FREE NEGRO The term "Free Negro" was used in the antebellum period of American history to refer to any African American who was not a slave. As a result of manumission, the elimination of slavery in the North during the Revolutionary era, and the natural excess of births over deaths, there were nearly 60,000 Free Negroes in the United States at the time of the first census in 1790. By 1860 the number of Free Negroes had increased to 488,000. Contrary to popular impression, all the Free Negroes did not live in the North. In 1860, only 46 percent lived in the North, with 44 percent living in the South Atlantic states, and the remaining 10 percent scattered throughout the South Central states and the West.
According to historian John Hope Franklin, regardless of geographical location Free Negroes "lived somewhat precariously upon the sufferance of the whites," and as a result, should be classified as "quasi-free" rather than "free." Since they were black, Free Negroes were continually exposed to the threat of being mistaken for runaway slaves. Unless they could prove otherwise, therefore, Free Negroes were assumed to be fugitive slaves upon the testimony of a white plaintiff. To prevent such an occurrence, it was imperative that Free Negroes carry with them either a deed of manumission or an official "certificate of freedom." Even with these identifications, the Free Negro could be illegally kidnapped by an unscrupulous slave-catcher and sold into slavery — a not uncommon practice in the antebellum period.
It cannot be denied that the Free Negroes possessed certain "rights" over the black slaves. They were technically free; they could not be bought and sold; they were not subject to the whims of an overseer; they could not arbitrarily be separated from their families — but they certainly did not enjoy the "rights" of the white majority. The Free Negroes had no political voice and only a limited socioeconomic role. Moreover, especially in the antebellum North, they were victims of overt racial discrimination and segregation. Long before the South began enacting Jim Crow legislation after the Civil War, northern Free Negroes had been subjected to such racial indignities as segregated schools, hospitals, churches and cemeteries. In fact, as C. Vann Woodward has written in his The Strange Career of Jim Crow, "one of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force."
Free Negroes in the South posed a special problem for slaveowners. Viewed as potential allies of slaves in the event of a rebellion, the activities of southern Free Negroes were carefully monitored. The majority of southern states had laws prohibiting a Free Negro from moving from one state to another. Several states required that Free Negroes have "white guardians" to supervise their activities, while most southern states prohibited Free Negroes from possessing or carrying arms, assembling in a group, or attending church services without the presence of a white minister. In short, civil liberties for the southern Free Negro were virtually nonexistent. See also: JIM CROWISM.