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History & Genealogy

1619 - 1865

By John Henderson Russell

Submitted to the Board of University Studies
of The Johns Hopkins University in Conformity
with the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy


pp. 9 - 16


     At the beginning of the Civil War there were in Virginia nearly sixty thousand free negroes.1  This umber was far in excess of the number of free colored persons in any other of the great slave States, being about double the number in North Carolina, the State which, south of Virginia, had the largest free colored population.  It was in excess of the free negro population in any State, slave or free, with the exception of Maryland.  In 1860 the entire number of negroes in New York and New England combined was but little greater than the number of free negroes in Virginia.  According to every Federal enumeration from 1790, the aggregate negro population of the State of Pennsylvania was smaller than the free colored population of Virginia, and from 1830 to 1860 the same may be said of New York.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century the sum of the free negro populations in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania was only about a thousand more than the number of free negroes in Virginia.2  Of the free negro population of the United States, Virginia had about one eighth.3

1. Except where specific reference is made in footnotes to the sources, the statistical facts in this chapter are based on the United States decennial censuses, 1790-1860.
2. St. G. Tucker, A Dissertation on Slavery, p. 70 n.
3. It must be kept in mind that free mulattoes and all other free persons having negro blood are included in the use of the word census reports under the caption, "all other [than white] free persons except Indians not taxed."  In 1771 the general court ruled that negro or mulatto servants and apprentices were to be considered free negroes.  It is in this broadened sense that the word is used in this work when used without qualifying words (Howell v. Netherland, Jefferson's Reports, 90).

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     The condition which made the free negro question in Virginia unique and peculiarly interesting was that in that State only was there so large a free colored population living in a society so vitally connected with and dependent upon slavery.  It requires but little imagination to see why a free negro population, numbering from twenty to sixty thousand between 1800 and 1860 and living among a slave population almost as numerous as the dominant white element, created social problems more perplexing than those of New England, where the negroes, few in number, were almost all free, and race problems different from those of other great slave Sates where he free negroes were too few to constitute a conspicuous factor in the social order.  With society in a large area of Virginia composed of about an equal number of masters and slaves, an additional element of free negroes in the proportion of one to about eight slaves acted in no sense as an aid to facilitating the association of the two races.
     Prior to a law of 1782 which removed the restrictions upon the right to manumit slaves by will, the number of free negroes relative to the number of slaves or white persons was very much smaller than in any decade after the passage of that act.  From 1619 to the end of the century, when custom and the law were fixing the status of the Virginia negro, no satisfactory statistical estimate can be made of the number of free negroes in the colony.  In 1670 Governor Berkeley estimated the total number of "black slaves" in the colony at two thousand.4  Although he made no reference to any free negroes, there is ample evidence to show that there were some in the colony at this time.  In 1691 and 1723 laws were enacted which limited the increase of the free negro class to natural means and to manumissions by special legislative acts.5  These limitations upon manumission remained in force till 1782, when, according to the reliable statement of a contemporary, the free negro class numbered about twenty-eight hundred.  Supporting the

4.  W. W. Hening, Statutes at Large of Virginia, vol. ii, p. 515.
5.  Ibid., vol. iii, pp. 87, 88; vol. iv, p. 132.

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date back to 1662, bear witness to the existence of a free negro element in the congregations, although it is difficult to ascertain from this source the numerical strength of the free negro population.11  The register of the old Bruton parish shows that thirty-seven out of eleven hundred and twenty-two colored persons baptized between 1746 and 1797 were free;12 but the ratio of 37 to 1122, or 1 to 30, is no doubt much too large to show the relative number of free negroes to the slaves in any large section of the State.  From about 1762 to 1782 some seventy free colored persons are mentioned in the records of baptisms - a number larger than could have been found in most areas of the same size included in a single parish. 13
     After 1782 the relative numbers of the three classes of Virginia population are pretty well known.  A state census made in 1782,14 although not classifying free negroes separately, bears out the estate made by Professor Tucker that twenty-eight hundred 15 would represent fairly accurately the number of free negroes in Virginia at that date.  The unparalleled increase of this class, which followed the removal in 182 of the restrictions on manumission, and also the relative numbers of free colored persons, slaves, and whites in Virginia from 1790 to 1860 will be seen from

11. By the courtesy of the librarian of the Episcopal Theological Seminary at Alexandria, Virginia, the writer was permitted to examine the manuscript parish records, which contain valuable information not only as to the number of free negroes, but also as to their social position.
12. Manuscript copy, Williamsburg, Virginia, pp. 24-57.  See also W. A. R. Goodwin, Historical Search of Bruton Church, p. 153.
13. The record for a single year reads, with reference to free negroes, as follows: "John, son of Thos. & Sally Pow, a free mulatto was baptized Apr. ye 4, 1762."  "Elizabeth, Daughter of Eliza Wallace (a free negro) baptiz'd June ye 6, 17962.:  "Joseph, Son of Anne Freeman, a free Mulatto, bapt'z'd July ye 4, 1762."
     In further illustration of the evidence contained in parish records of the existence of free negro died Sept. 3, 1741" (MS. Register of Christ's Church, Middlesex County, p. 310).
14. "State Enumeration of Va., 1782-1785- Heads of Families," published with the first census of the United States, 1790.
15. St. G. Tucker, A Dissertation on Slavery, ed. 1803, p. 66.

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