Black Consciousness: Understanding Not All Were Enslaved

This is a paper I wrote during my studies at Simmons College.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.[1]

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.[2]

Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, were the 1865 thirteenth amendment and the 1868 fourteenth amendment to uphold the orders of the proclamation. Nevertheless, these laws came long after the colonization of the United States and did little to ensure security for both already free and newly free African Americans. Some people of African heritage were able to experience more than what these laws provided prior to the onset of the Civil War. In The Fire Next Time (1963), James Baldwin’s uncle advises that Baldwin “Please try to remember that what they [white Americans] believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.” Although James Baldwin and his uncle were talking about segregation and racism, racism has been the foundational element of slavery and these words are significant in trying to understand the society of free blacks before the Civil War. There were many European Americans who were not open to the idea of free African Americans and tried to discourage it in their own way; however, these free blacks were strong and stood together to hold on to their freedom. Growing up in school, we are often not taught about the history of free African Americans prior to 1865 and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Essentially, although slavery in the United States existed until 1865, not all African Americans were enslaved and some blacks were never enslaved.

Blacks were one of the three essential groups of people in the building of the Americas. According to historian Kathleen A. Deagan, the “first people of African heritage who came to the Americas were free,” and that some of these free blacks were “soldiers, conquistadors, sailors, and wives.”[3] Anthony Dixon is one of the few historians who emphasized that people of African heritage were primarily seafarers as early as the 1400s and were helpful to the Europeans in navigating Africa’s west coast, as well as the Americas. From this we are able to begin to formulate an understanding that many free blacks assisted in European life and conquests. Some of them were skilled workers and artisans, including working as shopkeepers, and these free blacks were not only hard laborers, as is portrayed when talking about slavery in the Americas. While free blacks assisted in the on-going life of, and conquests for land for, the Europeans, it is more important to note that during this time, free blacks were just like other settlers, seeking a better life for themselves and owning property. Juan Garrido, known for introducing wheat to North America and for aiding Juan Ponce de Leon with one other free person of African heritage and accompanying Hernán Cortés, and Juanillo, known for being an interpreter and assisting Pedro Menendez, are just two examples of the many free blacks who came and settled in North America. Women of African heritage were also essential, and were both free and skilled workers. In 1598, the first hospital in North America was built: the hospital of Santa Barbara in St. Augustine. What many may not be aware of is that the first nurse of the hospital was a free woman of African heritage.[4] Though we hear a lot about Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, St. Augustine, formerly part of Spanish “La Florida,” precedes both Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in the colonization of the United States. The Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine is the home to the United States’s oldest documents, which provide some insight on the United States’s first colony and its multiethnic society. Some of these documents include marriage records between Europeans and people of African heritage – interracial marriages; the documents also include baptism records for both free blacks and indigenous people. Since the early days of the colonization of the Americas (mainly North America) to the end of the Civil War, free blacks have existed and there were large populations of free African American communities.

There once existed an underground railroad that headed due south. In this Southern establishment, free people of color roamed society and were successful. Escaped enslaved people of African heritage from the British North, were able to get a sense of confidence in seeing people who looked like them being successful working as farmers, entrepreneurs, and most importantly, reaping the benefits of their own labor. Established in 1738 near St. Augustine, Florida, Fort Mosé – or Grace Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé – is considered to be the first legally authorized free black town in the United States, and was molded by former enslaved Africans from the British colonies who were able to manipulate the prolonged Anglo-Spanish battle for that particular territory and gain their freedom.[5] In Spanish Florida, society for these free blacks was wholesome. Unlike the British colonies, where their lives were constantly at risk, these free blacks could participate in society like the other Spanish settlers, and thus a unique Creole culture was born because Fort Mosé was just a town, not an isolated community, and the free blacks of Fort Mosé were welcome to go to different towns and work. The free blacks of Fort Mosé were able to establish a sense of community, culture, and identity, as well as provide their labor and military services, valuable knowledge and skills, acquired from either their life back in Africa or as enslaved people in the British, for the Spanish colony as a whole.[6] From the first group of escaped enslaved blacks in 1687 to St. Augustine to about 1738, more than one-hundred fugitive enslaved blacks had made their way to St. Augustine. As a result, governor Manuel de Montiano made the, now, free blacks a military company and stationed them at what is now known today as Fort Mosé. The incentive to escape and find freedom in Spanish Florida came from a policy granted by King Charles II of Spain. The 1693 policy granted runaways religious sanctuary. King Charles II of Spain was trying to encourage other empires to also remove the chains of freedom and grant blacks their freedom, for the Spanish were already including Africans in various levels of their society, which stemmed from the Moorish occupation that extended over seven-hundred years and resulted in a mixed nation: racially and ethnically.[7] King Charles II of Spain’s policy fundamentally acted as the first civil rights act for free blacks living in Spanish Florida. Spanish Florida provided a sense of home and was able to live as a diverse society, welcoming all. Unfortunately, British colonies disliked this growing free black community and in 1740, the British attempted to attack Fort Mosé, whose militia men were aware of their advances: siege of Fort Mosé, or Battle for bloody Mosé. This battle would historically be, for the most part, the first major battle to which the British Army would lose in the Americas.[8] The free blacks were determined to keep their freedom and the Spanish were willing to help, and thus ended this battle in victory. The victory, didn’t last much longer. Trying to keep their hold on their freedom would fear a much tougher task, as the Spanish began losing control of their Spanish Florida and by the early 1800s, Spanish Florida had lost control and the territory became that of the United States – just forty-four years short of the end of the Civil War.[9] While Fort Mosé, during its existence, was comforting and home to many free blacks, long before Fort Mosé, Spanish Florida was accepting of people of African heritage as free and many of them helped the Spaniards to pioneer in the exploration of the lands of the Americas.

Many free blacks from Seville, Spain and other places, traveled to the “New World.” Records supporting this notion can be found at the Spanish Casa de Contratación (House of Commerce). While a number of free blacks came westward, not all of them did and nor did they all stay. While discussing free blacks in America, it should be noted that some of the free blacks that at one time settled in Spanish Florida, returned to Seville in the mid- to late-1600s creating a sort of counter migration. Some of these free blacks returned home in order to maintain commercial contacts, not always, with the East Indies and also find ways to invest their newly found wealth.[10] It is also possible that the impeding British reign, as aforementioned with the attack on Fort Mosé, sent fear to some of the free blacks living in New Spain and rather than wait to see what becomes of their fate, they took it upon themselves to flee and return to a society where they knew being black and free were acceptable. However, this is all just speculation and not at all a confirmation as to why some of the free blacks of the Americas returned to Spain.

One of the free blacks who made his way to the Americas and called it home, was Juan Garrido. While it is unclear of when exactly Juan Garrido arrived in the Americas, it has been assumed that he journeyed westward in roughly 1510. Records show that in 1510, a Spaniard by the name of Pedro Garrido, came to Santo Domingo with his family and later joined Cortés in the conquest of Mexico. From our understanding of slavery, we know that slave owners often bequeathed their enslaved people with their surname. It is unclear if Juan Garrido was ever enslaved, but it is probable that he and Pedro Garrido had some type of relationship, even if that were just an apprenticeship.[11] Juan Garrido was “black in color”[12] and was of “his own free will.”[13] From current understanding, Juan Garrido crossed the Atlantic waters as a free black man and participated in the 1521 fall of Tenochitlan, as well as other conquests and explorations. He even sought to be an entrepreneur. With his enslaved natives and blacks, he went off in search of gold, and became a citizen of the Spanish fragment of Mexico City. Juan Garrido, nevertheless, was not the only black conquistador, nor free black conquistador. Spanish’s armed auxiliary of African heritage ranged in men who may have been African-born enslaved people to Iberian-born free men of mixed ancestry. Those who were enslaved, often acquired freedom soon after fighting in conjunction with the Spaniards, only if they had not already been given their freedom beforehand. From records, it appears as though very few black conquistadors maintained slave status once they participated in a conquest.[14] Looking at black conquistadors, provides insight on how free blacks were truly viewed and accepted in society. There was not only trust, but a bond, between people of African heritage and the Spaniards. Both free blacks and the Spaniards were willing to sacrifice themselves for one another. This bond was proven in the abovementioned battle at Fort Mosé. This bond allowed free blacks to hold citizenship and relationships of any kind, as seen in the records of the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

My own interest in trying to understand freedom for blacks prior to the Civil War stemmed from my lack of information readily available on this topic through my educational career. When learning about the colonial period of British North America, there seemed to be an absence in the comprehension that with European settlers came freedom and servitude for blacks. Slavery was also in existence, but for the first couple years, Europeans tried to enslave the native indigenous people of the land. St. Augustine, predates Jamestown and Plymouth Rock and is rarely mentioned in talking about African American history, and more importantly, the role it played in freedom for African Americans. However, free blacks did not only exist in St. Augustine and Spanish America. The British colonies of North America was also home to free people of African heritage, who, some, engaged in the social economic practice of owning enslaved people.

The first slave owner in the colonial United States was a free black man. In early colonial period, looking specifically at the early 1600s, prior to 1655, slaves did not exist in colonial British North America, instead there were indentured servants. In 1619, Anthony Johnson was brought over as an indentured servant from modern-day Angola to a tobacco farm in Jamestown.[15] Indentured servitude usually lasted seven years, but Anthony Johnson was able to acquire his freedom within three years of landing in colonial Virginia.[16] As a released person of African heritage, Anthony Johnson was entitled to some land, about fifty acres. Indentured Europeans were later entitled to enslaved blacks and some land. Anthony Johnson would go on to marry a black female servant, Mary.[17] The marriage was legal, during this time in colonial British North America, free blacks were able to have legal marriages. He and his wife ran a successful farm of their own and by 1651, he not only was a property owner of about 250 acres, but also had five indentured servants. It would be 1655, when Anthony Johnson would become the first free black man and slave owner in colonial British North America. His indentured servant, John Casor was at the end of his servitude, but Anthony Johnson was trying to extend his time. Unwilling to stay as an indentured servant any longer than he had to, he left to work for a white man by the name of Robert Parker. Robert Parker was sued by Anthony Johnson in 1654 in a Northampton Court. The court ruled in Anthony Johnson’s favor in 1655, that John Casor would work for Anthony Johnson indefinitely. The judicial sanction in place was that free blacks could own enslaved people of their own race. It would not be until 1670, when free whites, blacks, and natives acquired the right to own enslaved people of African heritage. Yet, the fear of “Negro insurrection” prompted the Virginia Colonial Legislature to attempt to deport free blacks back to Africa. Those who chose to stay were at risk of enslavement.[18] Both Sierra Leone and Liberia are two African nations established for the repatriation of free blacks from the Americas. However, not all free blacks left or were enslaved, and many free blacks thrived in, what would become, the United States. Statistics show that by 1830 there were roughly 3,775 free black families who owned enslaved people of African heritage living in the South and by 1860, there were roughly 3,000 enslaved people of African heritage who were owned by free black families just in New Orleans alone.[19] Anthony Johnson and his family were among the many free blacks who thrived and Anthony Johnson would die a free man.

Many free people of African heritage bought relatives who were enslaved to white slave owners. In some states, free blacks could not manumit any enslaved person, as a result, some of these free people of color were slave owners of their own relatives.  While some of these free people of African heritage became slave owners as a result of trying to protect their families, this was not the case for all. The majority of free black slave owners were unaware of the dehumanization that slavery played on people of African heritage. This resulted from these free black slave owners that were born to free black parentage.[20] Nevertheless, free black communities continued to grow and prosper, and the roles of the free people of African heritage in society, as well as how they were treated, differed from state to state. While Louisiana held the largest population of free people of African heritage in the deep South, Baltimore, Maryland had a growing community of free blacks and was the largest of any city in the United States.[21][22] No matter how large or how small the free black communities were, they each seemed to have one foundational element in their strength and unity: church. In According to scholar, Christopher Phillips, the introduction of independent black churches in the city of Baltimore provided a “spiritual and psychological bedrock on which to construct the social foundation of a community.”[23] While Baltimore’s churches were creating spiritual unity, the churches of New Orleans were going against the grain and providing sanctioned marriages for their free people of African heritage: “free blacks lived as husband and wife.”[24] The churches of the free blacks paved a way for the formation of societies and organizations of free blacks. Both churches and organizations led to the people of the North, starting with the Quakers, to realize and talk about the inhumanity of slavery. Sojourner Truth preached about her time as an enslaved person and how she was treated. She wasn’t the only one, but she was an advocate. The people of the North heard these stories, abolitionists arose; whites and free blacks banded together. In Connecticut, a slave owner saw that fighting for liberty and owning slaves was, basically, hypocritical and freed his enslaved people.[25] Free black communities not only provided a sense of community, but stood as a symbol for the humanity of people of African heritage. Free black communities united in ways that would enable them to continue to live in their segregated free communities. Their devotion to maintain their free status and try to further progress the notion of freedom for people of African heritage, was greatly influenced by the 1804 takeover of Haiti, where people of African heritage revolted on the Europeans and were able to declare Haiti as a Black Republic. For both enslaved and free people of African heritage in the United States, Haiti represented a land of hope. Esteemed leader of New York City’s black community once said, “You are going to a good country…where a dark complexion will be no disadvantage; where you will enjoy true freedom…”[26] For many free African Americans, Haiti wood stand as a home that enabled liberty and justice, and most importantly, citizenship and equality. An exodus from the United States to Haiti was the mission, despite any true knowledge as to how life really was in Haiti. Regardless of the reality of how life was like in Haiti, it continued to be a powerful image for the free people of African heritage in the United States as an independent Black nation.[27] As black independence grew so did the desire to achieve freedom and rights that protected their freedoms, and so began the United States Civil War.

In Frederick Douglass’s book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), he includes a letter he received from Wendell Phillips, Esq, in which Phillips writes: “They say the fathers, in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence with the halter about their necks. You, too, publish your declaration of freedom with danger compassing you around. In all the broad lands which the Constitution of the United States overshadows, there is no single spot, –however narrow or desolate, –where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, ‘I am safe.’”[28] Phillips is acknowledging that even though Frederick Douglass is free, he is not safe from the bonds and chains of slavery. Although free blacks existed in the United States prior to the Civil War, not all were safe in society. Solomon Northup is one example of many who was a free black man who, unfortunately, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Fortunately for Solomon, after twelve years he was able to regain his freedom. From analyzing the life of free blacks in both Spanish Florida and the early colonial period of British North America, we can see that as slavery became the law of the land, freedom became harder to achieve and even more harder to maintain. From the first documented battle in which free people of African heritage attempted to defend their freedom to enslaved people of African heritage trying to escape to achieve the desirable autonomy that freedom provided, we see that people of African heritage were willing to do anything to maintain, or get, their status of freedom. Solomon Northrup writes “Life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.”[29] Some people of African heritage came to the United States willingly – free – and later, in Spanish Florida, had to make decisions that would affect the future of their status. On the other hand, some people of African heritage came as indentured servants who would sometimes find freedom, as Anthony Johnson did; however, as laws and society changed, their freedoms would become endangered. The communities of free blacks relied on one another even more to protect their independences. Prior to the onset of the Civil War, free blacks lived in society both in the South and in the North. Depending on where they lived, their roles in society varied, but their existence as free blacks were still valid. Despite the little informational resources readily available about free blacks when learning about the era of slavery and the early colonial period of the United States, – essentially, life before the Civil War –, free blacks in the United States still existed and, more importunately, played integral roles in the societies that they lived in.

[1] “United States of America 1789 (rev. 1992),” Constitute.

[2] Ibid

[3] “America’s Untold Journey” 450 Years of the African American Experience.

[4] “America’s Untold Journey” 450 Years of the African American Experience.

[5] Kathleen A. Deagan and Jane Landers. “Fort Mose: Earliest Free African-American Town in the United States,” in “I, too, am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American life.

[6] Jane Landers. “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,” The American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (February 1990): 9-30.

[7] Darcie MacMahon and Kathleen Deagan. “Legacy of Fort Mose,” Archaeology 49, no. 5 (Sept. & oct. 1996): 54-58.

[8] Kathleen A. Deagan and Jane Landers. “Fort Mose: Earliest Free African-American Town in the United States,” in “I, too, am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American life.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ruth Pike. “Sevillian Society in the Sixteenth Century: Slaves and Freedmen,” in The Hispanic American Historical Review Review 47, no. 3 (August 1967): 344-59.

[11] Peter Gerhard. “A Black Conquistador in Mexico,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 58, no. 3 (August 1978): 451-59.

[12] Francisco A. de Icaza. Diccionario Autobiográfico de Conquistadores y Pobladores de Nueva Espanã.

[13] Ibid

[14] Matthew Restall. “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America,” The Americas 57, no. 2 (October 2000): 171-205.

[15] “Blacks Were Not Only Slaves.” Journal of Civil War Medicine 17, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 71.

[16] “Anthony Johnson, Free Negro, 1622.” The Journal of Negro History 56, no. 1 (January 1971): 71-76.

[17] “Blacks Were Not Only Slaves.” Journal of Civil War Medicine 17, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 71.

[18] Ibid

[19] “Blacks Were Not Only Slaves.” Journal of Civil War Medicine 17, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 71.

[20] Larry Koger. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina 1790-1860.

[21] Laura Foner. “The Free People of Color in Louisiana and St. Domingue: A Comparative Portrait of Two Three-Caste Slave Societies,” Journal of Social History 3, no. 4 (Summer 1970): 406-30.

[22] Christopher Phillips. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860.

[23] Christopher Phillips. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860.

[24] Kimberly Hanger. Bounded lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803.

[25] James Oliver and Louis E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860.

[26] Leslie Alexander. “”The Black Republic” The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Northern Black Political Consciousness, 1816-1862,” in African Americans and the Haitian Revolution Selected Essays and Historical Documents.

[27] Ibid

[28] Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[29] Solomon Northup. Twelve Years a Slave.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s