African Americans--Historically Free and Newly Freed



Historically free African Americans included people who were both African American and lived as and/or were legally free before the American Civil War. They may or may not have previously been enslaved. In recognition of African American military service during the Revolutionary War, a number of states moved to gradually abolish slavery leading to a growing body of free African Americans.

Freedom, however, did not mean citizenship, and despite efforts by free Black activists to settle this question and affirm their citizenship, it was largely left to state lawmakers who otherwise failed to settle the question. Consequently, during the Antebellum era, each southern state passed different laws governing the place and rights of free African Americans. Home to the nation's largest free African American community, for example, Baltimore, Maryland registered 25,000 free Black residents by 1850. (Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, p. 13)

In another example, South Carolina's Act of 1820 distinguished between those freed before and after 1820, and classified free African Americans as "denizens," which limited citizenship rights by a series of Black Codes. In response to rebellions, numerous states passed legal restrictions that made manumission virtually impossible by the mid-nineteenth century. Loved ones who purchased family members were forced to legally hold them in bondage, leading to a body of people who "were free by practice, but not by law." (Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom, 3–4, 207)

Unlike South Carolina, Mississippi's judiciary ruled that “free negroes . . . are to be regarded as alien enemies or strangers prohibited, and without the pale of comity, and incapable of acquiring or maintaining property in this State which will be recognized by our courts.” (Heirn v. Bridault, 37 Miss. 209, 224–25, 1859 in Jones, Birthright Citizens, p. 213) The state's strict provisions on manumission led to an extremely small population of free African Americans (773 people by 1860) during the antebellum era ("Free Blacks in Antebellum Mississippi," Mississippi Encyclopedia)

Newly freed African Americans includes people who were enslaved but became free by the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and/or the Thirteenth Amendment. While neither was comprehensive, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed the enslaved in territories under rebellion, and later the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 abolished slavery altogether, except when used as a punishment for those who committed a crime and did not apply to Native Nations who practices slavery. (American Battlefield Trust; Wikipedia) In the CWRGM collection, African Americans after December 6, 1865 are classified as historically free or newly freed.

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