African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period

Part 1: Individual Accomplishments | Emergence of the Black Church | Documenting Freedom
Part 2

Free blacks in the antebellum period--those years from the formation of the Union until the Civil War--were quite outspoken about the injustice of slavery. Their ability to express themselves, however, was determined by whether they lived in the North or the South. Free Southern blacks continued to live under the shadow of slavery, unable to travel or assemble as freely as those in the North. It was also more difficult for them to organize and sustain churches, schools, or fraternal orders such as the Masons.

Although their lives were circumscribed by numerous discriminatory laws even in the colonial period, freed African Americans, especially in the North, were active participants in American society. Black men enlisted as soldiers and fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Some owned land, homes, businesses, and paid taxes. In some Northern cities, for brief periods of time, black property owners voted. A very small number of free blacks owned slaves. The slaves that most free blacks purchased were relatives whom they later manumitted. A few free blacks also owned slave holding plantations in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.

Free African American Christians founded their own churches which became the hub of the economic, social, and intellectual lives of blacks in many areas of the fledgling nation. Blacks were also outspoken in print. Freedom's Journal, the first black-owned newspaper, appeared in 1827. This paper and other early writings by blacks fueled the attack against slavery and racist conceptions about the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.

African Americans also engaged in achieving freedom for others, which was a complex and dangerous undertaking. Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the "underground railroad." Some free blacks were active "conductors" on the underground railroad while others simply harbored runaways in their homes. Free people of color like Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Prince Hall earned national reputations for themselves by writing, speaking, organizing, and agitating on behalf of their enslaved compatriots.

Thousands of freed blacks, with the aid of interested whites, returned to Africa with the aid of the American Colonization Society and colonized what eventually became Liberia. While some African Americans chose this option, the vast majority felt themselves to be Americans and focused their efforts on achieving equality within the United States.

Individual Accomplishments

Phillis Wheatley's Love of Freedom

One of the most celebrated of early black writers, African-born Phillis Wheatley was captured when she was about eight years old and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston as a household servant. Educated by her Boston owners, the girl showed amazing aptitude. Soon she was writing and publishing poetry. This work, published in England where British societal leaders received and entertained Wheatley, includes affidavits affirming that Wheatley was a woman of unmixed African ancestry. In this volume, Wheatley discusses her African background and her love of freedom. Wheatley was freed as an adult. The Library holds copies of many editions of Wheatley's poems.

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Phillis Wheatley.
Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral.
London: A. Bell, 1773.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-15)

Prince Hall, Founder of the African American Masonic Order
Prince Hall.
A Charge Delivered to the African Lodge, June 24, 1797, at Menotomy.
Boston: Member of the Said Lodge, 1797.
Hazard Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-19)

African American Masonic leader Prince Hall, believed to have been born in Barbados in 1735, was a Revolutionary War veteran. He received a charter from England in 1787 to establish the first African American Masonic lodge in the United States. In this 1797 address Hall charges his brother Masons to respect and help each other, work to end slavery, and show love to all mankind. He enjoined them to "bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston," stating that people of color were sometimes molested and beaten. He encouraged them not to fear humans and reminded them that all men "are free and are brethren."

An African Captive Tells His Own Story

This autobiography is one of the few personal accounts by an African of his experiences as a victim of the slave trade and as a slave. This powerful personal narrative is exceptional in the details it provides. It was first published in 1789 and sold widely in the British Isles. Equiano recounts his childhood in Africa until his capture and enslavement, his subsequent sale to European traders, the horrors of the middle passage, his bondage in the United States, and his life on board British merchant vessels from 1758 to 1788--first as a slave and later for hire. Eventually, he became the most prominent black abolitionist in Britain.

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Olaudah Equiano.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.
Norwich: The Author, 1794.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-54026 (2-1)

Benjamin Banneker, Mathematician
Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord 1792.
Baltimore: William Goddard and James Angell, 1791.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-14)

Benjamin Banneker, born free in Maryland in 1731, was remarkable because of his mechanical and mathematical abilities. In an August 19, 1791, letter to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, he enclosed a manuscript copy of his first almanac. In the letter Banneker complains that although African Americans "have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments, . . . one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties." In the letter Banneker also quotes from the first lines of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ."

The Emergence of the Black Church

African American Women Preachers

Although little is known about the preacher pictured here, Juliann Jane Tillman, African Methodist Episcopal church records acknowledge that the first bishop, Richard Allen, recognized that some women possessed evangelical and teaching gifts. Although women were not allowed to become church leaders in the early years, they were permitted to teach and preach. Some became itinerant evangelists. Today, the A.M.E. Church allows women to pastor churches and hold other high offices within the church hierarchy.

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Mrs. Juliann Jane Tillman, Preacher of the A.M.E. Church.
Engraving by Peter Duval, after a painting by Alfred Hoffy, Philadelphia, 1844
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-54596 (2-21)

Documenting Freedom

Freedom Document
Certificate of Freedom of Harriet Bolling, Petersburg, Virginia, 1851.
Carter G. Woodson Collection, Manuscript Division. (2-2)

This certificate indicates that the forty-two-year-old mulatto Harriet Bolling was freed by James Bolling in 1842. Freeborn blacks could stay in Virginia, but emancipated African Americans were generally required to leave the state. This certificate states that the court allowed Bolling "to remain in this Commonwealth and reside in Petersburg."

An African American Seaman

In the event of capture or impressment, sailors needed to have documents on file to verify that they were citizens of the United States. For this reason the government provided seamen's protection certificates for those who served at sea, including thousands of African American seamen. This certificate is for twenty-year-old Samuel Fox who is described as having a "light African complexion, black woolly hair and brown eyes."

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Seaman's Protection Certificate for Samuel Fox, August 12, 1854. Black History Collection, Manuscript Division. (2-6)

The Underground Railroad
William Still.
The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters . . . .
Philadelphia: People's Publishing Co., 1879.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-11)

Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the "underground railroad." Some free blacks like William Still were active "conductors" on the underground railroad, while others simply harbored runaways in their homes. Maps in the Library's collection show the routes of the underground railroad, and books like this one contain first-person accounts of those who took this perilous route to freedom.

From Fugitive To Minister

Leonard Black tells of his birth in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and his childhood experiences as a slave in Baltimore, especially emphasizing his mistreatment while he was "owned like a cow or horse" at the hands of several owners. He escaped, married, and entered the ministry. This book relates aspects of his life as a pastor in Portland, Maine, and Boston, and as an itinerant preacher. He published this book with the hope that proceeds from it would earn enough money for him to obtain additional ministerial training.

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Leonard Black.
The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery.
Providence, Rhode Island: L. Black, 1847.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-12)

Another Fugitive's Account
Henry Bibb.
Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave.
New York: The Author, 1849.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-13)

Henry Bibb was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815. He recounts his sufferings, escapes, recaptures, and unsuccessful attempts to free his family. Bibb lectured for the Liberty party in Ohio and Michigan during the 1840s and fled to Canada after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as did thousands of other fugitives living in the North. His narrative includes many illustrations, including the depiction of the celebration of the Sabbath among the slaves and a slave sale.

In the text Bibb mentions that "slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds." He stated that such circumstances gave him a "longing desire . . . a fire of liberty within my breast which has never yet been quenched." Bibb believed that he too had "a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search