Like most of you, I suspect, I was raised to believe three things about slavery in America: first, that slaves who gained their freedom did so by escaping on the Underground Railroad to the North; second, that all of the black people living in the South before and during the Civil War were slaves; and third, that all of the free black people in pre-Civil War America lived in the North. If any of us knew anything at all with certainty about the history of slavery in our country, it was these three things, right?
But in last week's column, we learned that, quite surprisingly, this is not the way it was. In fact, the Free Negro population (to use the contemporary term for them) in the South before the Civil War actually outnumbered that in the North by a substantial margin. Of the 488,070 free African-American people in the United States in 1860 -- 11 percent of the total black population -- according to the federal census, some 35,766 more lived in the slave-holding South than in the North, as analyzed in Ira Berlin's magisterial study, Slaves Without Masters, and more recently in Eva Sheppard Wolf's graceful book Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia From the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Just as remarkably, the vast majority of these free Southern black people stayed put in the Confederate states even during the Civil War. How was this possible?
As you can imagine, the comments that last week's column received were wide-ranging. "White people back then made the Freeman's life a living hell. It was almost better for them to be slaves than to be free," one reader responded. Another took a rather different view: "All the talk about slavery all these years and now we are finding out it wasn't nearly as bad … a lot of the blacks were actually free." But remember, while almost half a million free black people before the Civil War is no insignificant number, 89 percent of all African Americans in 1860 remained enslaved.
Moreover, the plight of the Free Negroes, as I pointed out last week, could be quite perilous, leading some people in places such as New Orleans and Pensacola to flee just before and during the Civil War to Mexico, Haiti and Cuba. Some who were living in border cities such as Baltimore chose to move to Northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York, only to return after the War was won.
Still another reader points out, with a great deal of common sense, that given the fact that Free Negroes were sometimes given land by their masters upon being granted their freedom, we shouldn't be surprised to learn these facts: "I'm not really sure why it's so confusing," this reader added, "moving is hard." And moving away from loved ones, whether slave or free, is even harder. I think this was true in the case of my own freed ancestors, on two of my own family lines, living for about a century in the slave state of Virginia (and from 1823 on another line) rather than resettling in the North. Ira Berlin helps us to understand why the vast majority of these former slaves stayed in the slave states.
So, Why Did They Stay?
One of the most important reasons Free Negroes stayed in the South, Berlin suggests, was uncertainty: They couldn't be so sure things would be better for them in the North. In many cases they were right, especially in states that restricted the admission of free blacks, among them Ohio, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois (the last two in their state constitutions).
Interestingly, an antebellum case from Massachusetts, Roberts v. Boston (1849), upholding segregation in Boston's public schools, was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its dreaded 1896 opinion reinforcing Jim Crow segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson. Even though the Massachusetts decision was later overruled by legislative action, the point was made. "In the North," Berlin writes, "blacks were despised…