What does the Term “Free Blacks” mean?

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Free Blacks were an oddity in the slave-oriented society of the American South. In the Northern States, most Black people were freed from slavery by the 1820’s or 1830’s, but the South stayed firmly with that system of slave society and slave economy. Never the less, a certain portion of that society was made up of Black Families that lived in “freedom”, or rather were not in actual bondage. These were people who had been freed or whose parents or grandparents had been freed by former masters, for the most part, and they remained in that condition for several generations. Some free black families moved into North Carolina, but for the most part they didn’t because there were strict laws against transporting black people across State lines. One such case pertained to Thomas Day.

He was a free black of some note in history, because he was a successful Cabinetmaker, and he kept both black slaves, and white apprentices. In 1830 he traveled from his home in Milton, Caswell County, North Carolina, across the border into Virginia, and married Aquilla Wilson, a free black woman in Halifax County, Virginia. When he returned to North Carolina with his bride, she was denied entrance to the state because of laws prohibiting interstate travel by free blacks. Day had to petition the General Assembly to get special approval for his wife to join him in North Carolina.

Other ways that these black people became free may have been, because they were born to a white mother and a black father. The law allowed such offspring to live free outside of slavery, but the child of a black woman and a white man was considered to be his property. Some black people were freed at the death of their white owner, who provided them with some small property to get started. Other former owners freed their slaves because of religious convictions, such as with the Quakers, who during the late 1700’sand early 1800’s freed most of their slaves, and in the process gained a reputation in North Carolina as dissidents and trouble makers, because it so disrupted the cultural society there. Some slaves were freed because of good deeds or service that they performed. This may have been the case with Jesse and John Day. John fought in the American Revolution and Jesse may also have been involved.

There also was a movement in the Chapel Hill and Hillsborough area where the University of North Carolina became established, to encourage a free black society. I am sure this movement had its roots in the strong Quaker community that existed in that area. It was a contradiction too, because of the strong slave advocates in the area.

Anna Roberson, the wife of Ceby Day and possibly the family of Fanny, the mother of Ceby, and wife of Anderson Day were likely of Slave origins. The Roberson name doesn’t appear among the free black families of that area but prior to the Civil War, Anderson Day, Reuben Day, and his father, Jesse Day, intermarried with other Free Black families; families which had been free, in some cases from the very beginning of the settlement in Virginia and North Carolina., Their involvement in American History is one of incredible struggle, because as I mentioned, the whole nature of the Colonial and Federal White culture was opposed to them. Free Blacks were a part of the American Story that their descendants need to learn and be proud of.

Submitted by James W. Petty, AG, CG, BA (History), BA (Genealogy)
Originally written 02/11/1993
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