Ever an anomaly.

by Lisa Y. Henderson


The most pathetic figure in North Carolina prior to the Civil War was the free negro. Hedged about with social and legal restrictions, he ever remained an anomaly in the social and political life of the State. The origin of this class of people may be attributed to many sources, the most common of which are (1) cohabitation of white women and negro men, (2) intermarriage of blacks and whites, (3) manumission, (4) military service in the Revolution, and (5) immigration from adjoining States. As early as 1723 many free negroes, mulattoes and persons of mixed blood had moved into the Province and had intermarried with the white inhabitants “in contempt of the acts and laws in those cases provided.” In the year 1715 in order to discourage intermarriage between white women and negro men, a penalty of £50 was imposed upon the contracting parties, while clergymen and justices of peace were forbidden to celebrate such marriage under a like penalty.

However regrettable it may be, it is certain that there were a few disreputable white women who had illegitimate children by negro men, and such children inherited the legal status of the mother. The laws of 1715 take cognizance of this fact by imposing a penalty on any white woman “whether bond or free,” who shall have a bastard child by any negro, mulatto or Indian.

Probably the most fruitful origin of the free negro class was manumission. While it is doubtful whether many slaves were set free prior to 1740, it is certain that the Quakers in their Yearly Meeting began to agitate the question of emancipating slaves in that year, and they never ceased to advocate emancipation both by precept and example.

The free negro class was slightly augmented by the addition of certain negroes who had served in the continental line of the State during the Revolutionary War, many of whom had been promised their freedom before they enlisted. It was easy in such cases to allege meritorious service as a ground for emancipation. To the before-mentioned causes for the existence of the free negro in North Carolina should be added one other; namely, immigration, particularly from Virginia. Despite the law to the contrary, many free negroes drifted across the State line from Virginia into North Carolina and quietly settled on the unproductive land adjacent thereto.

In every instance except one (service in the Revolution) the free negro came into being against the will of the State either expressed or implied; but once given a place in the social order of the commonwealth, his tribe increased in spite of adverse laws and customs prescribed by the dominant race.

From R.H. Taylor, The Free Negro in North Carolina (1920).