Laws and Lives of Free African Americans In North Carolina: the 1700s

19 April 2007

Hi folks! Today's post is going to be the first of a 2 part series on the laws in North Carolina regarding free Blacks. Today will be about the laws of the 1700s. First is a bit of an introduction about the laws over the period of 1715-1863 and what might have led to their creation. Then will look at the laws specifically from the 1700s. I'll also be posting all my sources for both parts in next week's post. This will be sort of long, so let's dig in!

NOTE: Links to the state constitution go to a page at the State Library of North Carolina. The other 2 links to actual free Black documents are transcriptions by me at my website.


Between the years of 1715 and 1863, the state of North Carolina passed numerous laws that gradually restricted the rights of free blacks within its borders. These laws focused on restricting the rights on how slaves could gain freedom, whether or not free Blacks could vote, rules for paying taxes, movement in and out of the state as well as movement within the state, regulation of apprenticeships, property ownership, marriage and cohabitation, and involvement of free Blacks with slaves. Despite these restrictions, the free Black population in North Carolina continued to grow from 4,975 in the 1790 census to 30,463 in the 1860 census. In looking at court cases and county records in North Carolina, not all the laws, especially those in the 1800s, were created as results of current problems facing the state, but rather as reactions to problems facing neighboring state, particularly Virginia. Many of the laws of the 1800s were reactions to events such as Gabriel's Rebellion in Virginia during 1800, the Revolt led by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina during 1822, and the Nat Turn Revolt also in Virginia during 1831. The state of North Carolina also passed many laws in 1861 in reaction to the Civil War. Also, the growth of the free Black population in North Carolina borders likely played a role in the laws that were passed by the North Carolina General Assembly.

The majority of the free Black population in North Carolina consistently resided within eight counties during the seventy year period from 1790-1860: Bertie, Craven, Granville, Halifax, Hertford, Northampton, Robeson, and Wake. In these eight counties, the free Black population grew rapidly between 1790 and 1820, but very slow growth from 1820-1840, likely signifying the exodus of many of North Carolina's free Blacks moving out of state, particular to Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. It wasn't until 1850 that the free Black population again saw a sharp increase (see table 1). On the county level, comparison of the free Black population in 1790 with that of 1860 shows that only Bertie County decreased in number, while Granville and Wake continually rose every census year. However, the other eight counties fluctuated in number each decade (see table 1). Overall, the population of free Blacks in North Carolina increased for all counties. These numbers are important because they reflect two things: how the rise in the free Black population could have prompted the General Assembly to pass laws that restricted their rights, and how the laws that the General Assembly passed affected the movement out of the state or to different counties within the state.

Table 1. Total number of free people of color enumerated in Bertie, Craven, Granville, Halifax, Hertford, Northampton, Robeson, and Wake Counties, 1790-1860 census.
County 1790 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860

Laws of the 1700s

Between the years of 1715 and 1799, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed a total of eleven different laws restricting the rights of manumitting slaves and the rights of free blacks. These eleven laws concerned the right to manumit slaves, voting rights of free blacks, who counted as tithables for paying taxes, migration into and out of the state, the practice of apprenticeships, registration of free blacks within certain towns, marriage rights, and an act designed to prevent the selling of stolen goods by slaves and free blacks.

In 1715, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed “An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves.” This act contained twenty-one sections, five of which pertained to free blacks. Sections one through thirteen, as well as section nineteen, all specified laws regulating slaves and indentured servants, especially women, while sections fourteen through eighteen aimed to regulate free persons of color (including Native Americans). Sections fourteen through seventeen were the first laws of the state to outlaw miscegenation. Section fourteen stated that if any white woman, whether servant or free, had a child by any person of color, she would be required by law to pay to the church warden six pounds or be sold into 2 years of servitude. Furthermore, section fifteen empowered church wardens to bind out any children born from a union between a white woman and colored man, until they become of age 31. It is important to note that only these children were to be bound to age 31, while other children, including legitimate children of color, were to be bound until only age 21. Section sixteen stated, “. . . Be It Further Enacted By the Authority aforesaid that no White man or woman shall intermarry with any Negro, Mulatto, or Indyan Man or Woman under the penalty of Fifty Pounds for each white man or woman.” Finally, section seventeen fined any members of the clergy who performed a marriage between a white person and person of color. Section eighteen was the first act passed by the General Assembly regulating the right of slave owners to set their slaves free. According to this section, owners could not grant manumission to slaves who previously attempted to runaway. Furthermore, the law stipulated that manumission would only be granted for “honest and faithful” service and that freed slaves must leave North Carolina within six months or face being sold back for an additional five years.

In 1715, the General Assembly passed another act, this time making it illegal for free people of color (including Native Americans) to vote. This act came about in part from a petition launched in 1705 which complained about servants, free people of color, Jews, and “aliens” voting in the previous election of the General Assembly for the state of North Carolina. In 1776, the state constitution of North Carolina gave back the right to vote to free blacks until a new constitution was written in 1835.

1723 saw the passage of one act regarding both taxables and migration in and out of the state. The act first deemed any free person of color age 12 or over taxable and also that any white person who married a free person of color became liable under the same law. A petition was filed in the Granville County Court to complain against this law, signed by both free black and white men, including Gibbea Chavis, a free black man, who owned 300 acres of land at one time. , The second part of the law stipulated that if a freed slave, after leaving the state within the required 6 months later returned, they could be apprehended and sold back into slavery for 7 years.

An act passed in 1733 regarding the practice of apprenticeship offered the only form of relief to free blacks during this time. Before 1733, free blacks could be taken and forced into an apprenticeship against their will. In July 1733, many complaints and petitions came forward concerning free blacks who were either forced into an apprenticeship or forced to remain past the legal age of 21, many forced to stay as long as age 31. As a response to these unethical apprenticeships, Moseley Vail, of the North Carolina House, wrote to the General Assembly that, “. . . these practices are well known . . ..” and further wrote, "It is therefore humbly recommended by the said Committee that a vote pass this House declaring the illegality of such a practice and that all such Persons so taken from their Parents or Guardians be returned . . ." Later the same year, the General Assembly agreed with Vail and made such practices illegal.

An act passed by the state legislature of North Carolina in 1741 repealed the manumission act of 1715. Three major points comprised the act of 1741. First, slaves could only be emancipated as a reward for meritorious service. No longer could slaveholders free their slaves as they desired for whatever reason they desired. As its second point, this act required manumitted slaves to leave the state within six months in the same manner as the act of 1715. Finally, if the newly freed slave did not leave the state by the end of the six-month period, they could be sold back into slavery. Unlike the act of 1715, this new act did not limit the length of time for them to serve.

In 1762, the General Assembly passed two separate laws, only one of which proved beneficial to free blacks, concerning the practice of apprenticeship. It is worth noting that the laws regarding apprenticeship during the 18th century applied to both white and free black children, unless otherwise noted. The first of the apprenticeship acts required apprentice masters or mistresses to “. . . provide for him or her Diet, Clothes, Lodging, Accommodations, fit and necessary; and shall teach or cause him or her to be taught, to read and Write . . ..” This is a big step for free black children because without this stipulation, many free black children would not receive an education before reconstruction. The second apprenticeship law passed in 1762 upheld previous laws while adding three more stipulations. First, the second law gave county courts the power to bind orphan children with little to no inheritance. Second, and the only difference in the treatment of white and black children, is that all male children were bound to age 21, all black females bound to age 21, and all white females bound to age 18. The third stipulation is that all apprenticeships are now to be treated as indentures. Although free black children in an apprenticeship were taught to read and write, in essence, these apprenticeships could become a virtual form of slavery for the first 21 years of their lives.

The General Assembly passed laws that further restricted manumission in 1777 and 1778. Both laws upheld earlier laws, but added further restrictions. In 1777, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed an act, which in effect upheld the 1741 act. One of the major differences between the two acts is that the 1777 act called the practice of manumitting slaves “evil and pernicious” and that it “ought at this alarming and critical Time to be guarded against by every friend and Wellwisher to his country.” No doubt, that “critical time” in the law refers to the Revolutionary War. The 1777 law made it so that any free white person could apprehend a freed slave who reentered the state. After apprehension, these freed slaves who reentered the state could then be sold to the highest bidder, with one-fifth of the proceeds given to those who captured the slave. In effect, this gave a reward to the capturers and led to opportune-seeking individuals to capture legal free black citizens, as well as those illegally in the state, in order to make money. Once sold, the new owner could not allow the apprehended slave to hire themselves out. If their new owner allowed them to hire themselves out contrary to the law, the they could again be apprehended and forced to work twenty days of hard labor. Threats posed by the act of 1777, particularly that of apprehension and re-sale, did not constitute mere words. A group of Quakers in the state of North Carolina kept a log of manumitted slaves who fell victim to the act of 1777 from Pasquotank, Perquimans, and Chowan counties. Luckily, the General Assembly later released many of these manumitted slaves on the log.

In 1778, the General Assembly saw the error of the earlier law and passed a new law that stipulated that only the Sheriff could apprehend a freed slave who illegally reentered the state. The stipulation of 1778 remained in force as long as slavery existed in the state of North Carolina.

North Carolina’s first attempt at registering free people of color came in 1785. Apparently, the cities of Edenton, Fayetteville, Washington, and Wilmington had a problem with slaves attempting to pass as free. As a result, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed an act requiring the registration of free people of color who resided in the towns of previously stated, as well as free blacks who were visiting these four cities for three days or more. As well as registration, free people of color in the four towns were required to wear a patch on their shoulder that said “FREE.” It is important to note that this act applied only to Edenton, Fayetteville, Washington, and Wilmington and not to the entire state. Also of notice is that all four towns bordered a major body of water. Fayetteville is on the banks of the Cape Fear River, while Edenton, Washington, and Wilmington are all on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. A strong possibility exists that slaves in these four towns attempted to escape via these waterways by passing as free. Further evidence of this hypothesis can be seen from a law passed in 1787.

A law in 1787, entitled “An Act to Prevent Thefts and Robberies by Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes,” had five major stipulations concerning two different things, but with a similar purpose: a start in preventing contact between slaves and free blacks. The first two sections concern the “entertainment” of slaves and free blacks. First, no slave or free black can be entertained on boats from sundown to sunrise from Monday to Saturday and not at any time at all on Sunday. If any are found, perhaps during a raid or while on patrol, it will be assumed that the slave or free black person is trying to sell stolen goods and the commander of the boat will be fined. Two exceptions existed for the first section: that the slave has a pass from their master allowing them to be there or that the slave or free black person be employed on the ship. The second section states that free blacks cannot entertain slaves during the said times stated above. The difference in the two sections is how much a white commander will be fined versus a free black. There is no amount stated in the first section, but a free black person will be fined 20 shillings for the first offense and 40 shillings thereafter. The third section to the law made it illegal for a slave and free person of color to marry or cohabitate unless they have the written consent of the slaves master. If the master did not give consent, the free person of color could become a slave for one year. It becomes very clear that the intention of this law is not to prevent theft, but rather to prohibit contact between slaves and free blacks.

Concluding thoughts

I'm sure you willl come away from part 1 with one of two reactions: either you won't be surprised at the laws, meaning that you expected as much, or you're going to be pretty surprised - either that the laws are more lenient than expected or more harsh. I was not too surprised with the 1700s laws, but if anything, they were more lenient that what I would have expected. I would have been surprised if there were no miscegenation laws. I was most surprised about the 1787 laws that began to limit contact between slaves and free Blacks (and you'll see this again in the 1800s!) I guess I always assumed that free Blacks and slaves would always be able to keep in contact, but apparently not!

So, what do you find surprising or otherwise in this section? I'd love to hear your feedback!
There are a few surprises with the laws of the 1800s, and that's coming up next week, so stay tuned.


Submit comments Please note that all comments are moderated.

W Gregory said on July 8, 2010 at 1:42 PM
In your opinion, how would (other than being freed by a slave owner) a free person of color, become free to begin with? Love all the historical information that you've brought to your site! Thank you for that! Very informative!


Erin Bradford said on November 9, 2010 at 10:53 PM
at W Gregory - sorry for not getting back to you about this before. A person could actually be born free for one thing. Paul Heinegg has written extensively about free blacks in VA, NC, SC, MD, and DE (his website and book is at He points out in the introduction to the section about VA/NC/SC that early (1600s, early 1700s), maybe were born free as their mothers were white indentured servants rather than black slaves and back then, the status of freedom or slavery of the child depended on the status of the mother, not the father. If the mother was not a slave, but the father was, then the child was not a slave.

Also, some who were free in N.C. (as well as other states) are descended from Africans who were brought over as indentured servants, not as slaves.

Also, I know if one case where a white woman murdered her husband (white) and the only witness was one of their slaves. The court allowed her to testify (even though it was illegal for slaves to testify at the time) because she was the only witness to the murder. After her testimony, the court gave her, her freedom as well as the freedom of her unnamed children - this was probably to protect her from retribution by this woman's family for testifying against her - my opinion, but I could be wrong.