Records for Free People of Color in the United StatesFrom Colonial Times to Emancipation
Free People of Color in the United States
The 1860 U.S. Census recorded 488,070 Free People of Color living in the United States, about 10 percent of the total black population1. Many descended from enslaved ancestors who had attained their freedom by fulfilling a term of indentured servitude, purchasing their freedom, being freed by a slaveholder during the slaveholder’s life, or being freed at the slaveholder’s death, as specified in a will.
Here we present records for Free People of Color, and resources for further research.
Documents for Free People of Color
Lowcountry Africana has created the following spotlight pages for estate inventories of Free African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The documents are part of the free collection South Carolina Estate Inventories and Bills of Sale, 1732-1872 on...
In April of 1848, Eliza Kohne, a free white resident of Charleston, South Carolina filed affidavits attesting to the status of John L. Francis and his brother James Francis as Free People of Color. In South Carolina, the free or enslaved status of a child followed the...
In 1849, Isaac Conner before J.B. Earnest, Magistrate, to file an affidavit respecting the free status of Betsey (also rendered Betsy in the same document) Conner. He offered as evidence a written statement of E.H. Edwards, made in 1836, that states that Betsey Conner...
Names and Birthdates of Children of Sally, Harriet and Martha, Emancipated by Stephen Oliver in 1819, Charleston, SC
In May of 1817, slaveholder Jacob Eggart of Charleston, South Carolina filed a manumission (emancipation) petition in the Court of Common Pleas for “Julia and her child Harriett, Julia the mother being about 20 years and her child Harriett about 10 months old.” Please...
Pierce Butler to Catey and Her Children Mary, Sarah and Moses, Certificate of Emancipation, Charleston, SC, 19 June, 1802
On June 19, 1802, Pierce Butler filed in the Charleston Court of Common Pleas a certificate of emancipation for enslaved woman Catey and her children, in return for Catey's payment to Butler of two hundred pounds currency1. The document states that Catey's husband...
Documenting Free People of Color in Charleston
If you find documentation for a free African American ancestor in Charleston, there are several record sets you can consult to pick up a further document trail. Here are some starting points:
- Your free ancestor may have been listed in the Census of the City of Charleston made in 1861.
- The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has microfilmed records of the State Free Negro Capitation Tax, a tax free people of color were required to pay annually. The twenty-nine books in this publication list names of many free blacks who lived in Charleston between 1811 and 1860.
- You may be able to locate your free ancestor in city directories. Ancestry.com has digitized Charleston’s city directories in the collection “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995.” You can view print copies of Charleston city directories in the South Carolina Room at Charleston County Public Library.
- Your free ancestor(s) may have owned property. The Charleston County Register of Deeds, known as the Charleston County Register of Mesne Conveyance, is located at 101 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29401-2249, Phone: 843-958-4800.
- You can browse the free FamilySearch collections “South Carolina Probate Records, Bound Volumes, 1671-1977” and “South Carolina Probate Records, Files and Loose Papers, 1732-1964” for probate records such as wills, estate inventories and estate accounts for free black ancestors. These will be interfiled with probate records of free white citizens. Note that these collections are not indexed, so you will need to browse the index pages of individual volumes to see if your ancestor’s name is listed. If you find your ancestor’s name, note the page number and browse to that page number on the microfilm.
- Please see our page Estate Inventories of Free People of Color in Charleston, SC to view records for Free People of Color in the free collection South Carolina Estate Inventories and Bills of Sale, 1732-1872 on Fold3.
- The Holloway Family Scrapbook, 1806-1974, a scrapbook compiled by James H. Holloway (1849-1913), contains legal documents, personal and business correspondence, receipts, ephemera, clippings and photographs pertaining to the Holloway family, a prominent free family of color in Charleston, SC. The collection, which is digitized in the South Carolina Digital Library, is rich in details of the life of this free family of color.
Image: Oil painting by Adolph Rinck, a German artist of a “femme de couleur libre,” wearing an elaborate kerchief or “tignon,” as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Documenting Free People of Color in the United States
Researching Free People of Color is much the same as researching free white ancestors – documents for Free People of Color should be interspersed with documents of free whites in census records, vital records, probate, court, land, tax and deed records.
There are record sets unique to Free People of Color as well. The act of freeing an enslaved person resulted in documentary evidence. If an enslaved individual was freed during a slaveholder’s lifetime, search for a deed of manumission or emancipation. If an enslaved ancestor was freed at the death of a slaveholder, this will be memorialized in the slaveholder’s will and estate account records.
Many states required Free People of Color to register and/or obtain a white guardian, pay an annual tax, or otherwise comply with local, often restrictive, policies. These actions resulted in records that may contain more information about your free ancestors.
You can search the FamilySearch Wiki for more information on records for Free People of Color in your location of research interest. The Wiki page Antebellum Free African Americans in the North and South provides additional detail about records that are useful for documenting free black ancestors.
The website Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware from Paul Heinegg contains a wealth of information for Free African American families. Heinegg draws upon all colonial court order and minute books on microfilm at the state archives of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Delaware (over 1000 volumes), tax lists, wills, deeds, free Negro registers, marriage bonds, parish registers, Revolutionary War pension files, and other documents for the more than 2,500 pages of family histories presented.
The archived video of BlackProGen LIVE Episode 26: The Ten Percent: Free People of Color is a wonderful roundup of resources for researching FPOC ancestors.
The Afrigeneas Free Persons of Color Forum is a great place to post research queries and connect online with others researching Free People of Color.
The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship from the Library of Congress offers an excellent overview of the experiences of Free People of Color in the United States and includes biographical profiles of author Phyllis Wheatley, Prince Hall (founder of the African American Masonic Order), author Olaudah Equiano and mathematician Benjamin Banneker.
Free Blacks During the Civil War by Susanna Michele Lee on the Encyclopedia Virginia website offers a historical overview of Free People of Color in Virginia.
Learn More About Free People of Color in the United States
Suggested Reading: Free People of Color in Charleston, SC
Johnson, Michael P. and James L. Roark 2016 No Chariot Let Down: Charleston’s Free People on the Eve of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.
Koger, Larry 2014 Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860. McFarland Publishing.
Myers, Amrita Chakrabarti 2011 Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.
Powers, Bernard E. 2016 Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885. University of Arkansas Press.
 Gates, Henry Louis. “Free Blacks Lived in the North, Right?” The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/free-blacks-lived-in-the-north-right/, accessed 3 Oct 2017.