In 1840 Mississippi had 1,366 free blacks, most of whom lived in Natchez and other towns in southwestern counties along the Mississippi River. By 1860 that number had declined to 773, principally because local and state governments had made it increasingly difficult to emancipate slaves. As agitation over the morality of slavery grew in northern states and southerners increasingly feared that free blacks might assist in slave rebellions, the plight of the state’s free people of color worsened, even when those African Americans themselves owned slaves and accommodated to the larger social order of slavery.
In a world where all blacks were presumed to be enslaved, African Americans could achieve free status in a few relatively simple ways. A child born to a free black woman was free. A slave owner could manumit a slave when a legal authority such as the state legislature or a judicial officer endorsed the manumission. And a slave who had been legally manumitted in another state could move to Mississippi. In many cases, manumitted blacks were the sons and daughters of the same white owners who freed them: in 1860, 601 of Mississippi’s free blacks were mulattoes.
Antebellum Mississippi’s free blacks were constrained by a social order rooted firmly in the institution of slavery. Free blacks were forbidden by law to serve on juries or testify against whites, carry weapons unless licensed, move about without documented evidence of their freedom and proof of employment, vote or run for any public office, set type or work for a newspaper, sell or trade goods in other than designated towns, operate grocery stores or taverns, work on boats or river craft, serve as ministers, and assault or use abusive language toward whites. Violation of these laws could result in fines, imprisonment, whippings, and even enslavement.
However, blacks who had been emancipated in Mississippi could own property in the state. They also could marry, learn to read and write (although no schools for free blacks existed), have recourse to the law for the enforcement of contracts, and enjoy the security of family life not subject to sale or enslavement unless specific laws were violated. Natchez barber William Johnson and a few other enterprising free blacks accumulated small amounts of wealth and even owned slaves. Such free men and women worked as farmers, barbers, hack drivers, woodcutters, carpenters, brick masons, laundresses, and cooks, and some inherited property from white fathers and relatives.
Many of the state’s slave-owning free blacks enjoyed a relatively protected status in their communities principally because they accommodated themselves to and at least publicly supported dominant white racial mores. Deference to all whites and knowing one’s place might help to safeguard free African Americans’ well-being but also circumscribed their freedom, keeping them from being truly free. And no matter how well they followed the rules, they remained vulnerable to outbreaks of white hysteria.
- Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974)
- Ronald L. F. Davis, The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720–1880 (1994)
- Virginia Meacham Gould, ed., Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To Be Free, Black, and a Female in the Old South (1998)
- William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis, eds., William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (1951)
- D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (1968)
- Charles Sydnor, American Historical Review (July 1927)
- Charles Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1933)
- Wilbur Zelinsky, Population Studies (March 1950)