RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: FREE BLACKS IN THE 1800'S
THE FREE BLACKS IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA IN THE 1800’s
The issue of racism and racial discrimination has always been present in human history. The concept of “survival of the fittest” goes along with it. People belonging to a certain race will stick together to make their race survive, sometimes at the expense of other groups of people. Racism is a belief that discrimination of a certain person is reasonable depending on his or her racial category. Most people who suffer racial discrimination are the minority. Africans, Asians, especially when they thrive in the Caucasian nations of the United States of America, Canada, Europe etc. Probably the race that has the most accounted for history of discrimination is the Blacks or what is commonly referred to today as the African-Americans. According to the United States Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2004, the estimated population of black residents makes up 13.4% of the total population of the United States. This figure represents an increase of half a million residents from one year earlier. Despite of this, daily news still gives accounts of black discrimination in this country even if the statistics show that they are getting closer to not being a minority.
The story of African Americans is deeply embedded in the history of America. Africans were among the first non-indigenous people to settle in British North America. Their cultures, with characteristic beliefs, values, languages, music, and aesthetic styles, blended from the beginning with Native American and European cultures to create a distinctive American culture. (, 1998, p. ix).
The Free Blacks in the United States in the 1800s
Although a few Africans came to America as free people, and some African Americans gained their freedom early in the country's history, the vast majority were brought as slaves, and most of their descendants remained in slavery for hundreds of years. The slave labor system was an integral part of the economy in nearly all the colonies and into the early national period in some northern states; it was the foundation of the economy in the South until the Civil War. Slavery was the basis of much of nation's wealth and the source of untold suffering for tens of millions of people. The elimination of slavery was among the primary aims of virtually all black community organizations, including churches, schools, fraternal organizations and mutual aid societies. ( 1998, p. ix).
According to (1982) generally, free Blacks identified closely with the slaves. The free Black’s parents had sometimes purchased their freedom or escaped from bondage. If they had escaped soon enough, they were legally fugitive slaves but had never known the overseer's lash. A number of them had been freed by their white fathers. North or South, their origin was generally identical. Free Blacks fought consistently against discrimination, enlisted in the antislavery campaign, and struggled to improve the black community, to maintain their self-esteem, and to overcome their poverty and ignorance. The most important factors which helped the Blacks to maintain their sanity in spite of the proscriptions against them were their racial pride, occasional association with egalitarian whites, religious devotion, travel among foreigners, and their families. (p. 34).
A. Social Struggles
The status of free Blacks in the United States was precarious at best. Segregation, employment discrimination, disfranchisement, and restrictions on personal freedom circumscribed their lives. They were social outcasts to the white community, which generally accepted the notion that slavery rather than freedom was their natural condition. Some Blacks were simply kidnapped and reduced to slavery. Several states required registration, such as Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi. Florida, Georgia, and many other states required free Blacks to have white guardians. In every southern state free Blacks had to have passes or certificates of freedom in their possession at all times. Often movement from county to county without official permission was restricted. Seaboard states in the South prohibited shore leave for Black sailors when ships arrived in the port. By the 1830s, most southern and some northern states prohibited the entry of free Blacks. Fines and a return to slavery were the penalties exacted for violations. Free Blacks were also forbidden to bear arms without a license, and only those whose conduct was above reproach obtained permits, renewable annually. They could not hold church services without the presence of a licensed, responsible white minister and could not hold meetings without permission. (, 1982, pp. 34-35).
The hope for education was filled with many obstacles and struggles for the Blacks. (1982) stated that Southern free Blacks desired education passionately. They educated their children largely through their own private efforts, with some support from white philanthropists. Usually the development of churches and schools was closely related. Whites regarded black schools as a nuisance and an unsettling influence, but free Blacks believed education offered an opportunity for economic, political and social advancement for themselves and their children. When whites established public school systems for their own children, they generally barred free Blacks from attending or even from sharing in the public funds to support their own schools. In 1860 Baltimore free Blacks paid $500 in taxes to support schools they could not attend. Blacks risked repressive measures in an effort to keep schools open. There were underground schools in almost every community. When a Richmond newspaper complained that black children were seen every Sunday morning marching to church with books in their hands, the police raided one black church and found the students being instructed. In like manner, the free Blacks in the north never knew what to expect from public school officials. Sometimes they barred Blacks altogether. On other occasions, Blacks were admitted, relegated to a back seat, and then taught their lessons only after all of the white children received theirs. (pp. 44-45)
B. Political Restrictions
Two notable occurrences in the American society during this period which further depicted the line dividing the Blacks and the white Americans were mob riots and harassment. (1998) wrote that while African Americans were participants in interracial mobs, they were also the targets of racially motivated mob attacks. New York City blacks complained to city officials as early as 1807 that whites were disturbing their church services with disruptions ranging from pranks by a few disorderly teenagers to more serious attacks by mobs. In many cities and towns white ruffians harassed, attacked, and played cruel practical jokes on black people. (p. 163). In the beliefs of the dominant culture, then, Africans gradually come to embody man's baser instincts, less civilized, sexually uncontrollable, and lacking the self-control demanded by the standards of republican virtue and a modern, industrializing society. Northern Blacks were increasingly shut out of any hope of legitimate political power, and they faced rising economic competition from greater numbers of European immigrants. Racial rapprochements became less likely as public officials banned or restricted traditionally interracial black-initiated celebrations such as Pinkster and Negro election days, in efforts to control the working class' "lewd and lascivious behavior." (p. 165). The racial composition of the mob changed as the acceptable grounds for mob violence narrowed. Earlier mob action had frequently centered on moral issues or political controversies. An unpopular tax, a law thought to be unfair, or the failure of the law to protect some shared community value had traditionally generated a mob. As white workingmen gained access to other forms of political participation, mob action gradually lost its acceptability as a form of political expression. The franchise and organizations centering on party politics were becoming more legitimate political vehicles, and these were increasingly racially restricted. (p.166). Some state constitutions written in the Revolutionary War period did not exclude free Blacks from voting, and some voted in Maryland, North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania for several years. But all southern states that entered the Union after 1789, except Tennessee, excluded Blacks from the vote. As the nineteenth century went on, state after state, North, South, and West, specifically denied black suffrage and until by 1830 free Blacks had political influence nowhere. The exclusion of Blacks from voting in the Northeast was related to the increasing political power of white workingmen, who believed that Blacks would vote to support their conservative Federalist employers. Moreover, Southern free Blacks generally were not permitted to testify in cases involving Whites. On the national level, federal law excluded free Blacks from militia service and excluded them from carrying the U.S. mails. Federal lawmakers also authorized the citizens of Washington, D.C., to elect only white city officials and to adopt a code governing free Blacks and slaves and denied passports to free Blacks. (, 1982, pp. 34-35).
C. Economic Hardships
Economically, poverty forced most southern free Blacks to work on two or three jobs to make a living. Some signed long-term contracts with employers for subsistence only, a practice that made them virtual slaves. At the end of a term, the worker would usually be in debt for food, clothing, and shelter advanced during the year which resulted to peonage. The crop-lien system snared others and tied them to one master's land. Free Blacks were forced into long terms of servitude for failure to pay fines, taxes, or jail fees. They could also be sold into slavery for failing to pay private debts, even after imprisonment for debt was abolished for whites. Apprenticeship laws were also used to extort long periods of labor from free Blacks. Free Blacks employed in mixed labor forces were given the worst jobs at the lowest pay. The railroads, for instance, hired black labor forces with whites but used them as axe men. No Blacks worked as stationmasters, agents, engineers, conductors, or watchmen. In the decades preceding the Civil War, white artisans began complaining about wage competition from free Blacks and slaves. Planter dominated legislatures responded at first by excluding free Blacks from making drugs, selling liquor, printing, or piloting ships, but they did not limit slave hiring for jobs. As the white workers continued to protest, legislatures placed additional restrictions on free Black employment opportunities. (, 1998). They could not engage in certain occupations without a license, such as selling corn, wheat, or tobacco in Maryland or trading or peddling in South Carolina. The key to the exercise of these police powers was that licensing was used to exclude Blacks from certain occupations and to reward "responsible" Blacks who supported the slave system. Although so restricted in employment, free Blacks in every state were required to work and have visible means of support. Some states required them to post bonds as security against public charges, continued to apprentice black children long after this practice ceased to be imposed on poor whites, and collected taxes from Blacks that were not exacted from Whites. In most places, however, free Blacks could own real property. The great influx of the Irish and German immigrants into southern cities in the 1830s and 1840s brought additional competition for the free Black. Free Black butchers could not work in the city market in Memphis, free Black artisans had to have their work approved by whites in Georgia, and free Black mechanics in Charleston and Savannah had to pay higher licensing fees than whites. ( pp. 34-35, 39-40).
The Quest for Emigration
The quest for emigration from the United States and back to the Blacks’ native land of Africa sprouted when African Americans came to realize that though America symbolized freedom, equality and justice for all men; their experiences of discrimination, injustice and violence in the country fell short of that definition. (1998) stated that the issue of African identity for African Americans was also strongly influenced by the fact that there were many African-born Blacks in the generation, growing old during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The majority of slaves brought to the United States arrived between 1760 and 1810, many of them directly from Africa. Many of them were members of the last generations of Africans whose personal connection with Africa as a birthplace colored the identity of free African Americans and encouraged their perceiving Africa as home. (p.178).
When the protests of and the angry farmers in western Massachusetts threatened to close local courts, and the federal and state governments could not raise sufficient troops to enforce the law, veteran volunteered to lead a contingent of seven hundred Boston area Blacks to put down the rebellion. Massachusetts officials refused 's offer, turning instead to wealthy Boston merchants who contributed funds to raise a sufficient force of white troops to quiet the revolt. and his followers took the rejection of their offer as an insult. Shortly thereafter, in June of 1787, over seventy Boston Blacks, under 's leadership, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court asking for funds to transport to Africa all Blacks who wished to go. For those who saw themselves as America’s African people, the thought of African emigration was often appealing. Even before Massachusetts Blacks petitioned for transportation to Africa, Blacks in the Newport African Union Society, with the encouragement of Minister , had discussed the feasibility of obtaining clear title to land somewhere in Africa where they might start a Christian settlement. Before the Revolution, abolitionists, critics of the slave trade, and ministers like Hopkins with evangelical ambitions for Africa had contemplated the resettlement of African Americans. Some Quakers, too, continued to have personal reasons for interest in proposals for African settlements. A young white Quaker architect and physician, , the son of a West Indian sugar planter, inherited seventy slaves in 1785 and immediately began contemplating possibilities for participating in a settlement experiment somewhere in Africa. Thornton became committed to the dream of his friend, , who had explored West Africa and was gathering support in England for the establishment of a free colony in Sierra Leone. had already found four hundred potential emigrants before he died in 1786. His work was carried on by British abolitionists, Quaker merchants, government officials, and private philanthropists concerned about the rising costs of assisting the many thousands of very poor Blacks in the city of London. Most of the emigrants were destitute sailors who had come to London from the United States during the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, pledged his own slaves to the Sierra Leone venture and set out for America to recruit more participants. He visited and spoke to mass meetings of Blacks in northeastern port cities where his enthusiasm was received with cautious respect. Despite their interest in African settlement and their petition to the state legislature, the African Company in Boston expressed their reservations in a letter to the African Union Society in Newport, Rhode Island. The letter said that they did not approve of Mr.'s plan to settle a place for them and suggested that it would be better if they could charter a vessel and send some of their own Blacks. Members the African Union Society of Newport corresponded with Blacks in Providence, Boston, and Philadelphia in an effort to establish a regional association to promote and support African emigration. who made the letter for the Newport society in the fall of 1787 wrote that they were waiting and longing to hear what has been the success of the attempt made in England to make a settlement of Blacks in Africa. He expressed the hope that Massachusetts would provide the funds for emigration, said Newport Blacks would like to join Boston Blacks in emigrating, but lamented the fact that they were too poor to do much. Finally, in 1794 the Rhode Island societies with the support of some white merchants interested in establishing an African trade managed to gather the resources to send emissaries to negotiate with officials in Sierra Leone. and from Providence and Newport Gardner from Newport were chosen, but by the time the ship departed in late 1795 only was aboard. Sierra Leone officials promised that twelve families from Rhode Island could emigrate and receive land but required that their character be vouched for by the Reverend , white president of the Rhode Island Abolition Society. would not provide the necessary endorsement for the Providence Blacks. ( 1998, pp. 179-181).
(2002) wrote that in late August 1829, whites, determined to enforce old laws deterring black settlement in the state of Ohio, provoked an exodus of over half the black population from the city of Cincinnati. Typically, antebellum mob action directed toward free blacks was intended to punish or intimidate; rarely, if ever, was the goal to force an exodus of the entire black population. The mob action of 1829 was one of the earliest examples in American history of a white effort to forcibly "cleanse" society of its black population. Although the 1829 mob action stands as an important benchmark in Cincinnati's history, the subsequent mass migration of 1,100 to 2,000 free Blacks from the city should not be considered an act of mass victimization. In fact, in an 'act of self-determination' a portion of the black community that quit Cincinnati in 1829 established an independent, all-black colony in Ontario, Canada that they named Wilberforce. Emigration to Wilberforce not only proved that these African Americans resisted oppression, but that they defined and pursued freedom on their own terms.