They Who Would Be Free: Blacks’ Search for Freedom, 1830-1861
The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké
As the crisp outline left when a cooky cutter has finished its business serves to remind us, it is occasionally possible to see the shape of things as well from the outside as from within. That plantation slavery was much more than a labor system most readers of American history understand well enough: how much more is being slowly absorbed as the studies of those who lived just outside the system accumulate. In the last year several distinguished works have appeared on slavery as slaves and their owners experienced it. But it is a measure of the increasing sophistication of this field of scholarship that we also have several important new works of historians who have gone off the plantation, so to speak, to explore the social meaning of slavery for abolitionists and the free black victims of society, those who were in a technical sense the chattel property of nobody.
Even for these “outsiders” slavery was a dominating and coercive condition of life, dictating personal choices and public action. This was true for Angelina Grimké, the well-born daughter of a Charleston slaveholding family, who experienced the challenge of slavery very personally; the challenge became, in the view of Katherine DuPre Lumpkin, the spur that led in time, almost too late in time, to her self-liberation from the psychological and social limitations of nineteenth-century women. Angelina came through at last, and so did many of the free blacks and black leaders in the antislavery movement, whose difficulties “just outside” slavery have been described in new works by Ira Berlin and Jane and William Pease.
But the collective story of each group is on the whole depressing, filled with more frustration than triumph. The defeats are a register of the solid entrenchment of the peculiar institution in the social and political fabric of the nation, even as the economic position of slavery in the Upper South was deteriorating. The victories were usually personal; the defeats the result of fragmentation as organizations fell apart on what the Peases call “rightlessness” and “powerlessness.”
The struggles of the South’s free black caste and black antislavery spokesmen in the North are all the more chilling when read in conjunction with certain of the more recent works on slavery itself, which tend, on the whole, to sound the upbeat, to stress how even in the jaws of chattel bondage, the enslaved were able, in the words of Eugene D. Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll, to lay “the foundations for a separate black culture while enormously enriching American culture as a whole.” If slaves were able to do that, how is it that free blacks, Northern and Southern, met with so much frustration and despair?
Though Ira Berlin’s main concern is to give an authoritative account of how things were, rather than why they were not different, this question is implicit in his very important, detailed study of the South’s free black population. His answer is at once simple and complex. The slave had at least whatever practical protection the master’s economic interest afforded him, and sometimes he had as well the personal concern afforded by a lifetime of close association. But as a category, with some exceptions, the free blacks were exposed and vulnerable at every turn, the slaves of society. The majority were pushed into the lowest paying and least dignified jobs, visited with many social and legal restrictions, and they were ready-made scapegoats for rising internal tensions in a slaveholding society out of touch with its century. Those who fared better were able to do so only by subordinating themselves to the economic and psycho-social needs of the dominant whites in their world.
Whenever fears of a slave revolt swept the countryside, the free blacks, with their greater mobility, came under immediate suspicion, even though they were very seldom identified with insurrections or plots. They lived on the outer perimeter of a system under seige and engaged in justifying itself with a theory that slavery itself was a “positive good” for blacks and whites alike. If black people could survive as free men, and some obviously throve on freedom, the unwelcome suggestion that masters were perhaps unnecessary was bound to arise.
Berlin has written a more comprehensive study of the status and condition of free blacks in the South than any other we have yet seen, but his findings on the civil oppression of black freemen will not surprise students of Southern history. Their story has been told in part many times, how their testimony in courts was restricted, how they were denied the right to serve on juries, how they had to present “free papers” on demand, could be harassed by patrols with impunity, how barriers against their entry into one state after another were raised, and how they faced a stony white hostility that wanted almost from the beginning to pack them off to Africa. But Berlin’s account is far more than a recital of grievances. The originality and signal contribution of Slaves Without Masters derive from the author’s choice to treat his subjects in the stream of time, to see them as poised precariously in a fluid and dangerous state reflecting the dynamics of changing political and social currents in the white world. By this evolutionary approach he also provides a better understanding of how the free blacks came to be free, and under what impulses, drawing significant distinctions between their social positions in the Upper South and in the Lower South.
The foundations of the relatively large free black population of the Upper South were laid in the wake of the American Revolution, for there were very few slaves emancipated in the first part of the eighteenth century. Afterward many owners emancipated their human property en masse, and numbers of slaves emancipated themselves by absconding. This was easier after a large number of free blacks existed to provide cover. Both kinds of emancipation owed much to the ideals of the Revolution and the spread of evangelical Christianity, not a little to the declining price of tobacco, and nothing at all to the complexion, light or dark, of the emancipated. The newly emancipated were as likely to be full-blooded Africans as the slaves were.
Berlin shows that the free black caste of the Lower South originated in entirely different historical circumstances and grew under different impulses. In Louisiana a large free black creole population of mulattoes had evolved under Spanish and French rule, and their numbers rapidly increased with the arrival in the port cities of the Lower South of thousands of light-colored and socially elite refugees from the black revolt in Saint-Domingue. Later the slaveowners of the Lower South pursued a highly selective policy in emancipating slaves, freeing those who stood in some particular relationship of blood or friendship to themselves. Often that relationship was that of father or lover.
Tracing the demographic consequences of these contrasting circumstances in the origins of the free black caste, Berlin shows that the Lower South freemen were lighter in color, higher in socio-economic status, and more likely to be city dwellers. Some became wealthy slaveowners themselves, and they drew further and further away from the mass of slaves. This elite caste was less feared by whites, and was never so closely circumscribed as more northerly free blacks were. The Lower South free blacks became an effective buffer between the whites and the slaves, and not surprisingly many of them rushed to the defense of the Confederacy when the conflict came. “Nowhere else in the South,” Berlin writes, “did whites treat free Negro liberty with such respect.”
In the Upper South free blacks were far more numerous, more identified with the general slave population in economic condition and color, and they tended to be more freely scattered among the slave population. Nervous whites placed them in an increasingly disadvantageous legal position. The paradoxical result was that in the Upper South, where the notion of slavery as a “positive good” gained ground more slowly, and where the ideals of the Revolution died very late, if ever, blacks suffered a harder lot than in the Lower South where the positive view of slavery caught on much faster. These were the polar positions on a spectrum that tended in general to restrict the owner’s right to liberate his slaves privately, to prevent the build-up of free blacks, and to frustrate their upward economic and social mobility. By the 1850s the free blacks were in a crisis: although many were better off economically than they had ever been, slavery was under heavier attack from the North, and those states with a high free black population began seriously to agitate the question whether they should not be deported.
Although Berlin’s thesis explains many of his findings, and should be considered very seriously by scholars more particularly interested in the laws codifying “slave” status, some confusion results from his heavy emphasis on the differences between the free black castes in the two regions. The division does not explain all the phenomena, and the emphasis on laws may assume too much. Questions arise in the middle chapters devoted to the free black community and the mechanics of white dominance. The African church was the cultural focus of the black community, and the seat of many accomplishments of long-lasting value. Berlin assumes, without developing the point extensively, that free blacks were the leaders in the establishment of separate churches. He is probably right. But one would then suppose that separate churches would have been more hotly resisted in the Upper South, when in fact at first they were resisted everywhere, and the opposition apparently slackened earlier in the cities of the Upper South than elsewhere.
One learns that Charleston (a Lower South city?) was especially forward, first in abolishing the power of blacks within the “integrated” churches, and subsequently in closing down the separate church founded there under the auspices of the American Methodist Episcopalians. But blacks, getting indirect help from whites who wanted blacks out of their churches, did found their own institutions, and one learns that throughout the 1840s, and even during the 1850s, when white hostility and fear peaked again (especially in the Upper South) these institutions increased dramatically in number.
When we read that such Upper South cities as Baltimore and Richmond were the special scene of such development, the question naturally arises whether the unique character of New Orleans has not caused Berlin to generalize too widely about the distinctive character of the Lower South. If that city were omitted from calculation, then perhaps a more effective dichotomy might be made between urban and rural communities, between more complex economies and those resting primarily on plantation agriculture. If we use either of these explanations, we could relate hostile state legislation to the legislative strength or weakness of municipalities, and to the particular notion of a particular municipality of how best to deal with the free black “problem.” Certainly hostility was endemic, and petitions against free blacks came from urban and rural areas, throughout the South.