A Contested Presence: Free Blacks in Antebellum Mississippi, 1820–1860
During its first half century as a territory and state (1810-1860), Mississippi
was an agrarian-frontier society. Its population was made up of four groups:
Indians, whites, slaves, and free blacks. All four groups were present
in Mississippi from its territorial beginnings.1
Blacks in Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South, became free in several
ways. Prior to 1825, it was common and legal for slaves to become free
either by purchasing their freedom or by slaveholders freeing them. Beginning
in the mid-1820s, both forms of emancipation became increasingly less
common and even illegal. The primary pathways to free status for blacks
In the decades after the 1820s, the legal avenues to freedom and emancipation
were limited only to children born to free mothers and parents and to
those approved by the Mississippi legislature through petitions for emancipation.
With the passage of an 1822 law, the legislature became directly involved
in slave emancipation for the purpose of limiting the states free
black population. The 1822 law gave the legislature authority to approve
or reject all slave emancipations in the state. Largely as a result, slave
emancipations sharply declined and Mississippis free black population
remained small, never exceeding 1,400.2
About 1810, the decade before Mississippi became a state, free blacks
numbered fewer than 300. Following statehood in 1817, the size of the
free black population, while nearly doubling, remained comparatively small,
totaling only 458 in 1820. By 1830 the states free black community
had grown modestly to 519. During the 1830s and by 1840, Mississippis
free black populace stood at roughly 1,400, an increase of more than 150
percent over the previous decade. The growth of the 1830s was followed
by a decline of almost a third in the 1840s, reducing the states
1850 free black population to fewer than a thousand. In the 1850s, the
decade immediately preceding the Civil War, Mississippis free black
community shrank until only 773 remained in the months before secession.
The consistently small number of free blacks in Mississippi between 1810
and 1860 was a direct result of a network of controls, backed by laws
and race prejudice. Most apparent were those controls that discouraged
and prevented free blacks from moving into Mississippi. If and when they
did arrive and there were never many their lives were governed
by an ever-widening range of laws specific to free blacks. Laws in Mississippi
as early as 1820 presumed every negro, or person of color,
to be a slave. To prove otherwise, free blacks were required to secure
certification for their free status.
Mississippis laws required every black of free status to appear
before the local court to give evidence of his or her freedom. When the
court was provided satisfactory proof, the applicants received certificates
of free status, or freedom papers, as the certificates became commonly
known. The certificate indicated the bearers name, color, physical
stature, and any distinguishing features, such as scars. Every three years
the certificate had to be renewed at a fee of $1, the equivalent of $25
today. In 1831 the fee was increased to $3.3
Free blacks in Mississippi placed themselves at great risk if they failed
to have in their possession a certificate of registration. They ran the
risk of seizure and even jail. If blacks were unable to establish their
free status within a specified period of time, they could, as allowed
by law, be sold into slavery at public auction. Free blacks certificates
of registration were their single most important source of documentation.
Excerpt from Charles Griffins free papers
Note: This excerpt is from the original records on microfilm at
the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Because of extensive
use by researchers, the microfilm is heavily scratched, making it impossible
to get a copy with all words legible for reproduction in Mississippi
From the Deed Record, Volume S, Year 1830
Adams County Court House
Charles Griffins freepapers
Commonwealth of Kentucky, Gallaton County to wit:
I, Perceval Butler clerk of the court of the county do hereby certify
that at a court held for said county at the courthouse thereof on Monday
the 13th of December 1813, an instrument of writing under the hands and
seals of Nelly Love and James Love emancipating Charles Griffin a negro
man slave, aged twenty seven years and acknowledging the receipt of four
hundred and fifty dollars as a full consideration therefor and containing
a general guarantee of the freedom of the said Charles Griffin was presented
into court and proved by the oath of Joseph Hardy and Mary Hardy subscribing
witnesses thereto and ordered to be recorded and certified. And it was
further ordered that the clerk of the said court shall give to the said
Charles Griffin a certificate of his freedom, in the manner prescribed
by law, which is hereby done accordingly.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixes the seal
of said county this 11th day of August 1814 and in the 23rd year of the
Free blacks faced extensive limitations and restraints. The required
certificate of registration, rather than ensuring for physical mobility
of free persons of color, hampered their movement instead. Free blacks
were frequently treated as vagrants and arrested when traveling outside
their county of residency, especially if proof of honest employment
was not provided. Furthermore, all firearms and weapons of free blacks
had to be licensed. If engaged in commerce, they could sell their goods
and wares only in an incorporated town. Free blacks were not allowed to
sell grocery items or liquor to the public. Laws in Mississippi further
prohibited free persons of color from operating a house of entertainment
or a printing establishment.4
Even harsher restrictions directed at free blacks were either passed
or considered following the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 (Turner, a Virginia
slave, urged blacks to rise up and slay their white enemies. He and his
followers went on a rampage through the Virginia countryside, killing
some fifty-seven people in what was the bloodiest slave uprising of the
antebellum South), the U.S. Supreme Courts Dred Scott decision in
1857 (The Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional because it
deprived a person of his property a slave without due process
of law), and John Browns Harpers Ferry raid in 1859 (Brown,
a white man of determination, seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry,
Virginia, in order to set off a revolt of slaves through the South). All
laws passed were intended to remove from the state all free persons
of color. To this end, a bill debated, but not passed, in the legislature
during the 1830s ambitiously proposed that it shall be the duty
of the Governor to transport all free negroes who may be banished under
the provisions of this act to the colony of Liberia in Africa at the expense
of the county from which they are removed.5
Despite the states apparent concern about the removal of all
free persons of color, the enforcement of existing laws was less
than rigid. In fact, free blacks were sometimes allowed to remain in the
state even though they failed to meet the legal requirements. Usually,
for services rendered, the legislature granted special permission for
the continued residency of a free black in the state.6 Furthermore,
those blacks removed or otherwise transported out of the state,
were not free persons of color, but slaves, most of them elderly. These
slaves were relocated to Liberia, West Africa, through efforts of the
American Colonization Society and its Mississippi affiliate. Initially,
the society in Mississippi planned to provide money for the few free blacks
living in the state to return to Africa, but soon the societys work
expanded to resettle slaves there.7
The laws that proved most effective in limiting the free black population
were those that restricted slave emancipation and freedom. As long as
the states anti-emancipation and manumission laws were enforced
and in-migration was held to a minimum, the free black population remained
checked and began to decline, especially after 1840.
Free black communities
Between 1820 and 1860, southwest Mississippi, principally the Natchez
District, was the most settled and developed part of the state. It was
home to a majority of the states free black population. In 1840,
when Mississippi had its largest free black population of almost 1,400,
nearly a third lived in just two of the state's fifty-six counties
Adams and Warren counties, both river counties. The majority of the free
blacks in each county were urban dwellers.
In 1840, in Adams County nearly 75 percent of the free blacks resided
in Natchez, and almost 70 percent of Warren County free blacks lived in
Vicksburg. By 1850, although the number of free black residents in both
counties had declined, the percentage residing as urban dwellers was higher
than ten years earlier. By 1850, for example, fully 83 percent in Adams
County were Natchez residents. The laws of Mississippi that required free
blacks to confine most of their public activities to urban areas were
a major factor in free persons of color becoming city dwellers.8
Free blacks as a group tended to be biracial and mulatto. In 1860, roughly
80 percent of Mississippi's free black population of 800 were of mixed
racial ancestry. By contrast, among the states more than 400,000
slaves on the eve of the Civil War, fewer than 10 percent were mulatto.
Whites, slaveowners in particular, contributed to both the origins and
existence of a free black, mulatto-dominated population in Mississippi.
Court records from local chancery cases and records of the Mississippi
Supreme Court clearly indicate the role of white slaveowners. In wills
slaveowners sometimes admitted fathering mulatto offspring, and they frequently
emancipated their children and left them property.9
Excerpt from William Barlands will
Editors Note: This excerpt is from the original records
on microfilm at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Because
of extensive use by researchers, the microfilm is heavily scratched, making
it impossible to get a copy with all words legible for reproduction in
Mississippi History Now.
From Will Record, Volume 1
Adams County Courthouse
William Barlands will Proven at April term 1816.
In the name of Almighty God amen I, William Barland of Adams County in
the Mississippi Territory being now of sound mind and disposing memory
but solemnly considering the uncertainty of human life Do make and publish
this my last will and Testament.
Whereas on the seventh day of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand
seven hundred and eighty nine, in presence of David Monro, James Stodart,
William Bannah, and John Short, I did purchase my friend and companion
Elizabeth Barland and three infant children called Andrew Barland, Elizabeth
Barland and Margarett Barland (our natural begotten children)
whereas I did on the same day and date in the same year in conformity
with Spanish Laws and usages set her free manumit, and forever exempt
from Slavery my said friend and Companion Elizabeth Barland and our three
natural born children
Now Therefore in consequences of her attachment
and fidelity to me as a friend and companion and her industry and affection
to her and my children as a mother, I do in the most solemn, unequivocal
and ample manner, confirm unto her and her children
their full and
entire freedom and exemption from Slavery from and after the said seventh
day of April in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred eighty
I did make deeds of gift in fee simple of real property, with
indisputable titles to each of my following named children
amount of Two thousand dollars which at this time I consider each of their
just proportion of my real estate therefore in order to secure to my friend
and companion Elizabeth Barland a home and a comfortable living during
her natural life, and in order that my children not yet of age, may be
clothed, schooled, and brought up in the principles of virtue and morality
I give and bequeath unto my friend and companion Elizabeth Barland and
my three youngest children otherways unprovided for Alexander Barland
Susana Barland and John Barland all and singular the plantation on which
I now live together with the dwelling and out houses, stock of black cattle,
horses, sheep, hogs, and farming utensils also thirteen slaves
The inheritance of money probably accounts for some slaveownership among
free blacks. Fully 12 percent, 45 of the 519 free persons of color in
1830, owned slaves or were in slave-owning households. Most of these slaveowners,
nearly 70 percent, were mulatto. Free black slaveholders owned an average
of four slaves. However, William Perkins of Claiborne County held seventeen
in bondage, and George Winns household in neighboring Adams County
included sixteen slaves.10
William Johnson (1809-1851), perhaps Mississippis best known free
black, was a slaveholder as well. In 1834, the Adams County native owned
three slaves and roughly 3,000 acres in real property. He went on to diversify
his financial interests. He speculated in farmland, rented real estate,
and owned a bath house, delivery firm, and toy shop. He even hired out
his slaves to haul coal and sand. Throughout his life, the white community
in Natchez and Adams County held Johnson in high regard. He associated
with and was close to many of Adams Countys most prominent white
families.11 Following Johnsons untimely death at the
hands of a free black, Baylor Winn, the Natchez Courier was moved to comment
that Johnson held a respected position [in the community] on account
of his character, intelligence and deportment.12
Johnson obituary in Concordian Intelligencier
From The Concordian Intelligencier
June 21, 1851
Dreadful Murder in Natchez
On Monday evening last, just at dusk, as Mr. William Johnson, an esteemed
citizen, and long known as the proprietor of the fashionable barber's
shop on Main Street, when returning from his plantation, a few miles from
the city, was fired upon and killed from the road side. He was accompanied
by two or three young persons, one of them being his son. The oldest boy
with him, named Hoggatt, was desperately wounded by the same shot; as
well as two of the horses with the party. Johnson was seen to fall, as
if killed instantly and the rest of the party, the wounded boy with them,
made as rapid flight as they could to Natchez, and gave the alarm. Dr.
Blackburn, in his carriage, instantly repaired to the spot and found Johnson
lying on his face apparently insensible. On turning him over, he groaned;
and when the Doctor gave him some cordial, he revived sufficiently to
speak. The first words announced the name of his murderer, as also did
his last, as he died, in great distress, at his family residence at two
o'clock the following morning.
About an hour after Johnson's death, Mr. Baylor Winn, a planter, living
some seven miles below Natchez, was arrested by officers Dillon and Benbrook,
and brought to the city jail. The officers were accompanied by Messrs.
W. Rotrammel, John Munce, N. Strickland and B. Massey; but no resistance
to the process was made, and the prisoner surrendered himself without
any remark, or appearance either of fear or surprise. The boy Hoggatt
still lingers in a most precarious condition, with but little hope of
his life. Johnson was shot through the left lobe of the lungs, and the
boy in the abdomen.
The court of examination before the Justices will commence this morning
at the Natchez Court House, and will no doubt be attended by many hundreds.
Both parties being in good pecuniary circumstances, the best lawyers of
the Natchez bar have been arrayed, either for the prosecution or the defence.
The funeral of Mr. Johnson was attended by a numerous procession on Wednesday
morning, the Rev. Mr. Watkins of the Methodist Church performing the religious
services. This event has made a deep and painful impression upon our community.
The original news clipping resides at the Department of Archives and
Yet most free blacks were decidedly less respected and prosperous than
Johnson. Through agriculture, their primary economic pursuit, free blacks
struggled to eke out a living. Males not engaged in agriculture worked
in skilled or semi-skilled trades or as unskilled laborers. Barbering,
carpentry, and blacksmithing were the trades most often engaged in by
free blacks, but most of them worked as day laborers. Free black women
were agricultural laborers, domestic servants, laundresses, and, if allowed,
hucksters (peddlers of grocery items such as eggs, butter, fruits).13
During the decades before the Civil War, the small free black community
in Hinds County, Mississippi, was probably typical of such communities
in the state. Created in 1821, Hinds County, located in central Mississippi,
and as of 1822 site of the state capital, remained isolated and decidedly
frontier throughout the antebellum period. Furthermore, Hinds County neither
attracted nor supported a large free black population. The county never
had nor was home to as many as fifty free blacks. It had only fifteen
free blacks in 1830, forty-five in 1840, twenty-five in 1850, and thirty-six
on the eve of the Civil War.14
Generally, free blacks in Mississippi resided in communities of fewer
than one hundred. By contrast, free persons of color to the west and south
of Hinds County in Warren, Adams, and Claiborne counties, lived in larger,
more complex and diverse communities, making them less typical of the
Even so, free blacks in Hinds County between 1821 and 1850 not
unlike those in Adams, Warren, and Claiborne counties lived in
the local towns and villages of Jackson, Clinton, Edwards Depot, and Raymond,
the county seat.
Among free blacks, there was an equal number of males and females. In
1860, for example, seventeen free blacks resided in Jackson, nine of them
were females and eight were males. Nine of the seventeen were adults and
eight were children, five of them mulatto. Several of Jacksons adult
free blacks worked as skilled tradesmen one as a barber, another
as a blacksmith but most, both male and female, earned their livelihood
as unskilled laborers. The men worked at odd jobs as day laborers, while
Jacksons black women of free status were washerwomen and domestic
servants. None of the countys free blacks were slaveholders, and
only a few were large property holders.15
But whether free blacks lived in Jackson, Natchez, Hinds or Adams counties,
their location mattered less than their racial identity. As a group, free
blacks shared a recurring plight. They existed in a state and a region
where African-descended people were almost all slaves. Laws in Mississippi
regarding free blacks were established to reduce their number, if not
to eliminate their presence entirely.
An 1831 Mississippi law enacted after the Nat Turner slave revolt was
specifically intended to trigger free black out-migration from the state.
The law required that free blacks between the ages of sixteen and fifty
leave Mississippi or risk being sold into slavery. The exceptions were
the free blacks who were able because of good character and honest
deportment to obtain and hold secured bonds.16
In ways large and small, free blacks met many challenges hostilities,
resentment, and a seemingly never-ending circle of restrictions. Free
blacks paid a high and continuing price for their free status. They paid
heavily as their groups numbers were kept low and their dreams and
aspirations went unrealized. Their lives were bleak, and their blackness
continued to be equated with servitude. These restrictions are the keys
to appreciating and understanding the challenge-filled world of free blacks
in 19th-century Mississippi. Clearly, theirs was a world between slavery
Dernoral Davis, Ph.D., is associate professor of history, Jackson
Posted August 2000
Jack Elliott, The Fort of Natchez and the Colonial Origins of Mississippi,
The Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 52 (August 1990), pp. 179-186;
William Hamilton, The Southwestern Frontier, 1795-1817: An Essay
in Social History, The Journal of Southern History, vol 10 (February
1944), pp. 395-402; Patricia Galloway, Native, European and African Cultures
in Mississippi, 1500-1800 (Jackson, Ms: Mississippi Department of Archives
and History, 1991), pp. 7-103, see especially pp. 77-90.
Charles S. Sydnor, The Free Negro in Mississippi Before the Civil
War, American Historical Review, vol. 32 (July 1927), pp. 771-779;
Terry Alford, Some Manumissions Recorded in the Adams County Deed
Books in Chancery Clerk's Office, Natchez, Mississippi, 1795-1835,
The Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 33 (February 1971), pp. 39-50.
Hutchinsons Code of Mississippi, 1798-1848, pp. 524-525,
Ibid., pp. 514, 534, 948; Revised Code of Laws of Mississippi
(1857), p. 255.
Journal of the General Assembly of Mississippi, 1831: House Journal,
pp. 7, 252.
See, for example, Laws of Mississippi, 1828, pp. 61-62; 1833,
pp. 131-132; 1854, p. 295.
Franklin L. Riley, A Contribution to the History of the Colonization
Movement in Mississippi, Publications of the Mississippi Historical
Society, vol. 9, pp. 345-348.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register for 1908, p. 387; Compendium
of the Sixth Census (1840).
Sydnor, The Free Negro in Mississippi, pp. 787-788.
Carter G. Woodson, Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States
in 1830, Journal of Negro History, vol. 9 (July 1924), p.
Edwin Davis and William Hogan, The Barber of Natchez (Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 1972), pp. 15-16, 28-29, 45-46, 75;
Eric Shoenbaum, A Precious Balance: The Free Blacks of Natchez,
pp. 3-7, an unpublished paper. A copy in the possession of the author.
William Hogan and Edwin Davis (eds.) William Johnsons Natchez:
The Diary of A Free Negro in Ante-Bellum Natchez (Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 1951), pp. 58-59.
Sydnor, The Free Negro in Mississippi, p. 784.
Clifton Marshall, The Free Blacks of Hinds County, Mississippi,
1850-1860, (M.A. thesis, Jackson State University, 1978), pp. 1-4.
Ibid., pp. 9-12.
Hutchinsons Code of Mississippi, p. 533.
Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum
South. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1974.
Davis, Ronald, The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720-1880. Natchez:
U.S. Department of the Interior, 1992.
Hogan, William and Davis, Edwin (eds.) William Johnsons Natchez:
The Diary of A Free Negro in Ante-Bellum Natchez. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 1951.
_____, The Barber of Natchez. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Johnson, Michael and Roark, James. No Chariot Let down: Charlestons
Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Sydnor, Charles. Slavery in Mississippi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 1966.
Alford, Terry. Some Manumissions Recorded in the Adams County Deed
Books in Chancery Clerks Office, Natchez, Mississippi, 1795-1835.
The Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 33 (February 1972).
Sydnor, Charles. The Free Negro in Mississippi Before the Civil
War. American Historical Review. Vol. 32 (July 1927).
Galloway, Patricia, (ed.), Native, European, and African Cultures
in Mississippi, 1500-1800. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives
and History, 1991.
Clifton Marshall, The Free Blacks of Hinds County, Mississippi,
1850-1860. M.A. thesis, Jackson State University, 1978.
Schoenbaum, Eric. A Precarious Balance: The Free Blacks of Natchez.
An unpublished paper.