A very considerable technical exception.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

In our generalizations upon American history — and the American people are prone to loose generalization, especially where the Negro is concerned — it is ordinarily assumed that the entire colored race was set free as the result of the Civil War. While this is true in a broad, moral sense, there was, nevertheless, a very considerable technical exception in the case of several hundred thousand free people of color, a great many of whom were residents of the Southern States. Although the emancipation of their race brought to these a larger measure of liberty than they had previously enjoyed, it did not confer upon them personal freedom, which they possessed already. These free colored people were variously distributed, being most numerous, perhaps, in Maryland …. In the year 1850, according to the [federal census], there were in the state of North Carolina 553,028 white people, 288,548 slaves, and 27,463 free colored people. In 1860, the white population of the state was 631,100, slaves 331,059, free colored people, 30,463.

This free colored population was by no means evenly distributed throughout the state, but was mainly found along or near the eastern seaboard, in what is now known as the “black district” of North Carolina. In Craven county, more than one-fifth of the colored population were free; in Halifax county, where the colored population was double that of the whites, one-fourth of the colored were free. In Hertford county, with 3,947 whites and 4,445 slaves, there were 1,112 free colored. In Pasquotank county, with a white and colored population almost evenly balanced, one-third of the colored people were free. In some counties, for instance in that of Jackson, a mountainous county in the west of the state, where the Negroes were but an insignificant element, the population stood 5,241 whites, 268 slaves, and three free colored persons.

The growth of this considerable element of free colored people had been due to several causes. In the eighteenth century, slavery in North Carolina had been of a somewhat mild character. There had been large estates along the seaboard and the water-courses, but the larger part of the population had been composed of small planters or farmers, whose slaves were few in number, too few indeed to be herded into slave quarters, but employed largely as domestic servants, and working side by side with their masters in field and forest, and sharing with them the same rude fare. The Scotch-Irish Presbyterian strain in the white people of North Carolina brought with it a fierce love of liberty, which was strongly manifested, for example, in the Mecklenburg declaration of independence, which preceded that at Philadelphia; and while this love of liberty was reconciled with slavery, the mere prejudice against race had not yet excluded all persons of Negro blood from its benign influence. Thus, in the earlier history of the state, the civil status of the inhabitants was largely regulated by condition rather than by color. To be a freeman meant to enjoy many of the fundamental rights of citizenship. Free men of color in North Carolina exercised the right of suffrage until 1835, when the constitution was amended to restrict this privilege to white men. It may be remarked, in passing, that prior to 1860, Jews could not vote in North Carolina. The right of marriage between whites and free persons of color was not restricted by law until the year 1830, though social prejudice had always discouraged it.

The mildness of slavery, which fostered kindly feelings between master and slave, often led to voluntary manumission. The superior morality which characterized the upper ranks of white women, so adequately protected by slavery, did not exist in anything like the same degree among the poorer classes, and occasional marriages, more or less legal, between free Negroes and slaves and poor white women, resulted in at least a small number of colored children, who followed the condition of their white mothers. I have personal knowledge of two free colored families of such origin, dating back to the eighteenth century, whose descendants in each case run into the hundreds. There was also a considerable Quaker element in the population, whose influence was cast against slavery, not in any fierce polemical spirit, but in such a way as to soften its rigors and promote gradual emancipation. Another source of free colored people in certain counties was the remnant of the Cherokee and Tuscarora Indians, who, mingling with the Negroes and poor whites, left more or less of their blood among the colored people of the state. By the law of partitus sequitur ventrem, which is a law of nature as well as of nations, the child of a free mother was always free, no matter what its color or the status of its father, and many free colored people were of female Indian ancestry.

I may add that North Carolina was a favorite refuge for runaway slaves and indentured servants from the richer colonies north and south of it. It may thus be plainly seen how a considerable body of free colored people sprang up within the borders of the state. The status of these people, prior to the Civil War, was anomalous but tenable. Many of them, perhaps most of them, were as we have seen, persons of mixed blood, and received, with their dower of white blood, an intellectual and physical heritage of which social prejudice could not entirely rob them, and which helped them to prosperity in certain walks of life. The tie of kinship was sometimes recognized, and brought with it property, sympathy and opportunity which the black did not always enjoy. Many free colored men were skilled mechanics. The State House at Raleigh was built by colored workmen, under a foreman of the same race. I am acquainted with a family now living in the North, whose Negro grandfather was the leading tailor, in Newbern, N. C. He owned a pew on the ground floor of the church which he attended, and was buried in the cemetery where white people were laid to rest. In the town where I went to live when a child, just after the Civil War, nearly all the mechanics were men of color. One of these, a saddler by trade, had himself been the owner, before the war, of a large plantation and several slaves. He had been constrained by force of circumstances to invest in Confederate bonds, but despite this loss, he still had left a considerable tract of land, a brick store, and a handsome town residence, and was able to send one of his sons, immediately after the war, to a Northern school, where he read law, and returning to his native state, was admitted to the bar and has ever since practiced his profession. This was an old free family, descended from a free West Indian female ancestor. For historical reasons, which applied to the whole race, slave and free, these families were, before the war, most clearly traceable through the female line.

The principal cabinet-maker and undertaker in the town was an old white man whose workmen were colored. One of these practically inherited what was left of the business after the introduction of factory-made furniture from the North, and has been for many years the leading undertaker of the town. The tailors, shoemakers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths were men of color, as were the carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers. …

Excerpt from Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Free Colored People of North Carolina,” The Southern Workman, vol. 31, no. 3 (1902).