There often is a false equivalency these days between the travails of white immigrants, and those of enslaved blacks or recently freed blacks in Colonial and Ante-Bellum America. To be clear from the outset of this essay, white immigrants never “had it as bad” as any enslaved black person during the so-called “Peculiar Institution” of Slavery. For that matter, white immigrants did not have it as bad as free blacks because at any given time, a free black could be mistaken for an enslaved one and get sold into bondage or killed by some idiotic white slave catcher who only cared about getting paid for his miserable work.
Most Americans learn early in their scholastic journey that Crispus Attucks, a black man, was the first Patriot to be killed during the Boston Massacre. What many do not realize is that Attucks was not a slave standing in close proximity to his master when British regulars fired upon the crowd. No, Attucks was a free black man who was their on his own volition.
When the first blacks arrived en masse in Jamestown, Virginia circa 1619, many were initially granted indentured servitude status. This meant that some were able to later purchase their freedom from the white families to which they were bonded. As urban centers grew in the northeastern colonies, many free blacks migrated north to earn livings as smiths and laborers at shipyards. Even within the south, from Colonial times through the early decades of the United States, black “smiths,” particularly blacksmiths and welders, often were well paid and highly respected among the wealthy slave-owning class that was dependent upon their expertise.
Many other blacks became skilled in the construction trade and land surveying and one in particular, Benjamin Banneker–a free black man–is best remembered as having been a surveyor along with Charles L’enfant for the nation’s capitol, which would be named for former General and first President George Washington.
While some free blacks earned their freedom by purchasing the same, others benefitted from the practice of “manumission,” whereby a slave owner granted said slave his or her freedom, often as part of a Will. One of the interesting ironies of this long period is that on occasion in the south, properly manumitted free black men who had been married while in bondage later purchased their spouses, thus comprising one way in which some blacks technically did own slaves.
Still, free blacks in the south were subjected to the cultural mores of the day in that any White person, regardless of their financial station, was due a certain levels of respect that if perceived to be infringed upon, could result in either beatings, jailings or death for said “uppity” black man, woman or child.
Similarly, many free blacks in the north faced similar rigid racism albeit without the daily pervasive threat of violence. During years of economic recession or depression prior to the Civil War, this often took the form of enmity among free black laborers and white laborers–particularly immigrants–who while in competition for jobs, at times engaged in violent clashes. Nevertheless, free blacks developed a segregated culture within which they learned to maneuver among their white neighbors in business and other activities, but understood that certain jobs, such as the law and medicine, were restricted from them and that voting and holding government office was similarly forbidden. Such slights did not prevent northern free blacks from educating their children, building churches and establishing fraternal organizations similar to or directly based upon the dominant white culture.
The African Methodist Episcopal was founded in 1816 by the Reverend Richard Allen–a free black man–in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and remains one of the dominant protestant affiliations in the world. Prince Hall, a free black man and a Boston abolitionist, educator and Revolutionary War figure, established the first African Lodge of Freemasons in 1784. (Below is a depiction of Prince Hall to the left, and Ol’ Hobbs standing with Brothers of Valentine Lodge #147, Prince Hall Free & Accepted Masons)
As the concept of Manifest Destiny, one that held that the United States would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, took root, the issue became whether slavery would extend into the new territories or states. The first compromise on the subject was the Missouri Compromise , which prohibited slavery in the territory acquired in the 1803 Louisiana purchase above the 36-30 parallel with the exception being what would soon become the slave holding state of Missouri.
Free blacks soon moved westward, too, but in many instances, were still shackled by the racist cultural mores of the era. Further complicating life for free blacks was the era of prominent slave rebellions. While a number of smaller rebellions and other resistance in the form of escape had been typical during the Colonial period and early years of the Republic, the planned rebellions by Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in 1822, and the relatively successful Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, led many southern legislatures to crack down on the number of manumissions for enslaved blacks while simultaneously restricting literacy among Blacks.
The lingering fear of slave resistance and rebellion later culminated in the passage of the Fugitive Slaw Law. During the early 1850’s, a popular poster in the Boston area contained the words in all caps: “Caution! Colored People of Boston, One & All, you are hereby respectfully cautioned and advised to avoid conversing with the watchman and police officers of Boston for since the Order of the Mayor and Aldermen, they are empowered to act as Kidnappers and Slave Catchers.” Such warnings were in direct response to the passage of the pernicious Fugitive Slave Act (FSA), a measure that upon becoming law in 1851 was as praised in the South as derided in the North. Historians often note that the FSA served as perhaps the last straw before the Civil War, which began 10 years later in 1861.
The 1850 version of the FSA actually served to strengthen a 1793 version of the same, one that during America’s earliest years allowed state and/or federal agents to return escaped slaves to their rightful owners but held no mandate or stiff penalties for lack of enforcement. In 1842, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the 1793 law in the case of “Prigg vs. Pennsylvania,” the problem, however, was enforcement, as most northern police officials lacked the resources to house or ship captured slaves back to the South. In 1850, Virginia Senator James Mason introduced a new and improved FSA, one that compelled Northern cooperation. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, along with Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster crafted the Compromise of 1850 which, among other things, authorized a commission of fugitive slave officials whose primary task was to hunt down and return escaped slaves to captivity. While the “Compromise” was lauded for preserving the Union at the time, the law denied any semblance of due process to captured fugitives as they were denied the right to testify on their own behalf or have their cases heard before a jury.
Further complicating matters was the fact that the commissioners who made the determinations received their pay from the slave holders making the claims, thus creating an obvious pecuniary incentive for commissioners to deny as many claims of legitimate freedom as possible and, even worse, provided some with incentive to lie about free Blacks illegally “captured.” The law also punished any person harboring or aiding a fugitive slave $1000.00 and threatened incarceration of up to 6 months–a fact that scared off some who previously had served as conductors along the Underground Railroad that ushered escaped slaves to Northern states and Canada.
Defiant, some Northern blacks and Whites formed vigilance committees which endeavored to thwart the purposes of the slave catchers. Still, between 1851 and 1864, when the measure was finally repealed toward the end of the Civil War, thousands of blacks were returned to bondage below the Mason-Dixon line and for some like Solomon Northup, the subject of the critically acclaimed film “12 Years a Slave,” even being free could not guarantee freedom for those with darker skin.