A Contested Presence: Free Blacks in Antebellum Mississippi, 1820–1860

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2012-04-29 19:55Z by Steven

A Contested Presence: Free Blacks in Antebellum Mississippi, 1820–1860

Mississippi History Now: An online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society
August 2000

Denoral Davis, Profesor of History
Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi

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.

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 were blocked.

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 state’s 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 Mississippi’s free black population remained small, never exceeding 1,400…

…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 state’s 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…

…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 Winn’s household in neighboring Adams County included sixteen slaves.

William Johnson (1809-1851), perhaps Mississippi’s 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 County’s most prominent white families. Following Johnson’s 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.”…

Read the entire article here.

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