pp. 9 - 16
NUMBER AND DISTRIBUTION OF
THE FREE NEGROES IN VIRGINIA
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).
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.
4. W. W. Hening,
Statutes at Large of Virginia, vol. ii, p. 515.
5. Ibid., vol. iii, pp. 87, 88; vol.
iv, p. 132.
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.
MORE TO COME......