Before slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, there were those who at the time were called “free people of color”. But being free was not the same for these people of color as it was for white folks.
Slaveholders would sometimes free their slaves (manumission) in gratitude for special services or for fighting the British.
Slaveholders’ children by black female slaves were often given their freedom, though sometimes only after decades of indentured service somewhere else. These children usually had some level of education, from learning a trade through their indentured service to being sent to university in France.
Slaves who made some money of their own from being rented out could buy themselves free. Their price was determined by their market value. The older a slave got, the lower his market value, and therefore the more feasible that he could afford himself. But slaves with special skills like carpentry were more valuable to their owners, so it was harder to get the money together for freedom.
New Orleans had a system of placement. Most planters in the area, married or single, had a placee. At first these were pretty black slave girls whom they bought, gave their freedom and set up–placed–in small houses in town, where the planters could visit them whenever they felt like it.
Eventually these women had children, and the daughters often became placees as well, since it was the most secure position available to them in their society.
These mistresses were free in the sense that they were no longer slaves, and they lived a life of luxury as long as they could keep their Creole men happy. Which meant always being there for them, which meant limited mobility, because they wouldn’t want to risk their man visiting them while they were out socializing with their friends.
Most planters provided well enough for their placees that even when the relationship ended, the women were set for life, with small businesses of their own; however, this was never a sure thing. A placee could just as easily find herself out on the street with no way to make a living other than prostitution.
In New Orleans, all women of color, be they slaves or free, were required to wear a tignon (head scarf) outside their own homes. Slave tignons were simple, but free women of color often had huge, elaborate and colorful tignons, as an “in your face” to the people who would oppress them.
Black people had curfews, they couldn’t carry weapons of any kind and they were not allowed to fight back if a white man attacked them. Also, the vague act of “insulting a white man” was a crime, which meant that free blacks were still forced into a certain level of self-debasement toward whites.
Slaves from the South who ran away usually tried to make there way north, to the northern states or to Canada, via the Underground Railroad–a string of people along the way who helped slaves make it to freedom. In 1798 the Fugitive Slave Act required northern states to cooperate in returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South. In 1850 a more severe version was passed as a compromise in all the political wrangling between North and South.
This meant that runaway slaves who made it north were never truly free because they could always be arrested and sent back south.
The law also had serious consequences for “legally” free blacks. Any Southerner could travel north, kidnap a free black man or woman, destroy their freedom papers (documents that proved they were legitimately free), claim they were runaways slaves, take them south down the Mississippi and sell them for a 100% profit. It was a lucrative business. Imagine, all those thousands of dollars, just walking around for the picking.
And of course blacks couldn’t vote.
Tomorrow I’ll have a post about abolitionists and their sometimes qualified ideas about freedom from slavery.