Free persons of color in antebellum virginia
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FPC. FREE PERSONS OF COLOR IN ANTEBELLUM VIRGINIA. Background. Laws. Demographics. Links. Bibliography. Stories.


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In 1860, Free Persons of Color were 10  percent of the total black population of the state, but they were neither allowed privileges of full citizenship nor accepted as full members of society.  Their stories tell us much about the racial struggles that later Virginia would face after the Emancipation Proclamation.  In particular, free persons of color faced significant challenges to maintain their family life.  They faced economic discrimination, hurdles which made keeping their families intact difficult, and state law that required any former slave to leave the state if freed after 1806.  This site tells some of their stories. Please contact us if you would like to add to this archive documenting the struggles of free blacks in antebellum Virginia.

Jane Roberts-Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division-Digital ID CPH 3d01922

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1827 Map of Virginia

Source—New York Public Library Digital ID--434794

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Virginia Laws Relating to Free Persons of Color

  • On March 11, 1856, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act providing for the voluntary enslavement of the free Negroes of the Commonwealth. A female, who was at least 18 years old, and a male, who was at least 21 years old could choose his own master upon petition to the local circuit court.

  • On March 17, 1856, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act providing that slaves hereafter emancipated shall forfeit their freedom by remaining tin the commonwealth more than twelve months after they become actually free, and shall be reduced to slavery under such regulations as may be prescribed by law.

Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia, 1856-1860—Virginia Historical Society Lee Collection Museum 2002.688.2

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In March, 1856, a brief notation in the records of the Bedford County Court “ordered thatCelia Hale, a free woman of color, be allowed to bind her children, Milton Hale, Pleasant Hale, John Hale, and Martha Hale to Jesse Minter according to law.”[1] The record leaves many questions unanswered. Was Celia Hale destitute and unable to care for her children? Would they be taught a useful trade? Why was Jesse Minter chosen as master of the children? Celia Hale’s motives became much clearer when in a year she petitioned Judge George Gilmer of the Bedford Court that she be allowed to become a slave of Jesse Minter. The petition stated that Hale, 28 years old, had moved to Bedford County from Campbell County when she was four years old. She affirmed that her children had been apprenticed to Minter and that she had lived with Minter for the past two years. Hale’s petition took advantage of the 1856 act allowing voluntary re-enslavement. By law, Hale’s children would remain free.[2] Minter requested that an attorney meet with Hale to give his views on her petition, but Hale continued with her request for enslavement.[3] Celia Hale had run out of options to remain free and to stay in Bedford County. But the slow pace of justice may have provided Hale with more years of freedom. The 1860 census listed Celia Hale, a black woman, as a free person of color. No matter whether she was ever re-enslaved, Hale’s story underlines the importance of family in making the decision to remain in Virginia and shows the lengths to which some would go to remain with their children. Celia Hale also faced the thin line between slavery and freedom when freedom is strongly circumscribed.

[1] Bedford County Court Record Book 32, BCCH.

[2] Petition of Celia Hale to Bedford Circuit Court, April 25, 1857, Folder of Slaves and Free Negroes, 1850-1859.

[3]Letter from J. Minter to Mr. Johnson, March 21, 1857, Folder of Slaves and Free Negroes, 1850-189, BCCH. Mr. Minter stated: “I am wholly indifferent about it, and will not consent to it unless it is her own deliberate act cheerfully consented to in my absence and out of my influence. She served in the family long enough to know us, and is old enough to judge for herself.”

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Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: The New Press, 1974.

Burton, Orville Burton, In May Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Bynum, Victoria E. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social & Sexual Control in the Old South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790’s Through the Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Franklin, John Hope. The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Guild, Jane Purcell. Black Laws of Virginia. Lovettsville, VA: Willow Bend Books, Fourth Printing 1996.

Jackson, Luther Porter. Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia, 1830-1860. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1942.

Lebsock, Suzanne. The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985.

Link, William A. Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Rothman, Joshua D. Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia 1787-1861. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Schwarz, Philip J. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865. Baton Rouge: The Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Simpson, Craig M. A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Shade, William G. Democratizing the Old Dominion: Virginia and the Second Party System, 1824-1861. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.

Zipf, Karin L. Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina 1715-1919. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Luther P. Jackson, Author and Chairman of the History Department at Virginia State University

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First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia. The church operated a school for slaves. Among their students, Lott Cary and Collin Teague purchased their freedom and went to Liberia as a missionaries in 1821.