Free blacks in the antebellum period—those years from the formation of the Union until the Civil War—were quite outspoken about the injustice of slavery. Their ability to express themselves, however, was determined by whether they lived in the North or the South. Free Southern blacks continued to live under the shadow of slavery, unable to travel or assemble as freely as those in the North. It was also more difficult for them to organize and sustain churches, schools, or fraternal orders such as the Masons.
Although their lives were circumscribed by numerous discriminatory laws even in the colonial period, freed African Americans, especially in the North, were active participants in American society. Black men enlisted as soldiers and fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Some owned land, homes, businesses, and paid taxes. In some Northern cities, for brief periods of time, black property owners voted. A very small number of free blacks owned slaves. The slaves that most free blacks purchased were relatives whom they later manumitted. A few free blacks also owned slave holding plantations in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Free African American Christians founded their own churches which became the hub of the economic, social, and intellectual lives of blacks in many areas of the fledgling nation. Blacks were also outspoken in print. Freedom's Journal, the first black-owned newspaper, appeared in 1827. This paper and other early writings by blacks fueled the attack against slavery and racist conceptions about the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.
African Americans also engaged in achieving freedom for others, which was a complex and dangerous undertaking. Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the “underground railroad.” Some free blacks were active “conductors” on the underground railroad while others simply harbored runaways in their homes. Free people of color like Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Prince Hall earned national reputations for themselves by writing, speaking, organizing, and agitating on behalf of their enslaved compatriots.
Thousands of freed blacks, with the aid of interested whites, returned to Africa with the aid of the American Colonization Society and colonized what eventually became Liberia. While some African Americans chose this option, the vast majority felt themselves to be Americans and focused their efforts on achieving equality within the United States.
Phillis Wheatley’s Love of Freedom
One of the most celebrated of early black writers, African-born Phillis Wheatley was captured when she was about eight years old and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston as a household servant. Educated by her Boston owners, the girl showed amazing aptitude. Soon she was writing and publishing poetry. This work, published in England where British societal leaders received and entertained Wheatley, includes affidavits affirming that Wheatley was a woman of unmixed African ancestry. In this volume, Wheatley discusses her African background and her love of freedom. Wheatley was freed as an adult. The Library holds copies of many editions of Wheatley's poems.
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Prince Hall, Founder of the African American Masonic Order
African American Masonic leader Prince Hall, believed to have been born in Barbados in 1735, was a Revolutionary War veteran. He received a charter from England in 1787 to establish the first African American Masonic lodge in the United States. In this 1797 address Hall charges his brother Masons to respect and help each other, work to end slavery, and show love to all mankind. He enjoined them to “bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston,” stating that people of color were sometimes molested and beaten. He encouraged them not to fear humans and reminded them that all men “are free and are brethren.”
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An African Captive Tells His Own Story
This autobiography is one of the few personal accounts by an African of his experiences as a victim of the slave trade and as a slave. This powerful personal narrative is exceptional in the details it provides. It was first published in 1789 and sold widely in the British Isles. Equiano recounts his childhood in Africa until his capture and enslavement, his subsequent sale to European traders, the horrors of the middle passage, his bondage in the United States, and his life on board British merchant vessels from 1758 to 1788—first as a slave and later for hire. Eventually, he became the most prominent black abolitionist in Britain.
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Benjamin Banneker, Mathematician
Benjamin Banneker, born free in Maryland in 1731, was remarkable because of his mechanical and mathematical abilities. In an August 19, 1791, letter to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, he enclosed a manuscript copy of his first almanac. In the letter Banneker complains that although African Americans “have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments, . . . one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties.” In the letter Banneker also quotes from the first lines of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .”
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Emergence of the Black Church
African American Women Preachers
Although little is known about the preacher pictured here, Juliann Jane Tillman, African Methodist Episcopal church records acknowledge that the first bishop, Richard Allen, recognized that some women possessed evangelical and teaching gifts. Although women were not allowed to become church leaders in the early years, they were permitted to teach and preach. Some became itinerant evangelists. Today, the A.M.E. Church allows women to pastor churches and hold other high offices within the church hierarchy.
Mrs. Juliann Jane Tillman, Preacher of the A.M.E. Church. Engraving by Peter Duval, after a painting by Alfred Hoffy, Philadelphia, 1844. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-54596 (2-21)
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This certificate indicates that the forty-two-year-old mulatto Harriet Bolling was freed by James Bolling in 1842. Freeborn blacks could stay in Virginia, but emancipated African Americans were generally required to leave the state. This certificate states that the court allowed Bolling “to remain in this Commonwealth and reside in Petersburg.”
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An African American Seaman
In the event of capture or impressment, sailors needed to have documents on file to verify that they were citizens of the United States. For this reason the government provided seamen's protection certificates for those who served at sea, including thousands of African American seamen. This certificate is for twenty-year-old Samuel Fox who is described as having a “light African complexion, black woolly hair and brown eyes.”
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The Underground Railroad
Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the “underground railroad.” Some free blacks like William Still were active “conductors” on the underground railroad, while others simply harbored runaways in their homes. Maps in the Library's collection show the routes of the underground railroad, and books like this one contain first-person accounts of those who took this perilous route to freedom.
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From Fugitive To Minister
Leonard Black tells of his birth in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and his childhood experiences as a slave in Baltimore, especially emphasizing his mistreatment while he was “owned like a cow or horse” at the hands of several owners. He escaped, married, and entered the ministry. This book relates aspects of his life as a pastor in Portland, Maine, and Boston, and as an itinerant preacher. He published this book with the hope that proceeds from it would earn enough money for him to obtain additional ministerial training.
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Another Fugitive's Account
Henry Bibb was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815. He recounts his sufferings, escapes, recaptures, and unsuccessful attempts to free his family. Bibb lectured for the Liberty party in Ohio and Michigan during the 1840s and fled to Canada after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as did thousands of other fugitives living in the North. His narrative includes many illustrations, including the depiction of the celebration of the Sabbath among the slaves and a slave sale.
In the text Bibb mentions that “slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds.” He stated that such circumstances gave him a “longing desire . . . a fire of liberty within my breast which has never yet been quenched." Bibb believed that he too had "a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
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The Revolutionary Era
African American Soldiers in the American Revolution
Both the British and the Americans enlisted African Americans during the Revolutionary War. American military leaders were reluctant to allow black men to join their armed forces on a permanent basis, even though black men had fought with the Continental Army since the earliest battles of the war at Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. The British encouraged runaways—male and female—to join their ranks. This work provides excellent documentation of the variety of roles African Americans played during the war when they were finally and officially allowed to join the ranks of the Continental Army.
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An African American Revolutionary War Soldier
Receipts like this one for Juba Freeman, as well as Revolutionary War muster rolls, pay and service records, and pension applications and awards demonstrate the active participation of African Americans in the American independence movement. Most African American servicemen in the Continental Army did not serve in segregated units. They usually fought alongside the whites in their communities. African names, pension record information and testimonies in other documents sometimes indicate the race of the soldiers.
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Free Blacks and Haitian Independence
The presence of a nation ruled by people of color near the United States was an inspiration to African Americans. Haiti—the spelling “Hayti” was common in America—was founded after a slave revolt started in 1791, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, toppled the government of the French colony of St. Domingue. During the early nineteenth century the French government made a disastrous attempt to take back the country. Haiti lived under the threat of renewed French attack until 1825, when the French government officially recognized Haiti’s independence. Francis Johnson's march, arranged for the piano and flute, celebrates this event.
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Free People of Color as Professional Musicians: Francis Johnson
From the beginning of the nineteenth century a number of Philadelphia free people of color supported themselves as professional musicians. Best known of them was Francis (“Frank”) Johnson, born in 1792, whose band and dance orchestra were considered the premier Philadelphia performing groups in these genres. In 1837 his band toured England, the first American band to do so. The music of the Philadelphia free blacks was the first African American music to be published as the work of individual musicians.
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Africa or America
Is African Colonization The Answer?
Born free in Massachusetts before the Revolutionary War, Paul Cuffe (sometimes spelled Cuffee) became an entrepreneur who saw opportunities in shipping. He thought that Africans and African Americans would be able to enjoy profits if they worked together to establish a shipping network of their own. During an 1811–12 visit to Sierra Leone, he formed the Friendly Society for the purpose of encouraging emigration of free people of color from the United States. He dictated this pamphlet after that visit. Unable to interest anyone in financing his colonization scheme, Cuffe determined to finance it himself, but the U.S., then at war with England, imposed a boycott on trade with British Colonies including Sierra Leone. Finally, in 1815, at a personal expenditure of $4,000, Cuffee took nine free black families to settle in Sierra Leone.
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American Colonization Society Settlements in Liberia
The American Colonization Society was established in 1817 to encourage and assist free African Americans, and later emancipated slaves, to settle in Africa. In 1822, the Society established a settlement in West Africa that would become the independent nation of Liberia in 1847. The name Liberia is derived from a Latin phrase meaning free land, with the country's capital, Monrovia, named in honor of U. S. President James Monroe.
This map from the Library of Congress's American Colonization Society collection depicts the northwestern part of Montserrado County. The area was mapped in ten-mile squares oriented to the coast line, giving the map its unique shape. Place names such as New Georgia, New York, Harrisburg, Virginia, and Louisiana show the influence of American life.
[Northwest part of Montserrado County, Liberia, in ten-mile squares]. Manuscript map, [ca. 1800?]. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (2-3)
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African American Convention Movement
Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, African American leaders became more impatient with the lack of improvement in political and social conditions for their race. The national convention movement among free persons of color provided an independent arena where their interests could be defined and strategies developed for their improvement. This pamphlet of convention proceedings addressed the “conflict now going on in our land between liberty and equality on the one hand and slavery and caste on the other.”
This copy of the Proceedings belonged to women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony, who was a friend and neighbor of the articulate runaway slave, Frederick Douglass. Both lived in Rochester, New York.
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David Ruggles, Outspoken Advocate for Freedom
David Ruggles, a free black abolitionist leader, was born in 1819. He was best known for his work with the underground railroad and the New York Vigilance Committee, organized to protect fugitive slaves and prevent kidnapping of free blacks to sell them into slavery. He worked as a bookseller, publisher, and as an activist in the African American convention movement.
During the 1830s Ruggles published numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles persuasively arguing against slavery and colonization. Here he refutes charges made by David Reese and others against the American Anti-slavery Society, particularly that the society encouraged interracial marriage. Slavery, Ruggles argued, was the chief cause of the amalgamation of the races.
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The Free African American Press
Freedom's Journal, 1827
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly . . . . ”
These editorial comments appeared in the premier issue of the first black-controlled newspaper in America on March 12, 1827. The founders of Freedom's Journal, John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, stated in their masthead that the paper was “devoted to the improvement of the colored population.” They noted that blacks had been “incorrectly represented by the press and the church. Their faults were always noted but their virtues remain unmentioned.” There were 500,000 free persons of color in the U.S. and they anticipated that at least half of them would read the journal. The paper was published until 1830. The Library of Congress has some issues available on microfilm.
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The North Star
Frederick Douglass, one of the best known and most articulate free black spokesmen during the antebellum years, was born a slave ca. 1817. After he ran away, Douglass tirelessly fought for emancipation and full citizenship for African Americans. Despite the failure of earlier African American newspapers, Douglass founded the North Star in December 1847. The masthead contained the motto: “Right is of no sex; truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all—and all are brethren.” In 1851 it merged with the Liberty Party Paper and soon changed its name to the Frederick Douglass Paper. A contemporary African American journalist observed that Douglass's ability as a newspaper editor and publisher did more for the “freedom and elevation of his race than all his platform appearances.”
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Frederick Douglass, Apostle of Freedom
African American artist Charles White, born in 1918, executed many artistic works that symbolize the strength of sinew and character of people of color, including this powerful image of orator, abolitionist, and statesman Frederick Douglass.
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