Free African Americans in the North and South

Essential Question

How were the lives of free blacks in the North similar to and different from the lives of free blacks in the South?

Free African Americans

By 1860 there were almost 500,000 freed blacks in the United States. Free African Americans had to carry proof of their status. These men, women, and children had more rights than if they had been enslaved, but they were far from truly free or equal under the law. Problems of racial injustice existed in the North as well as in the South. Both groups faced discrimination, unequal treatment, and restrictions on their activities. Because slaveholders feared their influence free African Americans were often segregated and kept apart, even in the North. African Americans were still considered inferior by most whites and treated accordingly. They were refused service in many public places. Most states did not allow free African Americans to vote. They were taught in inferior schools and barred from white churches so they had to create their own schools and churches. They faced restrictions on their activities and movements; for example, they were not allowed to carry weapons, travel between states, or meet with slaves. No states allowed free African Americans to be witnesses in court when whites were parties to the case which often made them victims of crimes. White mobs often attacked and killed free African Americans with no trial in public executions. In the end, freedom did not mean equality, dignity, or any guarantee of basic civil rights.

Free African Americans in the North

By the early 1800s, slavery was outlawed in most Northern states. Many lived in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities where they worked in mills and other factories, in shipyards and on ships, as merchants and carpenters, and at many other jobs and trades. Some gained prominence in fields such as poetry (Phillis Wheatley), mathematics (Benjamin Banneker), and business (Paul Cuffe). In 1827, the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, aimed at the almost 500,000 free African Americans in the country. White men did not like competing with African Americans for work so white mobs attacked and killed free African Americans in Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, New York, and Washington, D.C. They also attacked and destroyed free African American schools, churches, businesses, and homes

While African Americans had many restrictions in the North in the 1700s and early 1800s free African Americans found, schools, churches, and worked to advance their rights and communities.

African Americans were usually prohibited from attending the same schools as white students. However, some schools private schools like The New York African Free School educated African Americans. Cities like Boston opened a separate elementary school for African American children and Philadelphia had seven schools for African Americans. In 1855, Massachusetts became the first state to admit African Americans students to public school. In 1835 private school Oberlin became the first college to accept African American students. It was followed by other private schools like Harvard and Dartmouth. Then in 1842, the Institute for Colored Youth opened in Philadelphia. In 1854, the Ashmun Institute in Pennsylvania (later named Lincoln University) was the first college for African American men.

Many free African Americans opened and joined churches. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded by Richard Allen. Some former slaves even became Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian ministers. They often became active in the anti-slavery movement.

Richard Allen

Richard Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia (1760). He converted, along with his master, to Methodism. He then bought his freedom and taught himself to read and write Then he became an assistant minister in a mixed-race Methodist church and formed the Free African Society to help slaves achieve freedom. He also founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was its first bishop (1794). The African Methodist Episcopal Church spread across the Middle Atlantic states and by 1820 there were about 4,000 African American Methodists in Philadelphia. Then he opened a day school (1795), next he founded the Society of Free People of Colour for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent (1795) and other Schools for African Americans in Philadelphia by 1811. Philadelphia had a long history of accepting and providing education for African Americans. By 1800 the city ran seven schools for African Americans.

Frederick Douglass

Fredrick Douglass was born a slave (1817), raised in Baltimore, and was taught to read and write by his master’s wife. In 1838 he escaped to Massachusetts. He began an abolitionist (abolishing slavery) crusade across the North. He wrote his autobiography Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass, as American Slave, Witten by Himself (1845) and founded the journal (newspaper) North Star; dedicated to abolitionism and ending racial discrimination. Frederick Douglass gained fame for his speeches denouncing slavery. Most famously, he convinced Abraham Lincoln to make the end of slavery a goal of the Civil War.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree to slaves in New York (1797) and was raised speaking Dutch. She taught herself English, never lost her Dutch accent. She had three different masters who mistreated her and forced her to marry an older slave. In 1828 she was freed when New York abolished slavery. After a spiritual revelation, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and walked through New England preaching. She joined the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, a utopian (ideal or perfect) community in Massachusetts, and supported abolitionism and the right of women to vote. Like Douglas, she published her memoirs The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850)

Free African Americans in the South

Although the vast majority of African Ameri- cans in the South were enslaved, more than 250,000 free African Americans lived in the region by 1860. Some were descendants of slaves who were freed after the American Revolution. Others were descendants of refugees from Toussaint L'Ouverture's Hattian Revolution in the late 1790s. Still others were former slaves who had run away, been freed by their slaveholder, or earned enough money to buy their freedom.

Free African Americans lived in both rural and urban areas. Most lived in the countryside and worked as paid laborers on plantations or farms. However, many freed slaves ended up working on the same farms where they had been slaves. Free African Americans in cities often worked a variety of jobs, mostly as skilled artisans. Some, like barber William Johnson of Natchez, Mississippi, became quite successful in their businesses. Some free African Americans, especially those in the cities, formed social and economic ties with one another. Churches often served as the center of their social lives.

Free African Americans faced constant discrimination from white southerners. Many governments passed laws limiting the rights of free African Americans. Most free African Americans could not vote, travel freely, or hold certain jobs. In some places, free African Americans had to have a white person represent them in any business transaction. In others, laws restricted where they were allowed to live or conduct business.

Whites worried that free African Americans would inspire slaves to revolt, so they were forced to live in segregated (separate) communities. The most terrifying threat was the possibility of free American Americans being captured and sold into slavery while this happened in the North it was very common in the South. Free African Americans had to carry around their papers at all times, showing that they were free to prevent kidnapping (and sometimes they were even kidnapped with papers).

Many white southerners argued that free African Americans did not have the ability to take care of themselves, and they used this belief to justify the institution of slavery. "The status of slavery is the only one for which the African is adapted," wrote one white Mississippian. To many white southerners, the very existence of free African Americans threatened the institution of slavery. Some states made African Americans leave once they gained freedom.

Discussion Questions

  • How was being a free African American in the North and South similar?

  • How was being a free African American in the North and South different?

Activity 1: How were the lives of free African Americans in the North and South similar and different.

Using the information from this lesson, answer the question in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities