lost their freedom due to being prosecuted for crimes such as living without a proper license as a free colored person or being jailed for being kept on the run.
Become – and stay – free
Free black people lived difficult lives and had to work to survive in Natchez on the Mississippi River, one of the richest cotton growing regions in the South. In 1860, Mississippi had one of the largest enslaved peoples (436,631), but a relatively small number of free blacks (775). Natchez maintained the largest free Negro community in the state at 225, dwarfing the 14,292 people who were enslaved.
People have become free in many ways. Some families descended from enslaved women who had sex with white men. Some of these women gave birth to children in slavery and then worked for the freedom of themselves and their families.
In some cases, they inherited property in addition to their freedom, or worked to save money in order to redeem themselves from slavery. Others were promised their future freedom and were contracted to work for several years before they were released, all different paths to independence.
But no matter how freedom was acquired, it was often limited and contested. Free black people lived in a different justice system with a higher level of oversight from the local police department and the state. They had to prove that they were “good-natured,” “hardworking,” and “legal,” otherwise they could be jailed or ordered to leave the state.
A law was passed prohibiting free blacks from voting, serving on juries and commissions, and engaging in certain activities, such as selling alcohol, working in entertainment establishments or printing houses, even if they were taxpayers. Their movements were monitored, and suspicion inevitably fell on them for crimes or during a slave revolt.
Despite these challenges, free blacks have managed to build a community through friendship and family ties, buy real estate, build a business, educate their children, and use the judicial system to protect their freedoms – in short, to survive and thrive.
Their experiences, along with the enslaved, laid the foundation for the development of an uneven system of democracy and criminal justice in the United States. The end of slavery did not lead to unconditional freedom in 1865. Since then, people of African descent have had to contend with severe inequalities in employment, health care, education, voting rights, wealth and countless other factors that persist to this day.
Blacks live in a dual criminal justice system that exposes them to tighter controls, racially motivated detentions, searches and seizures, imprisonment, violence and even death at the hands of the state. In many ways, the experience of free black people in the era of slavery has served as a model for how future generations will have to negotiate peace.