The Free Negro Family: A Study of Family Origins Before the Civil War

The Free Negro Family: A Study of Family Origins Before the Civil War

Fisk University Press
72 pages
E185.86 .F84
Source: University of Michigan via The Hathi Trust Digital Library

E. Franklin Frazier (1894-1962), Professor of Sociology
Fisk University


  1. Origin, Growth, and Distribution of the Free Negroes
  2. Character of the Free Negro Communities
  3. The Free Negro Family
    • Selected Bibliography


  1. Growth of the Slave and Free Negro Population in the United States: 1790-1860
  2. Distribution of the Free Negro Population According to States in 1830 and 1860
  3. Number of Slaves and Free Negroes in the Total Population of Four Leading Cities in 1790
  4. School Attendance and Adult Illiteracy Among the Free Negro Population in 16 Cities: 1850


  1. Percentage of the Negro Population Free in the Counties of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia: 1860
  2. Distribution of Free Negro Families: 1830


A class of free Negroes existed in America almost from the time that they were first introduced into the Virginia colony in 1619. Contrary to popular belief, the free class may even be said to be prior in origin to the slave class, since the first Negroes brought to America, did not have the status of slaves, but of indentured servants. Contracts of indentured Negro servants indicate that the status of the first Negroes was the same as that of the white servants. Moreover, court records show that Negroes were released originally upon the completion of a term of servitude. The slave status, for which the white colonists had no model in England, “developed in customary law, and was legally sanctioned at first by court decisions.” Although it was not until 1662 that the first act of the Virginia slave code was passed, slavery by this time had apparently become established in practice. As early as 1651 we find a Negro, Anthony Johnson, who was probably enumerated among the indentured servants in the census of 1624, having assigned to him in fee simple a land patent for two hundred and fifty acres of land. Two years later this same man was the defendant in a suit brought against him by another Negro for his freedom from servitude, after having served “seaven or eight years of Indenture.” According to Russell, “The upper limit of the period in which it was possible for negroes to come to Virginia as servants and to acquire freedom after a limited period is the year 1682” Nevertheless, the free class continued to grow until the Civil War.

The free Negro population was increased through five sources: (1) children born of free colored persons; (2) mulatto children born of free colored mothers; (3) mulatto children born of white servants or free women; (4) children of free Negro and Indian parentage; (5) manumitted slaves. The increase in the free Negro population through the offspring of free colored parents, though difficult to estimate, contributed to the growth of this class until Emancipation. Likewise, the numerous cases of offsprings from white fathers and free colored mothers would indicate that from this source the free Negro population was constantly enlarged. Mulattoes born of white servant women and free white women were also a significant factor, for it was soon the cause for special legislative action. Virginia, in 1691, passed a law prescribing that “any white woman marrying a negro or mulatto, bond or free,” should be banished. Maryland, in 1681, provided in an act that children born of white servant women and Negroes were free. Eleven years later any white woman who married or became the mother of a child by either a slave or free Negro became a servant for seven years. Pennsylvania found it necessary to restrict the intermarriage of Negroes and whites through legislative action in 1725-1726, after having punished a woman for “abetting a clandestine marriage between a white woman and a negro” in 1722. This restriction was swept away, as well as the other restrictions upon the Negro, in 1780. Seemingly, mixed marriages became common, for Thomas Branagan complained:

There are many, very many blacks who . . . begin to feel themselves consequential . . . will not be satisfied unless they get white women for wives, and are likewise exceedingly impertinent to white people in low circumstances … I solemnly swear, I have seen more white women married to, and deluded through the arts of seduction by Negroes in one year in Philadelphia, than for eight years I was visiting (West Indies and the Southern States). I know a black man who seducted a young white girl. . . who soon after married him, and died with a broken heart. On her death he said that he would not disgrace himself to have a Negro wife and acted accordingly, for he soon after married a white woman . . . There are perhaps hundreds of white women thus fascinated by black men in this city, and there are thousands of black children by them at present.

It is difficult to determine to what extent the intermixture of free Negroes and Indians contributed to the growth of the free colored population. There was always considerable association between the Indian and Negro, both in areas given up to Indians and outside of these areas…

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