Laws and Lives of Free African Americans In North Carolina: the 1800s

24 April 2007

This week is a continuation of the laws in North Carolina regarding free people of color. Most are specifically about free Blacks, but some laws are general including tax-paying Native Americans. Some laws also are about interactions between enslaved people and free African Americans. If you have noticed from last week's post, the laws started out somewhat lenient, but became more and more strict over time. This week you'll see the same theme appear. Laws for the 1700s may have become more strict, but apparently they were bearable to the free Blacks who resided within North Carolina as with the exception of a very few, I have been able to follow the families within North Carolina for that century; however, the 1800s are a different story, and thing really took a turn for the worse for free Blacks.

One example of how things became worse is after Nat Turner's Revolt in Virginia, 1831. Although the revolt took place in Virginia, it did affect North Carolina. The revolt took place in Southampton County, VA, which is directly above the VA-NC border (see map). A sort of mass hysteria followed the revolt and many Blacks, both slave and free where accused of conspiracy with Nat Turner and executed.

So why would this revolt have such an impact on free Blacks in North Carolina? As author Paul Heinegg points out, many of the free blacks in North Carolina were manumitted in Virginia and migrated into the borders of North Carolina. Because of this, it is likely that insurrections in Virginia had more of an affect on North Carolinians than those in other states since that is where many of their free black population (or their ancestors) during the colonial and revolutionary period originally came from.

Well, let's get on to the topic at hand here:

The North Carolina General Assembly passed 3 separate laws between 1801-1833, no doubt brought forth by white Carolinians' fear from Gabriel’s Rebellion and Nat Turner’s revolt. All three laws concerned the act of manumission. The first law, passed in 1801, required a 100 pound bond by the slave owner for each slave manumitted. The General Assembly of the state passed the second law in 1830. This law increased the amount of the bond to one thousand pounds, ten times the amount of the 1801 law. On addition, if any slaveholders desired to manumit a slave, this law required them to file a petition with the county court and give public notice six weeks in advance. Section two of this act stipulated that any manumitted slave must leave North Carolina’s boundaries within ninety days “. . . and will never return within the State afterwards.” A third law passed in 1833 that made no changes to the 1830 law, but rather upheld it.

Apparently, none of these three manumission laws were followed completely. For instance, in 1814, a slave named Maria was freed in Cumberland county and the 100 pound bond was not a required condition for her freedom. In 1821, Job Hazell, a free black man, petitioned the court to set free his two slaves, who were actually his wife and daughter. The court complied and no mention of a monetary reimbursement to the court was mentioned in neither the petition nor the decision. In an 1836 case, the court was petitioned to set free four slaves for a monetary reimbursement of only 1200, less than half of what the law required. In 1847, Joshua Carman of Cumberland County set free two of his slaves for a payment of only $500, only a quarter of the requirement. It is possible that the law allowed individual counties to interpret and apply the law in the manner they saw fit. Further examination of emancipations during the 19th century is necessary to come to a more conclusive understanding on how the law was applied statewide.

The year 1836 saw the passage of two more laws dealing with apprenticeships, public preaching, and slave insurrections. The first of these laws passed gave power to the many county courts to bind out all illegitimate children born to free people of color and all children of free people of color whose parents were not employed in “honest and industrious work.” As with earlier apprenticeship laws, all children of free people of color bound out were to remain so until of age 21 and apprenticeship masters were required to teach reading and writing. A new stipulation required apprenticeship masters to pay a $500 bond that said they would not remove their wards from the county in which they resided. Numerous court cases before 1836 in the guardians court (more about that on another day) regarded apprentice masters who took their wards either out of the town, county, or even state without permission from the courts or their wards' parents. I believe this law was put in place to prevent that from happening.

The second law of 1836 further restricted contact between free blacks and slaves. The first section made it illegal for any slave or free black person to preach in public or to even officiate as a teacher in a meeting that included slaves. Violation of the first section was punishable by thirty-nine lashes. As its second point, if any free black was found involved in any capacity in a slave insurrection, they would be put to death. I personally believe this is a result of slave insurrections, and particular Nat Turner's Revolt of 1831. Smaller insurrections that occurred in the South during the 1800s were sometimes the result of a conspiracy between slaves and free Blacks. Although I have not found any record specifically stating why this law came about, I do believe that this was brought up as a way to prohibit that from happening in North Carolina.

It should be noted that around this time, the 1830s, many of North Carolina's free Black population began to leave the state. Many of them settled in Ohio and Indiana, and even a few went further South into Louisiana, particularly New Orleans where another large free Black population existed.

The passage of laws regarding free blacks during the last years of the slavery era in North Carolina seemed to be a scramble to hang on to the last threads of an institution. Five laws alone were passed in 1861 and another in 1863 for a total of at least six laws during the Civil War. There may have been others, but were not found as of yet by me. 1861 saw the first passage of laws limiting the rights of property ownership for free blacks in North Carolina, as well a further and final restriction on the practice of manumission and apprenticeships, taxes, and trade and the setting up of a poor house specifically for free people of color.

Free blacks in North Carolina owned property just like their white neighbors. Some of them owned a lot, some very little. In North Carolina, free blacks, “. . . enjoyed all the protection in the matter of acquisition, transfer, devise, and descent [of property] that other citizens . . . enjoyed.” The courts ruled strongly against violations of property rights against free blacks. The first two laws of 1861 regarded the rights to bear arms and the ownership of slaves. Until 1861, no laws denied free blacks the right to own a gun, as long as it they held a license issued by a county court. This first act took away that right and prohibited county courts from granting licenses to free blacks. Violation of this law could have resulted in a fine of at least $50. It should be noted here that at least one exception was made. For instance, in 1861, the County Court of Robeson County allowed Jack McPherson, a free black man, to own and carry a gun on his own premises for a year and there appears to be no action taken against the county. The second law prohibited free blacks from owning slaves or purchasing slaves, including the purchase of family members’ freedom. In many cases where free blacks in North Carolina owned slaves, the slaves were family members who had been purchased in order to obtain their freedom. However, their slave spouses and children had to remain slaves because of manumission laws in the mid-1800s made it very difficult to free them. This law made it impossible for free blacks to purchase slaves, even members of their immediate family, for the purpose of manumission. This new law prohibited that. In its entirety, this act stated:

That no free negro, or free person of color shall be permitted or allowed to buy, purchase or hire for any length of time, any slave or slaves, or to have any slave or slaves bound as apprentice or apprentices to him, her, or them, or in any other wise to have the control, management or services of any slave or slaves, under a penalty of one hundred dollars for each offense, and shall further be guilty of misdemeanor, and liable to indictment for the same.

This act does give relief to free Blacks who have already purchased or hired slaves; this law did not apply to them. It did, however, prevent them from purchasing or hiring any more slaves in the future. In a case where a free black man or woman has a spouse or child still a slave because they had not yet saved enough money to purchase them (and hence their freedom), this was indeed a striking blow. Yet another blow to slaves hoping for the chance to gain their freedom and possibly join the rest of their family, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed a law in 1861 that made it illegal to manumit a slave by a person’s last will and testament and in cases where that was attempted became null and void.

Perhaps the strangest law passed in North Carolina before and during the Civil War was a law that the General Assembly passed in 1861 allowing all free persons of color to choose their own masters and become slaves. Originally, I thought that perhaps a free Black person in huge debt to another person might enter into a form of slavery as a method to pay off his or her debt; however, under closer examination of the law, it stipulated that there cannot be any outstanding debt with the chosen master. Why a person would choose to become a slave is unfathomable, but it did happen. At least two instances in North Carolina, people chose to become slaves. In Guildford County in 1861, John Phillips and Jenetta Wright both filed petitions to become slaves. It is not clear why these two free blacks chose to become slaves, but a reasonable assumption is that that they were so destitute to that even slavery looked like a good option, since they would at least have food and shelter as slaves. Of all the county papers on slaves and free blacks that I have searched so far, these cases were the only that could be found of a free black person petitioning the court to become a slave.

The final and longest law of 1861 had eleven points to it, covering four separate topics. The first section of this law was an act to set up a poor house in each county specifically for free people of color. Furthermore, each county was to summon before its court every free person of color within its boundaries and note their name, age, economic status, and whether if willing and able to support their family. If they are found willing and able, then nothing further was needed; however, if they were not willing nor able to support their families, then either the family was sent to the poor house or the children under age 10 were to be bound out. Along with this law, if the court found a person willing and able to support their family, any of their children age 16-21 were considered taxable and the county courts received the power to assess taxes on these households based on the value of labor. If the court bound out any child, the parents retained the right to file a plea that would prevent the county court from further binding out and for the court to reassess the economic status. Lastly, all previous laws regarding the trading between whites and slaves now applied to trade between whites and free people of color. This meant that whites could no longer buy products or trade with free people of color without the written consent of their employer or the justice of the peace for that county in which they resided. In essence, this act cut off all sources of livelihood of free people of color and relegated status of free blacks to that of slaves. Because they were free, they were not allowed to trade or do business with slaves, but now because they are Black, they can no longer trade or do business with whites.

The last law passed by North Carolina concerning that of free Blacks before the end of the Civil War was that of 1863. This law regarded punishment for felonies and for manslaughter. This law stated that if any free person of color was found guilty of manslaughter or any felonies, punishment should be public whipping, not to exceed 39 lashes.

Of all the laws restricting the freedoms of the free black population passed between 1715 and 1863, the great majority of those laws were passed out of fear held by the white population. There are two parts to this fear. First and foremost, a fear that came from events that took place outside North Carolina borders, particularly Gabriel’s Rebellion and the Nat Turner Revolt in Virginia and the Denmark Vessey Revolt in South Carolina. These events took place in the 1800’s and for the most part, soon after the events transpired, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed stricter laws.

Secondly, their fear came from a steadily growing population of free blacks, which grew from 4,975 in the 1790 census to 30,463 in the 1860 census. For the most part, these laws passed during this time were not reactionary to events that transpired within their own borders, but to events in neighboring states, especially Virginia.

Here is a bibliography of sources I used to write this paper in 2004. Links to the Deed of Gibbea Chavis and also the petition go back to my personal website, where I have transcribed those records verbatim, back in 2004. The HTML coding is a bit off, so some places have weird writing in the place of " and '. The link for Table 48 at the Census Bureau is a spreadsheet that will automatically load (or at least should) in whatever spreadsheet software you use on your computer. It shows the population by race from 1790 to 1990 and it an excellent source. Note that the total number of "free" differs slightly than the totals I have given, but overall, it's the same. It seems to depend mostly on what your source is.

  • Byrd, William L., III. In Full Force and Virtue: North Carolina Emancipation Records 1713-1860. Bowie, MD: Heritage books, 1999.
  • Clark, Walter L. The State Records of North Carolina. Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers Book and Job Printers, 1906.
  • Cumberland County. Miscellaneous Papers. Slave Records. “Freedom Papers and Writs of Emancipation, 1801-1855.” (C.R.029.928.9)
  • Franklin, John Hope. The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Emancipation papers of Betty Beebee
  • Granville County. Denied Petitions. Petition of Inhabitants of Granville County, 1771.
  • Granville County. Election Records. 1861, (C.R.044.912.2).
  • Granville County. Election Records. 1862, (C.R.044.912.3).
  • Granville County. Will Book L. Deed of Gibbea Chavis to Joseph McDaniel.
  • Guilford County. Miscellaneous Papers. Petition of John Phillips to Become a Slave.” 1861, (C.R.046.928.2).
  • Guilford County. Miscellaneous Papers. Petition of Jenette Wright to become a slave,” 1861, (C.R.046.928.2).
  • NC Senate Bill No. 27, Session 1860-1861. A Bill to Regulate the Free Negro Population Within this State. General Assembly, 1861.
  • PBS. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.
  • Public Laws of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly at its Session of 1860-’61.Raleigh: John Spelman, 1861.
  • The Revised Statutes of the State of North Carolina Passed by the General Assembly at the Session of 1836-37. Raleigh: Turner and Hughes, 1837.
  • Rowan County, Miscellaneous Papers, “Civil Actions against slaves and free persons of Color”, (C.R.085.928.5).
  • Saunders, William L. The Colonial Records of North Carolina. Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers Book and Job Printers, 1906.
  • U.S. Census Bureau. Table 48. North Carolina - Race and Hispanic Origin: 1790 to 1990.
  • Warren County, Miscellaneous Papers, “Civil Actions against slaves and free persons of Color”, (C.R.100.928.2).
  • 1790 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1800 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1810 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1820 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1830 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1840 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1850 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 1860 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Comments

    Submit comments Please note that all comments are moderated.

    Debbie said on January 24, 2008 at 9:51 PM
    I enjoyed your blog. It goes right along with the senior paper I am planning to write this semester. Don't worry I won't be duplicating your information. I am on a preliminary survey for primary sources. Can I ask you where I can find the sources you cite for the laws and regulations regarding manumission? Thanks!


    Mike Broadway said on June 24, 2008 at 4:02 PM
    Thanks for reporting on your research. I have an idea about the free blacks who voluntarily became slaves in Guilford County. One of the strange relationships that the slavocracy brought about was the purchasing of slaves by abolitionists in order to get around the tightening restrictions on manumission. In Guilford County, Quakers purchased slaves in order to let them begin to work the land and live as free persons, even though by the laws of NC they were slaves. It could be that these two persons were looking for protection during a time when they feared being forced into slavery.

    Erin said on July 23, 2008 at 1:44 PM
    Debbie, I hope this is not too late, but my main source regarding the laws is:

    Clark, Walter and William L. Saunders. The state records of North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C. : N.C. General Assembly, 1886-1907.

    This is a series of books that span from the 1600s through the 1800s. The book is full of transcripts and abstracts of actually records and there is an index at the end of the series so you can look by subject and key words. Most of the records these transcribe are also available at the State Archives of North Carolina. What I did was use the series as a jumping off point, find the records with the information and then used the actual records when available. It should be mentioned that Clark and Saunders didn't do all the work together. Clark did books 1-26 and Saunders did books 27-I believe 37 and I believe also the index.

    Robyn said on September 29, 2009 at 9:30 PM
    This is a fabulous blog, Erin. What a worthy effort. Keep it up!

    Renate Yarborough Sanders said on May 31, 2010 at 8:22 PM
    Hi Erin,
    This is a very informative post. I ran across it in a Google Search attempt, trying to find any information about the "poor house" in Franklin County, which I think may have become the "County Home" by 1910. If you have anything, or can point me to more information on either, please email me at yarsan (at) Thanks!


    Unknown said on March 20, 2011 at 3:36 PM
    Hi, I am writing a paper on free blacks in north carolina petitioning to reenter slavery and I was wondering if you had any sources that might help me. Thank you so much and your log is amazing!

    Unknown said on November 8, 2013 at 1:52 AM
    Thank you for this blog. it has provided a historical background to the lives of free blacks in North Carolina. My family is from North Carolina, and I started researching my family tree several months ago. I discovered that one branch of my tree were free blacks in Martin County, North Carolina. I was curious as to what their lives would have been like - "free" in a slave state. I was also curious as to how my family came to be impoverished. the restrictive laws against free blacks in N.C. seems to be the culprit.

    Unknown said on January 17, 2018 at 2:52 PM
    I just found your blog and wanted to thank you for the content. I'm writing a paper of my own and some of the information you collected will be helpful in me completing it.

    Thanks much.