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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 - 15


     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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the following table prepared from the Federal decennial ceenses: -

  1790 1820 1840 1860
Free colored 12,866 36,875 49,841 58,042
Slave 292,627 425,148 448,988 490,865
White 442,117 603,381 740,968 1,047,299
          Total 747,610 1,065,404 1,239, 797 1,596,206

     From these figures one fails to get a correct conception of the significance of the presence of the free colored population in Virginia unless the question of distribution is also taken into consideration.  Had the free blacks been equally distributed throughout the white population of the State, the effect would have been different.  In the mountainous half of the State, which after 1830 contained half of the white population, free negroes were so scarce as to be an almost negligible social factor.  The 58,042 free negroes, together with the slave population, were confined largely to the eastern half of the State, where in 1860 the white population numbered about 600,000.
     The State of Virginia was divided north and south on the basis of the elevation of land into four sections: Tide water, Piedmont, the Valley, and Trans-Alleghany.  Of the 12,866 free negroes in Virginia in 1790 only 75 resided in Trans-Alleghany, or what is now West Virginia with several counties of the southwestern part of Virginia.  In the Valley district there were 815; in the Piedmont region, 3640, leaving 8330, or about two thirds of the entire number, in Tidewater.  In that section the first census recorded free negro to 18 slaves and to 18 white persons.  In Trans-Alleghany the figures showed 1 free negro to 30 slaves to 517 white persons.
     From the census of 1860 it appeared that the free negroes of Tidewater were between one sixth and one seventh of the colored and about one fourteenth of the entire population of that section.  Tidewater contained 32,841 free ne-

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groes, over one half of the entire free colored population, while the region beyond the Alleghanies now had 2513, which was about one eleventh of the blacks of that section and 1 to every 160 persons living there.  It appears that Tidewater always had from one half to two thirds of the entire free negro class, although after 1830 that section contained less than one fourth of the white people of the
State.  In 1860 Trans-Alleghany had more than one third of the white population of Virginia and about one twenty-fifth of the free negroes.  The two sections west of the Blue Ridge, sometimes called the western half of the State, had in 1860 over one half of the white and but one seventh of the entire free colored class.  A few of the lower counties in the Valley contained a large part .of the 8354 free colored persons who lived in the western half.  Thus it is apparent that an important aspect of the free negro problem in Virginia was the fact that the free negro population was largely concentrated in the eastern half of the State and came in contact with only about one half of the white population.
     With respect to the relative numbers of free negroes in smaller localities some interesting observations may be made.  As between rural and urban communities the latter had the larger share of free negroes.  In 1790, when the average ratio of free negroes to slaves and to whites in the Tidewater section was 1 to 18, in Petersburg the free negroes constituted one fourth of the colored population of the town, and were to the whites as 1 to 4.  In this town of 3000 people there were 310 free negroes.  In Richmond, out of a population of 3700 there were 265 free negroes.  In Portsmouth, where 1702 persons lived, there were 47 free blacks.
     The increase of free negroes in the town populations is best seen by considering the figures of some of the later censuses.  Petersburg in 1830 had 2032 free negroes, 2850 slaves, and 3440 white persons.  In 1860 this town was the home of 3164 free negroes, 5680 slaves, and a number of

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white persons about equal to the total black population.  In 1860 Winchester, a town of 3000 white inhabitants, had 675 free negroes, only nineteen less than half of the blacks of the. town. In 1850, 10,450 free negroes out of a total of 54,333, that is, nearly one fifth, lived in towns, while only about one tenth of the white population lived in cities and towns.  In 1860 between a fourth and a third of the whole free colored population lived in towns and cities.16
     In some counties a large proportion of the black inhabitants were free.  In Accomac County 3392 of the 8000 black inhabitants were free. In James City County 926 out of 2764 blacks were free.  In Nansemond County there were 2470 free negroes and 581 slaves.  Other counties in Tidewater in which from one sixth to one half of the colored population was free were Charles City, Fairfax, Henrico, Isle of Wight, James City, Norfolk, Northampton, Prince William, Richmond, Southampton, Warwick, and Westmoreland. The counties in Piedmont which had the largest free colored population relative to the slave class were Loudoun and Goochland.  In the former, one sixth of the negroes were free, in the latter, one ninth.
     Occasion may arise for calling attention to other facts relative to the numbers and the distribution of the free negroes in Virginia, but the facts given above will be sufficient for a general conception of the numerical importance of that class at different times and in different places.
16. Census of 1860, Population, p. 516.








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