- Black Communities in Antebellum America: Buttressing Held Views
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the cumulative enterprise of sustaining an existing paradigm. It is, in fact, satisfying to know that incremental additions to the historical record seem to reinforce the held view of free black communities in North America before the Civil War. As John Hope Franklin demonstrated in one of the earliest systematic studies of this group, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790–1860 (1943), black Americans accomplished much that was commendable within a social structure that was oppressive, but complicated enough to provide for irregularities. It is possible to make supportable generalizations concerning the relationship of African Americans to local white communities, but even in the slave states, the personal experiences of individuals sometimes deviated significantly from statistical norms. The status of “free black” was something of an anomaly in a society founded on slavery, but individuals in that class known as “Free Africans” at times enjoyed surprising degrees of liberty and independence. Franklin’s provocatively ambiguous term, “quasi-free” could be applied to significant numbers of African Americans in the North and in the South, regardless of whether they actually possessed “freedom papers.”
The contributions of Herbert Aptheker, Dorothy Porter, and Lorenzo Greene to research on free blacks, published around the same time, were consistent with Franklin’s views on the topic. Leon Litwack’s North of Slavery [End Page 557] (1964), acknowledged as the handiest survey of the field at the height of the civil rights movement, continued to support Franklin’s views on the Free Negro, albeit focused on a different section of the country. The aforementioned works painfully documented the sordid history of discrimination generated during the eras of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, when the treatment of free blacks in the North as in the South was overwhelmingly mean-spirited and gratuitously vicious. Frederick Douglass bitterly observed in 1848 that “In the Northern states, we are not slaves to individuals, not personal slaves, yet in many respects we are the slaves of the community.” 1
Although the subject of discrimination against antebellum Free Africans has remained a topic of interest and importance, the issue of self-help has become increasingly interesting to scholars since the black power movement of the late 1960s. Much scholarship over the past thirty years has accordingly focused on the institutional, religious, and intellectual life of black communities, and on the back-to-Africa movement. Publications such as Benjamin Quarles’s Black Abolitionists (1969), William and Jane Pease’s They Who Would Be Free (1974), and Floyd Miller’s The Search for a Black Nationality (1975) documented the involvement of African Americans in the struggle for the improvement of their own status. Leonard Curry’s The Free Black in Urban America (1981), primarily a descriptive sociology of the past, dedicated three chapters to institutional life, but tended to neglect literary and intellectual activity.
Recent scholarship on the Free African population has continued to provide detail on African American involvement in the abolitionist movement and to outline the discourse of black nationalism during the antebellum years. Among the best examples are Ira Berlin’s Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974), R. J. M. Blackett’s Beating Against the Barriers (1986), Gary Nash’s Forging Freedom (1988), and David Swift’s Black Prophets of Justice (1989). 2 The works of Julie Winch, Henry Sweet, Peter Hinks, and Shane White would receive more than passing mention here if this were intended as a bibliographical essay. The list of books and articles on the antebellum free black community...