Woodcut from Nat Turner's Rebellion (1831)
Every once in a while you will read about free blacks petitioning local or state government to become a slave. In the wrong hands such accounts reflect a lingering Lost Cause view that slavery was benign. Why else would a free black individual choose bondage? Many of these requests were made in the late antebellum period following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Many southern states, especially in the Deep South, worried about the effects of the raid on their black populations, both free and enslaved. In addition to worrying about the ramifications of the Brown raid memories of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection were easily recalled. Visitors from the North were suspected of inciting blacks and were often forced to leave. The smallest acts of violence and arson by blacks were met with swift and brutal punishment to prevent what many perceived to be the beginning of a more general uprising. In many localities this response included a severe crackdown on the movement and rights of free blacks. Free blacks already occupied a precarious position in the South, but the increased focus on their movement may help to explain why some chose slavery over freedom.
Consider the state of Georgia in the wake of Brown’s raid:
- In December 185 the state closed loopholes in earlier laws prohibiting slave manumission in order to prevent the growth of the state’s free black population.
- Another law prohibited nonresident free blacks from entering the state and required that violators be sold into slavery.
- New laws defined as a vagrant any free black found “wandering or strolling about, or leading an idle, immoral, or profligate course of life” and provided that all such offenders should be sold into chattel slavery. The bondage would be limited to two years for a first offense but would become perpetual upon a second conviction.
- In Crawfordsville and Warrenton, free blacks were forbidden to reside on lots separate from their white guardians, to keep “eating house” or “public table,” or to “in any manner traffic in chickens, butter, eggs, ducks, turkeys, etc.” Free blacks who were convicted of these offenses faced stiff fines from one hundred to two hundred dollars, and if unable to pay they could be sold into slavery for an unspecified period of time.
- In Bainbridge, free blacks faced stiff new taxes, including a poll tax, a personal property tax, and a special street tax of five dollars per person.
- In Louisville the town commissioners could impose an annual tax of one hundred dollars upon all free blacks living or working within the corporate limits, regardless of age or sex. Anyone who failed to pay this tax would be “levied on” and sold into slavery “for such time as will be required to pay said tax.”
- On December 20, 1859 the state legislature authorized the city of Augusta to order the enslavement “either for life or a term of years” of any “free person of color or nominal slave” convicted of violating any city ordinance.
Much of what is included above was pulled from Clarence L. Mohr’s brilliant study, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia. That is just a rough overview of the ways in which local law could be employed to assuage the fears of white southerners following Brown’s raid. We find some of the same laws and ordinances in other states as well. Once we have the proper context to consider when reading these petitions by free blacks we can see that the line between free and enslaved was gradually being expunged in the late antebellum period.