Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > African American Odyssey

[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period

While many African Americans in the nation’s early years were enslaved, others lived as free men and women in both the North and South. Make a list of things you know or could deduce from your historical knowledge about the lives of free African Americans in the antebellum period.

Then read the introduction to the Free Blacks section of the Special Presentation. Read the excerpt below from a speech, delivered in Boston in 1797, by Prince Hall, a Revolutionary War veteran who established the first African American Masonic lodge in the United States:

. . . Patience I say, for were we not possess’d of a great measure of it you could not bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston; much more on public days of recreation, how are you shamefully abus’d, and that at such a degree, that you may truly be said to carry your lives in your hands; and the arrows of death are flying about your heads; helpless old women have their clothes torn off their backs, even to the exposing of their nakedness; and by whom are these disgraceful and abusive actions committed, not by the men born and bred in Boston, for they are better bred; but by a mob or horde of shameless, low-lived, envious, spiteful persons, some of them not long since, servants in gentlemen’s kitchings, scouring knives, tending horses, and driving chaise. . . . many in town who have seen their behaviour to you, and that without any provocations, twenty or thirty cowards fall upon one man, have wonder’d at the patience of the Blacks: ‘tis not for want of courage in you, for they know that they dare not face you man for man, but in a mob, which we despise, and had rather suffer wrong than to do wrong, to the disturbance of the community and the disgrace of our reputation: for every good citizen doth honor to the laws of the State where he resides.

From Prince Hall. A Charge Delivered to the African Lodge, June 24, 1797, at Menotomy, images 9 and 10.

  • In what ways did free African Americans contribute to U.S. society in the years before the Civil War?
  • How did free African Americans express their views and beliefs in this period?
  • What were some of the challenges faced by free African Americans?
  • Explain the situation described by Prince Hall. Whom does Prince blame for the abuse experienced by African Americans? How does he explain the response by African Americans? Does reading about this kind of abuse surprise you? Why or why not?

Many free African Americans tried to help those in slavery escape, while working to end the institution of slavery. The Underground Railroad is the well-known network of routes and hiding places used to help enslaved people escape. The Special Presentation includes a lengthy book by a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, William Still. Read the preface to Still’s book and consider these questions:

  • How did William Still gain his freedom? How do you think his personal story influenced his work on the Underground Railroad?
  • In the revised Preface in 1878, Still says “the necessity of the times requires this testimony”? How would information about slavery and the efforts of people to escape from and end slavery be helpful in that era?
  • Still mentions in the Preface that the heroism of fugitives inspired the abolitionists in the antebellum period. What evidence can you find in the Special Presentation (look in both the Free Blacks and Abolition sections) to support his claim?
  • Still points out that the history of the founders of the United States was widely known 100 years after the country was established. One could infer that he believed the story of the Underground Railroad and the courageous people it helped should be equally well known. Do you think that the story of the Underground Railroad is as well known today as the story of the Founders of the United States? Why or why not?

Black writers working in different genres were important in the antebellum era. That period saw the establishment of the free African American press, black-controlled newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and The North Star, the latter founded and run by the writer (and former slave) Frederick Douglass. The Special Presentation includes one front page from Freedom’s Journal, and one from The North Star. Examine these pages and answer the following questions:

  • Who was the primary audience for these papers?
  • How do you think the articles you read helped advance the newspaper’s goal? Explain your answer.