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Tracing Free African Americans - (pre 1865)
© 2005 By Guest Editor Aaron L. Day
Free African Americans - (pre 1865)

The powerful saga Roots by Alex Haley had a tremendous influence on people throughout the nation. As a result of the book, and the movie, people wanted to learn more about their ancestors. African Americans in particular were deeply affected and inspired by Haley’s ability to trace his family back to Africa.

Since Roots was released over thirty years ago, historians who have done family history research have been documenting and publishing their findings. Much of this information deals with the free black population living in the United States before the end of the Civil War in 1865. There were over 300,000 free blacks living in the United States in 1830, and they were living in twenty-eight states. That number had increased to over 500,000 by 1865 when the War ended. You can imagine how many descendants they have today.

After discovering that some of his father’s ancestors had been free before 1865, the author began learning more about that segment of the population. Historians such as Carter G. Woodson, Leon F. Litwack, Ira Berlin, Leonard P. Curry, and John Hope Franklin, to name a few, have published exceptional books about free African Americans who lived before 1865.

There have been a great number of books written about free African Americans who lived in various states, cities, and counties. Some of these books offer information about social conditions, free registers, manumissions, special laws, educational opportunities, and more. A few of these books are listed below.

• The Free Negro in Virginia 1619-1865.
• The Free Negro in Maryland 1634-1860.
• The Free Negro Heads of Families in The United States in 1830.
• North Of Slavery: The Negro in The Free States 1790-1860.
• Northumberland County Virginia Registers of Free Blacks.
• The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow Of The Dream.
• The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860.
• District Of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821-1861.
• Free African Americans Of North Carolina & Virginia/Maryland & Delaware.
• Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South.
• Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1830 Census.
• Locating Free African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide.

Many of these books actually list the names of free blacks that were living during that time period. These books were compiled from information taken from a variety of documents such as census schedules, free register records, manumission papers, court records, land entry records, and other sources.

The historians who have written and published these books are to be commended. They have spent considerable time and effort to pass this information on to other researchers who are interested in learning more about the status and the history of the free black population before 1865. A review of many of these books by the author revealed the following.

The Free Negro In Virginia 1619-1865,
by John H. Russell; Publisher: Johns Hopkins Press; (1913)
ASIN: B00085W98S

In The Free Negro, Mr. Russell explores the status of the free Negro in the slave state of Virginia. His chapters include information about the number and distribution of the free Negroes, manumission, and the origin of the free Negro class. Russell reviews some of the popular misconceptions about the beginnings of the free Negro population in Virginia. Russell also analyzes the five classes of colored persons that increased the free population, which were; children born of free colored parents, mulatto children born of free colored mothers, mulatto children born of white servants or free women, manumitted slaves, and children of free Negro and Indian mixed parentage.

The last two chapters of the book discuss the legal status of the free Negro, and the social status of the free Negro. The primary sources for this book are listed in the bibliography. These sources include manuscripts, laws and court decisions, public documents, newspapers, magazines and periodicals, published parish records and histories, and contemporary works and pamphlets. Russell published his book in 1913, and was a pioneer in advocating the study of the history of free Negroes.

The Free Negro In Maryland 1634-1860,
by James M. Wright; Publisher: Columbia University; (1921)
ASIN: B00085X3ZQ

In The Free Negro In Maryland, Mr. Wright talks about the development of this class of people during the early growth of Maryland. He also gives the reader information about several earlier works on free Negroes. Two of these works are White Servitude In Maryland by Mac Cormac, and The Negro In Maryland by Jeffrey R. Brackett. The chapters include information about the colonial period, the legal status of the free Negroes, and the apprenticeship of Negro children. In addition, Wright talks about social conditions, educational opportunities, churches, and the occupations of the free Negroes in Maryland.

In the chapter “Growth of the Free Negro Population,” Wright presents a table that outlines the free colored population of Maryland, 1790-1860. They were living in 21 counties. The total grew from 8,043 in 1790 to 83,942 in 1860. There are also tables showing wages paid in certain counties, and a large number of property holders who were living in various counties. Wright includes an extensive bibliography that will surely be a great aid to researchers who are interested in the Maryland area.

Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830,
by Carter G. Woodson; Publisher: University Microfilms International; (1979)
ASIN: B000878WBY

In The Free Negro Heads of Families, Mr. Woodson documents the study of the free Negro in the United States in 1830 and beyond. It was his aim to promote the further study of a part of our history that had been neglected. With a grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1921, Mr. Woodson and a staff of researchers documented the Negroes in this country that were free prior to the Emancipation in 1865.

Extracted from the manuscript schedules of the 1830 United States Census, this book also covers the origin of the free Negro, the attempt to prevent the increase of the free Negroes, economic achievement, the free Negro before the law, and social distinctions. Woodson also references other books of interest that have been written on the subject. There were 319,498 free Negroes in the United States in 1830, and they were living in 28 states. The surnames of those families are listed in this book, as well as an index to the names, and the states where they were living.

North Of Slavery: The Negro In The Free States 1790-1860,
by Leon F. Litwack; Publisher: The University of Chicago Press; (1969)

In North Of Slavery, Mr. Litwack compares the status of Negroes who lived in the North to those who were living in the South during the antebellum years. He points out that the Northern Negroes did have one great advantage over the Southern Negroes, and that was their ability to organize, petition, and push for improvement of their condition. In the chapter “From Slavery To Freedom,” Litwack reviews the gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern States, and also the colonization movement. Chapters on the Federal Government and the free Negro, and the politics of repression focus on the federal rights and privileges of the free Northern Negro, as well as some of the repressive laws that were put into effect to deny certain rights.

Litwack also compares the educational system, and the churches in the North, explaining that separate facilities were maintained during that period. However, some Northern schools did admit Negroes, and several religious denominations included churches for whites as well as Negroes. Abolition and the crisis of the 1850’s are both covered in this book. For those interested in the study of Black History, Litwack’s remarkable bibliographical essay is especially valuable because of the many resources that are named.

Northumberland County, Virginia Registers Of Free Blacks,
by Karen Sutton; Publisher: Heritage Books; (1999)
ISBN: 0788411322

In Registers of Free Blacks, Ms. Sutton gives a brief history of the free Negro, and then lists the Free Negro Registers of Northumberland County, Virginia. In reviewing the history of the free Negro in chapter 1, tables 1 & 2 give a race and status breakdown of the 1790 census for certain Virginia counties. In chapter 2, the Registers of Free Negroes from 1803 to 1858 are given for the county of Northumberland.

It was in 1793, that Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law requiring all free blacks and mulattos to go to their local courthouse and register. They in turn were given a registration number and a certificate that was to be carried at all times. The registers listed a person’s name, colour, age, height, marks or scars, and date of register. There is also a column that tells if the person was born free, or emancipated. This author was fortunate enough to locate over fifteen of his ancestors in these registers.

The Free Black In Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow Of The Dream,
by Leonard P. Curry; Publisher: Univ of Chicago Press; (1981)
ISBN: 0226131246

In The Free Black in Urban America, Curry explores the free black experience in fifteen cities, for a period of fifty years. In order to do a more diverse study of this group; he chose small cities as well as large cities, and not the fifteen with the largest free black population in 1850. The fifteen cities are Albany, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Charleston, Cincinnati, Louisville, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, St. Louis, and Washington.

Curry talks about the growth and nature of the urban black population, and he notes that unlike the slaves, free persons of color were found in all fifteen cities throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Curry reveals that the major sources of the continuing growth of the free black population were emancipation, manumission, and natural causes.

Other issues examined are occupations, property ownership, housing, and the residential pattern. Curry also covers urban black education, the Negro church in the city, and community activities. In “Note on Sources,” Curry gives an extensive listing of works that other researchers might find useful. In the “List of Initial Citations,” Curry thoroughly documents this well written book on the free black population in urban America.

The Free Negro In North Carolina 1790-1860,
by John Hope Franklin; Publisher: University of North Carolina Press; (December, 1995)
ISBN: 0807845469

In The Free Negro, Mr. Franklin talks about the quality of life, the harsh treatment, and the study of the free black in the South, particularly, North Carolina. Mr. Franklin’s writings on free blacks in the early 1940’s stimulated an interest in the subject, and others soon followed. In the introduction, Franklin gives credit and praise to the historians who preceded him, and notes their names as well as books and manuscripts written by them. In exploring the social life of the free Negro, Franklin talks about education, religion, and the social relationship of the people.

His chapters include growth of the free Negro population, the legal status of the free Negro, and the free Negro in the economic life of North Carolina. In the chapter on “An Unwanted People,” Franklin reviews the growing hostility to free Negroes and the colonization movement. In his excellent bibliography, Franklin lists the numerous resources he used to compile this book.

Primary sources used are; manuscripts, books and pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals, and public documents. Secondary sources used are; books and monograms, and articles. The bibliographic afterword should prove very helpful to anyone studying free blacks that lived before the end of the Civil War. It contains a listing of 50 works on free blacks.

District Of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821-1861,
by Dorothy S. Provine; Publisher: Heritage Books Inc; (July, 1996)
ISBN: 0788405063

In District Of Columbia, Ms. Provine has compiled the abstracts of entries in the registers for free blacks for the District of Columbia. There were originally 5 volumes of free register records for the period between 1821 to 1861, however, volume number 4 covering the period 1846-1855 is now missing. There are approximately 3,600 persons included in the four remaining volumes. The registers provide brief physical descriptions of the person, name, and sometimes information regarding a relative.

In the introduction, the author gives several different reasons why a person may have been listed as free. For further study, Provine includes a listing of books with information about free African Americans in the antebellum period. In compiling and publishing the abstracts, Provine has provided an index with names and the registration numbers so that persons can be easily located in the text.

Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, And South Carolina from the Colonial Period to About 1820
by Paul Heinegg;
Publisher: Clearfield (January, 2001)
ISBN: 080635111X

Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from the Colonial Period to 1810
by Paul Heinegg; Publisher: Clearfield Co (2000)
ISBN: 0806350423

In Free African Americans, which was published in 1997, Mr. Heinegg gives the genealogies of 281 free African American families who were living in Virginia and North Carolina during colonial times. Heinegg concludes that “most of the free African Americans of Virginia and North Carolina originated in Virginia where they became free in the seventeenth and eighteenth century before chattel slavery and racism fully developed in the United States.”

In the introduction, Heinegg tells of some of the first African slaves who became free, African Americans who were taxable in the 1670’s, where the free populations lived, and the white, black, and mulatto connection. Also examined are the discriminatory tax laws, children of the free who were bound as apprentices, the stealing of free people, the “Free Negro Code” laws, and the Native American Influence.

This author located his 3 great-grandfather, and his 4 great-grandmother and many more ancestors in this book by Heinegg. In the year 2000, Heinegg published “Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware,” from the colonial period to 1810.

Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro In The Antebellum South,
by Ira Berlin; Publisher: Random House Inc (T); 1st edition; (December, 1974)
ISBN: 039449041X

In Slaves Without Masters, Mr. Berlin relates how free Negroes lived, and what types of work was available for them during the early years of the country. He also describes how they were able to educate, entertain, and protect themselves.

His book is divided into three parts. Part one deals with the emergence of the free Negro caste, 1775-1812. The chapters cover the origins of the free Negro caste, from slavery to freedom, the failure of freedom, and the free people of color of Louisiana and the gulf ports. Part two talks about the pattern of free Negro life.

The chapters include information about patterns of growth, white racial attitudes and policies, and the free Negro community. In part three, Berlin reviews the crisis of the 1850’s. This part talks about the best of times, and the worst of times, with an epilogue discussing freemen and freedmen. There are several charts in Appendix 1 that detail the slave and white populations in sixteen states. In Appendix 2, Berlin lists the extensive manuscript sources consulted for the preparation of this excellent book that was published in 1974.

Free Blacks and Mulattos In South Carolina 1850 Census,
by Margaret Peckham Motes; Publisher: Clearfield Co; (October, 2000)
ISBN: 0806350261

In Free Blacks and Mulattos In South Carolina, Ms. Motes abstracts the free blacks and mulattos from the 1850 South Carolina Federal Census. There are over 8,000 free black and mulatto names listed in this book. They are between the ages of 1 month to 112 years. There were 29 counties in the 1850 South Carolina Federal County Census that was abstracted for this review. Motes states that “during this study, thirteen reels of microcopy were reviewed.” Persons are listed by first and last names, ages, sex, and occupations when known. A person’s birthplace, as well as color – black, mulatto or white is also listed. Also included, are a name index, an occupation index, and a place of birth index that helps researchers locate their ancestors easier.

Locating Free African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide,
by Aaron L. Day; Publisher: Carlberg Press;

In Locating Free African American Ancestors, the author presents a reference manual that is a great aid for genealogy researchers. It gives tips on problem solving techniques, research methods, and resources for locating ancestors. The author includes information on beginning your search, tracing your ancestors through the census schedules, and locating information about free ancestors. Chapters include information on searching for free ancestors before 1865, genealogical forms, steps for tracing your ancestors, genealogy resources on the Web and your Public Library, where to look for information, and genealogical books and magazines.

There is also a listing of surnames of Negroes who were free in the United States in 1830. Marleta Childs of the Amarillo Globe-News writes in her, Kin-searching column “perhaps the most important thing about ‘Locating Free African American Ancestors’ is that the book makes more people in general, and more family researchers in particular, aware of the wide variety of resources available on the subject.”

Good luck in finding more information about your ancestors. In searching for your ancestors, you will also be sure to learn more about the history and development of our country. As you continue your research, be sure to document and preserve your findings for future generations. Remember, you are the link to the past and to the future.

Further Reading:

1. Register of Free Blacks: Rockingham County, Virginia, 1807-1859, by Dorothy A. Boyd-Bush; Publisher: Heritage Books; (October, 1992)
ISBN: 1556136587

2. Free Blacks in America, 1800-1860, edited by John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick; Publisher: Wadsworth Pub. Co; (1971)
ISBN: 0534000223

3. Master of Mahogany – Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker, by Mary Lyons; Publisher: New York Scribner’s.

4. Pittsylvania County, Virginia Register of Free Negroes, by Alva H. Griffith; Publisher: Heritage Books Inc; (January, 2001)
ISBN: 0788417800

5. The Free Negro Family, A Study of Family Origins Before the Civil War, by Edward Franklin Frazier; Publisher: Beaufort Books; Reprint edition; (May, 1979)
ISBN: 0405018150

6. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color, edited by Sybul Kein; Publisher: Louisiana State University Press; (2000)
ISBN 0-8071-2601-2

7. Free Blacks in Hartford, Somerset, and Talbot Counties, Maryland, 1832, compiled by Mary K. Meyer; Publisher: Pipe Creek Publications; (1991).

8. Slaves and Nonwhite Free Persons in the 1790 Federal Census of New York, by Gilbert S. Bahn; Publisher: Clearfield Co; (April, 2000)
ISBN: 0806349794

9. Strangers In Their Midst: The Free Black Population of Amherst County, Virginia, by Sherrie S. McLeroy, William R. McLeroy; Publisher: Heritage Books; (June, 1993)
ISBN: 1556137869

10. Against The Odds: Free Blacks In The Slave Societies Of The Americas, edited by Jane G. Landers; Publisher: Frank Cass Publishers; (May, 1996)
ISBN: 0714642541

11. Free Black Heads of Households in the New York State Federal Census, 1790-1830, by Alice Eichholz (Editor); Publisher: Gale Group; (March, 1981)
ISBN: 0810314681

12. Register of Free Negroes and also of Dower Slaves, Brunswick County, Virginia, 1803-1850, transcribed by Frances Holloway Wynne; Publisher: F.H. Wynne; (1983)

13. Free Blacks of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, 1850, by Ralph Clayton; Publisher: Heritage Books; (June, 1987)
ISBN: 1556130694

14. Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedmen Of African Descent In The Slave Societies Of The New World, edited by David W. Cohen and Jack P. Greene; Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press; (September 1, 1974)
ISBN: 0801816475

15. The Register of Free Negroes, Northampton County, Virginia, 1853 to 1861, transcribed, referenced, and indexed by Frances Bibbins Latimer; Publisher: Heritage Books; (1992)
ISBN: 1556136226

16. The Free Negro in Ante-Bellum Louisiana, by Herbert E. Sterkx; Publisher: Associated Univ Press; (June, 1972)
ISBN: 0838678378

17. The Free Negro In Texas, 1800-1860: A study in Cultural Compromise, by George Ruble Woolfolk; Publisher: Published for the Journal of Mexican American history by University Microfilms International; (1976)
ISBN: 0835701921

18. The Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, by Carter G. Woodson; Publisher: Greenwood Press Reprint; (April 30, 1969)
ISBN: 083710761X

19. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans, by John Hope Franklin; Publisher: Alfred a Knopf; 5th edition; (June, 1978)
ISBN: 0394322568

20. Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860, by Suzanne Lebsock; Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New Ed edition; (October, 1985)
ISBN: 0393952649

Author, lecturer, community advocate, and family historian Aaron L. Day, is a lover of books, supporter of libraries, and promoter of family history research. He specializes in the search for free African American Ancestors (pre-1865). He has published three award-winning articles about the history of his family, as well as a guidebook Locating Free African American Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide. Please visit Aaron's website at

Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.