Free blacks, those freed before 1865 in the United States, lived under great suspicion and often under onerous state restrictions. Especially in the places where their numbers were relatively large (i.e., Upper South states of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and North Carolina), slaveholders properly viewed them as a threat to the ideology of white supremacy.
A Slave Society
Slaveholders created societies that promoted the intrinsic inferiority of black people. The reality of free blacks living, working, and caring for their families outside of slavery was a constant reminder of the falsity of that premise.
“White” was supposed to always equate to “free,” while “black” was supposed to equate to “slave.” Free blacks were not supposed to be a part of the narrative. Certainly, mulattoes were always problematic.
Over time, states began to restrict the pathways to freedom for enslaved people. When freed, they possessed few rights. Most could not vote, own dogs or guns, testify in court against a white person.
Moreover, their mobility was also restricted. Most could not gather in large numbers, and they were often barred from certain occupations and trades.
Some states required free blacks to have a white “protector” to vouch for their behavior–even to post bond. All of this, and slavery was just a whisper away. Criminal accusations could lead to re-enslavement, and kidnappings were frequent.
Free people could never be sure they would stay free.
By the late 1850s, many states required those freed to leave the state. Other states refused to allow the migration of free blacks from other states. Curtis Jacobs tried to get Marylanders to re-enslave all free blacks or kick them all out of the state. His 1860 speech was full of malice:
“Free negro-ism is an excrescence, a blight, a mildew, a fungus—hanging on to and corrupting the social and moral elements of our people in Maryland.”
Thankfully, this measure failed, but Jacobs was not alone in his sentiments.
A Terrible Choice
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how tenuous the life of most free blacks was. One topic that has been little discussed in genealogy is the decision some free blacks made to re-enslave themselves.
While confusing to our modern sensibilities, this decision in most cases came down to family. Free blacks almost always had family still enslaved. Many free blacks worked together to try to purchase these family members.
Leaving a state, your home, while all of your family and kinship connections remained was not freedom to our ancestors. This was at the heart of why some chose to re-enslave.
Ted Wolf explored the topic in his heartbreaking book about re-enslavement in Virginia.
Many years ago, I first came across one of these records on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My Waters ancestors were from Somerset County, Maryland.
Although committed to slavery, relatively large numbers of free blacks lived on the Eastern Shore. Curtis Jacobs lived there.
An active base of slave traders ensured steady sales to the Deep South for the region’s enslaved, part of the Domestic Slave Trade.
Victims of the trade, Stephen Adams and his wife Martha likely landed in New Orleans. They returned home to Somerset County and re-enslaved themselves– almost certainly for family ties:
Know all men by these presents that we Stephen Adams and Martha Adams his wife people of colour from the State of New Orleans being there manumitted legally recourse being had to our papers will more fully appear & whereas in our native State and county of Somerset where…
we were bred & on finding the laws of said state prohibits free people of colour from emigrating from other States into said State under certain pains and penalties & to avoid which inconveniences & not wishing to infringe on the laws rights & privileges of said State with advice & of our consent & free will …
we agree & bind ourselves & each of us to become & be the slaves & property of Whitty Fontaine to every intent and purpose, his will obey his command observe & his directions folly [follow?] as same as if we had not been regularly set free. In testimony we have hereonto set our hands & seals this 22nd day of Augt. 1826.
Re-enslavement in Tennessee
More recently, I came across a re-enslavement record in a deed book in Hardin County, Tennessee. Jacob and Rachel Lacey re-enslaved themselves to a man named David Robinson.
They were able to limit their period of re-enslavement. However, David gave explicit instructions about the exact manner of their behavior:
For value received we Jacob and Rachel Lacey have this day sold ourselves severally and do hereby severally convey ourselves to David Robinson his heirs and assigns for seven years we covenant on our part we and each of us that after the manner of a slave we will severally live with and serve David Robinson and obey all his lawful commands for a during the said term of seven years…
that we will neither jointly or severally do harm or damage in character person or property nor willfully suffer others to do him any but will give him timely notice of any danger or evil that may threaten him of which will may jointly or severally have any knowledge.
We will play at no unlawful game or games visit no tippling house or houses place of gaming or ill fame nor absent ourselves from his service but in all things and at all times will severally act as good and faithful slaves ought to do for the said term of seven years also jointly and severally agree to give up our free papers to the said David Robinson to hold for the said term of seven years and to cease to be free people of color for said period of time…
…and the said David Robinson on his part covenant that he will severally treat us as he does the rest of his slaves that he will furnish us with such food clothing and other necessaries in sickness and in health as he does to the rest of his slaves in similar situations and that he will treat us with humanity…
More About Jacob and Rachel
The deed goes on to provide details about why this couple chose re-enslavement:
…the said David Robinson also agrees to employ counsil to endeavor to get our children Ellinor Lacey and Mary Lacey who were bound by the county court of Hardin County to Dr. JG Blake released from said binding and restored to us and the said Robinson agrees in addition to fee for counsil in said case to pay said Blake the amount he paid out for said children before they were bound to him…
if it is ascertained that they cannot be released from said binding, and restored to us without that amount having to be paid and if we or either of us shall be prosecuted for living in the state of Tennessee said Robinson agrees to employ consil to defend us or either of us this the second day of December 1845
Since they were free blacks, a white man apprenticed the Lacey children. David Robinson essentially promised to pay for a lawyer to get their children back.
What a sacrifice.
Did Jacob and Rachel ever get their children back? A review of county court records reflects two Lacey children bound out in November 1844. The record asserts that they had the permission of their mother Rachel. In November 1845, court minutes state:
LACY, JACOB – Sheriff ordered to bring Ellen and Mary Lacy, minor children of Jacob Lacy and who were bound to D. J.G . Blake, to court. Blake to be summoned to show cause why said children should not be given to their father.
About one month later, December 1845, Jacob and Rachel re-enslaved themselves. By March 1846, the court appointed Thomas Maxwell (a local man) as guardian of the children.
David Robinson died just a few years later, and no other entries about the family have been found. No African-American Laceys with these given names lived in the county in 1870, though it’s likely that the parents likely died by then.
Enslaved people wanted freedom.
But these records make clear the tragic circumstances that even our “free” ancestors had to contend with. In a society built by and for slaveholders, free blacks would always be an anomaly.
To keep their families intact, some black people chose re-enslavement.
Ira Berlin, authored the groundbreaking book Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. The book details the restrictions most free blacks lived under. Scholars are still uncovering new perspectives on their lives.
Some free blacks were able to become trusted members of their communities using their reputations. They successfully leveraged reputations and relationships with local whites that defied social conventions.
State laws, inconsistently applied at the local level, were negotiated by free blacks to their advantage.
A few books that come to mind are Kirt Von Daacke’s Freedom has a Face: Race, Identity and Community in Jefferson’s Virginia, and Melvin Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War.
The story of our ancestors is never monolithic.
But they were never without their agency and their humanity, even in the midst of an awful set of choices that led some to re-enslavement.
Let’s never forget that.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.