Lesson 1: Slavery and Free Negroes, 1800 to 1860

Historical Background

Slavery was primarily a labor system based on oppression and violence. Slaves were forced to work. At the same time, despite the cruelty, slaves created families and culture (song, dance, religion and education). This diverse and complex institution was not static. Instead the dynamic system evolved and changed over time and place. For example, life for a southern Virginia slave working tobacco in 1710 was not the same as life for a northern Virginia slave laboring on a wheat farm in 1850. Contrary to popular conceptions of slavery, many slaves did not pick cotton or live on Gone with the Wind-like plantations. Societies that allowed slavery also varied. In Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Ira Berlin distinguishes between slave societies where slave labor dominated the economic, political, and social world--and societies with slaves – those in which there was not a total dominance of slavery.

In the 1650s and 1660s Virginia and Maryland had been societies with slaves, in which slaves had provided some labor. By the end of seventeenth century, they were being transformed into slave societies, in which slaves formed the bulk of the subordinate labor force. Laws passed in the 1660s had formally recognized slavery and begun to define it in racial terms – clearly distinguishing between black Africans and white workers. In the two decades before slave importation ended in 1808, planters purchased some quarter of a million Africans, doubling the number they imported in the previous two centuries. In the following years, natural reproduction and the internal slave trade replaced importation and met the demand for workers.

In 1830 a significant portion of Virginia slaves worked on small farms, where a laborer might cook one day and hoe cotton the next. On these farms patterns of labor varied from season to season as owners tried to insure profits and, at the same time, cultivate enough food and raw materials to sustain their own families. In such situations, slaves had more direct interaction with owners and could hope that a successful owner might purchase nearby family members. But slaves on small farms faced great danger. One bad season could cause owners to sell slaves to pay off debts, thus breaking up slave families and contributing to the great internal migration of slaves to sugar or cotton plantations in southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Alexandria had one of the largest slave markets in the U.S.

By the 1820s and 1830s throughout the Upper South, including Virginia, residents questioned the profitability of slavery. Many farmers turned from tobacco, which did not grow as well in northern Virginia as it did further south, to other crops, such as wheat, that did not require year-round labor. By the 1840s northern Virginia farmers had diversified and were growing wheat, corn, flax, raising hogs, cattle, and sheep. There was a change to smaller farms and to skilled slaves on plantations. Work was differentiated and skilled. With these skills, slaves had greater power and increased opportunities. They had more leverage to negotiate for better living conditions, less work, and some contracted their labor out.

In 1831-32, the Virginia state legislature considered resolutions that supported the gradual emancipation of slaves or their shipment to Africa. The resolutions received a substantial number of votes but failed to pass. This debate and the defeat of the resolutions was the result, in part, of timing, for in 1831 a major slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, erupted in Virginia. Instead of granting freedom, southern masters tightened their grip on blacks, free and enslaved, and on anyone else who challenged their right to own slaves. In Virginia, fearing the influence of antislavery literature, it became illegal to teach slaves to read. Nonetheless, the existence of such a debate suggests the problems Upper South slaveowners faced in sustaining the institutions of slavery.

What was life like for free Negroes in the South? Often free blacks were highly skilled in occupation, lighter in color than in North. While some lived and worked on small farms, most free blacks lived in urban areas and supported themselves as manual laborers, domestics, petty traders, artisans, or small shopkeepers. Often they formed support networks among themselves, founding their own churches and clubs. But after Nat Turner’s rebellion, whites assumed that the freedom of any blacks could stimulate dangerous notions among slaves. The Virginia legislature passed new restrictions on the activities of free blacks, denying them the right to own firearms, be ordained as ministers or meet for worship without the permission of the local white officials. By the 1830s, free blacks in every southern state found their very presence assailed and sometimes banned. Often the laws that limited them became the same as those after the Civil War.

Although free Negroes have been described as more slave than free, they were not a monolithic group, with different circumstances and choices depending on the region they lived in. In the North even without fear of slave revolts free Negroes had limited political rights, but they were allowed to travel freely, organize their own institutions, publish newspapers, and petition and protest. By 1810 the Upper South contained nearly 100,000 free Negroes, who composed about 8 percent of the black population in the region and almost 60 percent of the free blacks in the U.S. Thereafter repression slowed the number and the proportion declined. Some were freed by their masters who began to see slavery as inconsistent with the principles of the new Republic or who lost economic incentive to keep slaves. In the South there was less immigrant labor competition than in the North, so free blacks had higher economic standing than in the free states. But free Negroes in the Upper South were severely limited in their political and communal activities because whites feared they would instigate slave rebellions. Consequently, they were prevented from voting, sitting on juries, testifying in court, and also barred from travel without permission and meeting without supervision of whites. Free Negroes in the Upper South enjoyed economic advancement at the expense of political activism, and this was even more pronounced in the Lower South.

The William Jasper family, 1808-1870 [Talking Points]

  • William Jasper, an African American, was probably born in 1808 not far from George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon. He was born a slave on the plantation of William Hayward Foote’s Hayfield plantation. Foote was one of the richest men in Fairfax County—when he died he owned 50 slaves.
  • Jasper worked on a plantation that grew wheat and corn, and raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs. Slaves at Hayfield, including Jasper, are likely to have had skills as farmers, blacksmiths and carpenters.
  • Jasper and his family were not sold south to booming cotton and sugar plantations, as were many other slaves.
  • According to his will, Foote decided to free his slaves on or soon after his death in 1846. At this time Jasper, in his thirties, was valued by appraisers to be worth $350. Foote’s will also freed Jasper’s wife Sara, in her mid-twenties, and their two daughters who were six and four. They were actually freed in the early 1850’s.
  • It is important to note that the Jaspers were free blacks in Virginia before the Civil War. But even as free blacks they faced numerous obstacles. They could not: own a gun, obtain an education, vote, conduct business freely, worship in religious services unless supervised by whites. Also they might be captured by slave traders and sold back into slavery.
  • The Jaspers wanted to stay in Virginia near friends and family, so in 1853 and 1858 they chose to register as free blacks in Fairfax County to prove that they were free. This meant they could travel and gain employment.
  • In 1860 William Jasper purchased 13 acres of land near the Hayfield Plantation. It is likely that he put together the $200 to pay a white farmer and slave owner for the land from his work as a farmer.
  • The Jaspers probably did not stay on their newly bought land during the Civil War -- and it is also likely that what they had on this land, including buildings, animals and crops, was lost during the war.