Choosing To Become a Slave

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.

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13 comments… add one
  • Karl Gottschalk Sep 3, 2011 @ 9:03

    Kevin, in your examples given above, the ultimate penalty for most of the infractions listed was –slavery. Why would a free black person petition to become a slave in order to avoid being convicted of one of these offenses and sentenced to — slavery? To me, this doesn’t make much sense as an explanation.

    • Woodrowfan Sep 3, 2011 @ 10:28

      Did the would-be slave have a voice in who the owner was if they chose slavery? I’d kind of doubt it, but I wonder…

      • Vicki Betts Sep 3, 2011 @ 13:38

        Evidently some could. The usual disclaimers that this is a pro-slavery Southern newspaper with a definite point of view:

        [LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, March 7, 1860, p. 2, c. 2

        The Exiled Free Negroes Returning into Slavery.

        The northern papers have been busily assailing the inhumanity of the act which exiled this unfortunate class from our State.
        We have now tested practically the law which relieved us from their presence, and the free negroes have tested the life of freedom among the freedom shriekers at the North.
        Our experience is of the most agreeable character, and the law has proven itself to be one of the very best on our statute book. Since Arkansas has been made by that act strictly a slave State, since all hope is cut off by statutory enactment of slaves here being liberated by will, or deed, unless the slave is carried beyond our limits in the lifetime of his owner and set free, there has been a marked change for the better in the character of the slave population. There is no discontent and no disposition to shirk service due even to indulgent masters. We can safely recommend to our sister States the law as salutary and wise under existing circumstances. The conduct of the northern abolitionists brought about the necessity of this law, forced us in self-defence to pass it, and the result is they have forced into voluntary slavery a large number of free negroes.
        Several of “the exiles” have returned and selected masters in this city. Others have returned to other counties to our certain knowledge, and those here report a state of facts which any one could have foreseen.
        All left here with plenty of money. A few month’s residence reduced them to penury and want. They say the abolitionists swindled them out of all their money and gave them in exchange only lip professions, that the free negro of the North has poorer fare and a harder time than the slave of the South.

        Vicki Betts

        • Vicki Betts Sep 3, 2011 @ 13:40

          Here’s another:

          YAZOO DEMOCRAT [Yazoo City, MS], September 4, 1858, p. 2, c. 1
          A Negro Girl Going South to Choose a Master.—We have to record a singular occurrence, but one that can be easily understood by those who comprehend the negro character. A free negro girl named Caroline, leaves New York to day, under the protection of Messrs. W. J. Phillips, and J. Rust, for the purpose of selecting her own master and residing in Texas. She prefers this course rather than remain in New York in a condition of so called freedom.—N. Y. Day Book.

          Vicki Betts

          • Vicki Betts Sep 3, 2011 @ 13:51

            And something I didn’t know–it seems that even free blacks in Texas had to have nominal masters:

            [MARSHALL] TEXAS REPUBLICAN, February 12, 1863, p. 2, c. 1
            Hiring Their Own Time.—The law expressly provides that negroes shall not be allowed to hire their own time, and for the reason that such servants are nuisances, if not actually dangerous to society. We invite the attention of our officers whose duty it is, to look to the matter, and if they fail to do so, we hope the Grand Jury will give the subject attention. Free negroes also constitute a bad population, whose example is exceedingly dangerous to the slaves. Under the free negro law of this State, free negroes nominally choose masters, but in reality are much freer than if they had no one to look after them. The Legislature ought, by all means, to amend this pernicious act, and if these negroes are to be free and to remain among us, some means should be provided for them to be properly governed. According to our experience, a negro is worthless without a master to manage him, and this he ought to have whether bond or free.

            Vicki Betts

            • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2011 @ 13:52

              These are great, Vicki. Thanks for sending them along.

            • Vicki Betts Sep 3, 2011 @ 14:29

              And one more:

              YAZOO DEMOCRAT [Yazoo City, MS], August 4, 1860, p. 1, c. 3
              The Crocket (Texas) Argus says: that “during the last term of the District Court of Grimes County, eighteen free negroes went into voluntary servitude to different persons in the vicinity of Anderson. Two families to Wm. Berryman, two men to Angus Passmore, and one man to Robert McIntyre, two families to James W. Barnes, and one woman to John R. Kenard.

              Vicki Betts

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2011 @ 11:06

      I am simply offering a brief explanation as to why a free black may have seen his legal status as untenable given the nature of the laws. You are free to offer your own interpretation. I was thinking about it and I happened to be reading Mohr’s book and thought it might be helpful to share some of it.

  • Jeff Sep 3, 2011 @ 7:53

    Are there any known instances of free blacks become slaves for the purposed of infiltrating enslaved communities and sparking an uprising?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2011 @ 11:17

      Nice to hear from you, Jeff. Interesting suggestions, but I don’t know of any examples.

  • Woodrowfan Sep 3, 2011 @ 4:54

    might a slave making such a request have been trying to stay with a spouse or other family member who was a slave already?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2011 @ 5:01

      That seems very likely.

    • Michael Sep 3, 2011 @ 9:14

      Purely anecdotal, of course, but a handed-down story in my family is that my 4x great grandfather, who was free, opted to enter slavery rather than be separated from my 4x great grandmother (who was enslaved) and their children. This was after the passing of legislation forbidding free blacks to remain in the state.

      As a side note, the man who held them in bondage became my 3x great grandfather. Oddly, my 3x great grandmother and their 6 children were still living with him and his wife at the time of the 1880 census.

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