Even before slavery was abolished, many African-Americans were able to secure their freedom and live in a state of semi-freedom. Free blacks lived in all parts of the United States with the majority living among the slaves in the American South. By 1860, there were about 1.5 million free blacks in the southern states.
Some slaves bought their freedom but this process was rare. Other slaves became free through manumission, the voluntary emancipation by the slave-owner, which was sometimes offered when slaves had outlived their usefulness or were held in a special favor by their masters.
Some slaves were released by their masters as the Abolitionist movement grew. The offspring of interracial relations were often set free. Others escaped. The free blacks were not offered the same rights as free whites. Virginia passed a law in the early 1830s that prohibited the teaching of all blacks to read and write. Free blacks in the south were restricted from owning firearms or preaching the Bible.
Laws also prohibited African-Americans who went out of state to get an education from returning. In many states, the slave codes designed to keep African Americans in bondage also applied to free persons of color. African-Americans couldn’t testify in court.
The establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church made a huge impact. It was established with black leadership and spread from Philadelphia to Charleston and to many other areas in the South, despite laws which forbade blacks from preaching.
Free blacks were skilled as artisans, business people, educators, writers, planters, musicians, tailors, hairdressers and cooks. Some owned property and kept boarding houses, and some even owned slaves themselves. Some of the free persons of color are Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and Harriet Tubman.
Source: Free(?) African-Americans
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