Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia

Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia


Research by: Paul Heinegg ~ Paul Heinegg's Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia is a collection of genealogies about African American families living in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Garnering the American Society of Genealogists' Donald Lines Jacobus Award in 1994, it is a resource well-worth investigating for any individual tracing families from these locations and time periods.

Stories about Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia


    These genealogies, comprising the colonial history of the majority of the free African American families of Virginia and North Carolina, reveal a facet of American colonial history previously overlooked by historians:

    • Most families were the descendants of white servant women who had children by slaves or free African Americans.
    • Families like Gowen, Cumbo, and Driggers who were free in the mid-seventeenth century had several hundred members before the end of the colonial period. They were descended from slaves who were freed before the 1723 Virginia Law which required legislative approval for manumissions.
    • Very few families descended from white slave owners who had children by their slaves, perhaps as low as 1% of the total.
    • Many free African American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia were landowners.
    • The light-skinned descendants of these families formed the tri-racial isolate communities of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Louisiana.

    Most of the free African Americans of Virginia and North Carolina originated in Virginia where they became free in the seventeenth and eighteenth century before chattel slavery and racism fully developed in the United States.

    When they arrived in Virginia, Africans joined a society which was divided between master and white servant %u2014 a society with such contempt for white servants that masters were not punished for beating them to death [McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 22-24]. They joined the same households with white servants %u2014 working, eating, sleeping, getting drunk, and running away together [Northampton Orders 1664-74, fol.25, p.31 - fol.31; McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 466-7; Hening, Statutes at Large, II:117].

    Some of these first African slaves became free:

    • John Geaween (Gowen) "a negro servant" was free in March 1641 according to the Virginia Council and General Court Records [VMH&B XI:281].
    • Francis Payne of Northampton County paid for his freedom about 1650 by purchasing three white servants for his master's use [DW 1645-51, 14].
    • Emanuell Cambow (Cumbo), Negro, was granted 50 acres in James City County on 18 April 1667 [Patent Book 6:39].
    • John Harris "negro" was free in 1668 when he purchased 50 acres in York County [Deeds 1664-72, 327].

    Many were free on the Eastern Shore. There were at least 40 taxable African Americans in Northampton County in the 1670s who were free or later became free, representing one third of the taxable African Americans in the county.

    The Nickens and Weaver families came from Lancaster County where Black Dick (Richard Nickens), his wife Chris, and their children were freed by the 1690 will of John Carter [Wills 1690-1709, 5].

    Free African Americans were beginning to be assimilated into colonial Virginia society. Many were the result of mixed race marriages:

    • Francis Payne was married to a white woman named Amy by September 1656 when he gave her a mare by deed of jointure [DW 1655-68, fol. 19].
    • Francis Skiper was married to Ann, an African American woman, before February 1667/8 when they sold land in Norfolk County [W&D E:1666-75; Orders 1666-75, 73].
    • Peter Beckett, a "Negro" slave taxable from 1671 to 1677 in Northampton County, Virginia, married Elizabeth Kettle, a white woman servant of John Tilney [Orders 1664-74, fol. 114; 1674-79, 75, 191; Orders 1683-89, 68, 246; OW 1689-98, 190-1].
    • Hester Tate, an English woman servant in Westmoreland County, had several children by her husband James Tate, "a Negro slave to Mr. Patrick Spence," before 1690 [Orders 1690-98, 40-41].
    • Elizabeth Kay, a "Mulatto" woman whose father had been free, successfully sued for her freedom in Northumberland County in 1690, and married her white attorney, William Greensted [WMQ, 3rd ser., XXX, 467-74].

    As the percentage of African Americans increased, so did tension between free African Americans and slave holders. In 1666 Bastian Cane, "Negro," was punished by the Northampton County Court for harboring, concealing, and trading with Francis Pigott's "Negro slave" [1664-74, fol.29]. And as more and more slaves replaced white servants, the Legislature passed a series of laws which designated slavery as the appropriate condition for African Americans:

    • In 1670 the Virginia Assembly forbade free African Americans and Indians from owning white servants [Hening, Statutes at Large, II:280].
    • In 1691 the Assembly prohibited the manumission of slaves unless they were transported out of the colony. It also prohibited interracial marriages and ordered the illegitimate, mixed-race children of white women bound out for 30 years [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:86-87].
    • In 1705 the Assembly passed a law which all but eliminated the ability of slaves to earn their freedom by ordering that the farm stock of slaves shall be seized and sold by the church-wardens of the parish wherein such horses, cattle, or hogs shall be, and the profit thereof applied to the use of the poor of said parish [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:459-60].
    • In 1712 all fifteen members of the Anderson and Richards families were freed and given 640 acres in Norfolk County, Virginia, by the will of John Fulcher, creating such a stir that the Legislative Council on 5 March 1712/3 proposed that the Assembly provide a Law against such Manumission of Slaves, which may in time by their increase and correspondence with other slaves may endanger the peace of this Colony [McIlwaine, Executive Journals of the Council, III:332].

    In an effort to "prevent their correspondence with other slaves" Fulcher's executor, Lewis Conner, by a deed dated 20 March 1712/3, swapped their land in Norfolk County with land on Welshes Creek in Chowan County, North Carolina [Chowan DB B#1:109].

    In 1723 the Assembly prohibited the freeing of slaves except in cases where they had rendered some public service such as foiling a slave revolt. Also in 1723, the Assembly amended the 1705 taxation law to make female free African Americans over the age of sixteen tithable [Hening, Statutes at Large, IV:132-3].

    Despite the efforts of the legislature, white servant women continued to bear children by African American fathers through the late seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century. From these genealogies, it appears that they were the primary source of the increase in the free African American population for this period. At least sixty-five of the families in this history appear to be descendants of white women. Many of these white servant women may have been the common-law wives of slaves since they had several mixed race children. Thirty-six families appear to be descended from freed <a name="text4"></a>slaves. It is likely that the majority of the remaining families were also descendants of white women since they first appear in court records in the mid-eighteenth century when slaves could not be freed without legislative approval, and there is no record of legislative approval for their emancipations.

    The replacement of white servants with African slaves, begun in earnest in 1660, continued for more than a century. African slaves had still not completely replaced white servants by 17 October 1773 when the jailer in Prince William County advertised in the Virginia Gazette that he had caught a runaway white servant man:

    Committed to Prince William gaol a certain William Rawlings, who says he is the property of Francis Smith of Chesterfield. The owner is desired to pay charges, and take him away.

    and he advertised in the same edition that he had jailed a runaway white servant woman:

    Committed to the gaol of Prince William a servant woman about 26 years of age, named Mary Richardson; has on a short printed cotton gown, and striped Virginia cloth petticoat [R 17Oc73:33].

    Racial contempt for African Americans did not fully develop as long as there were white servants in similar circumstances. It was during this period, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, that free African Americans were accepted in the white community.

    Like the newly freed white servants, the first free African Americans moved to the frontier which was then the southside counties of Virginia, the county of New Kent, and the northeastern part of North Carolina, where land was available to anyone who could pay the taxes and was willing to brave frontier conditions.

    By 1790 free African Americans were concentrated in these areas, representing about 10% of the free population of the Eastern Shore, 6% of New Kent, 8% percent of the free population of twelve southside Virginia counties, and 17% of the free population of York County [Heads of Families - Virginia, 9]. The total "other free" population in Southampton County alone exceeded the total "other free" population in 22 other Virginia counties.

    Many originated in or moved to Surry County, Virginia, where their deeds, marriage bonds, and wills were recorded in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They were the Banks, Blizzard, Byrd, Charity, Chavis, Cornish, Debrix, Jeffreys, Kersey, Peters, Scott, Sweat, Tann, Valentine, Walden, and Wilson families. Descriptions in the Surry County, Virginia, "Registry of Free Negroes" in the late 18th and early 19th century read:

    Armstead Peters a Mulatoe man, ...aged about 56 years, born free of a yellowish complexion... (6 October 1794).

    James Williams a Mulatto man, pretty dark complexion, born of free parents residents of this county, 35 years old ... (11 May 1797).

    Joseph Byrd son of Joseph and Nelly Byrd free Mulatto persons & residents of this county 20 years old, 5'5" high, bright complexion, short thick hair, straight & well made (27 September 1798).

    William Tan, a mulatto man and son of Jemima Tan, a white woman late of this county. He is of bright complexion, has straight black hair, pretty stout and straight made, aged 21 last September (3 December 1801) [Back of Guardian Accounty Book 1783-1804, nos. 1, 21, 35, 136].

    Many baptized their children in Bruton and Middleton Parishes, James City and Charles City Counties between 1744 and 1767. They were the Allways, Armfield, Ashby, Banks, Bartley, Chavis, Cooper, Flowers, Freeman, Gillett, Grimes, Jameson, Jones, Lewis, Maclin, Peters, Redcross, Roberts, Rosarios, Tann, Wallace, and Williams families who came from as far away as Southampton County [Bruton Parish Register, 4-35].

    Ester Gouin was among nine free "Negroes and Molattoes" who came by boat to Norfolk County from Maryland in August 1692 [Norfolk DB 5, pt.2, 265].

    Since so many free African Americans were light-skinned, many observers assume that they were the offspring of white slave owners who took advantage of their female slaves. Only one of more than 280 families in this history was proven to descend from a white slave owner. Jean Lovina, the slave of John Nichols was probably his mistress since he called her his "Negro Woman" and her children "my two Molattos" when he gave them their freedom and left them 350 acres by his 11 November 1696 Norfolk County will [6:fol.96, in McIntosh, Lower Norfolk County Wills, 161-162].

    North Carolina

    Several free African Americans voted in the North Carolina General Assembly elections in 1701 [Saunders, Colonial Records, I:903]. Jack Braveboy, was living in Chowan County before 17 July 1716 when he was presented by the court:

    a negro, Coming into this Government with a woman and do live together as man and wife, it is ordered that the sd. Braveboy produce a Sufficient Certificate of their Marryage [Hoffman, Chowan Precinct North Carolina 1696 to 1723, 224].

    In 1725 John Cotton was indicted for marrying a "Molatto Man to a White woman," and in 1726 the Rev. Mr. John Blacknall was fined fifty pounds for "joyning together in ... Matrimony Thomas Spencer and Martha Paule a Molatto Woman" [Saunders, Colonial Records, II:591, 662].

    Many of those who were free in Northampton County, Virginia, settled in Craven County, North Carolina. They were the Carter, Copes, Driggers, George, and Johnston families. They can be traced directly back to their seventeenth century Virginia ancestors. Those in the early eighteenth century lists of Northampton County, Virginia tithables who immigrated to North Carolina were the Allen and Roberts families.

    The descendants of Nicholas and Bungey Manuel, "negro slaves" freed by the 28 October 1718 Elizabeth City County, Virginia will of Edward Myhill, were in the Edgecombe, North Carolina Militia in the 1750s [Elizabeth City County Deeds, Wills 1715-21, 194-5; Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 675].

    James and Peter Black came to Craven County from Essex County, Virginia, where they had been free born. John Heath tried to sell them as slaves to William Handcock, but the Craven County Court intervened on their behalf on 21 June 1745 [Haun, Craven County Court Minutes, III:465].

    Moll, Nell, Sue, Sall, and Will Dove, "Negroes," came to Craven County, North Carolina, from Maryland with Leonard Thomas who was trying to keep them as his slaves in September 1749, but William Smith travelled to Maryland and proved their claim that they were free born [Ibid., IV:11-12].

    Free African American immigrants were of sufficient number in 1723 that the General Assembly received complaints

    of great Numbers of Free Negroes, Mulattoes, and other persons of mixt Blood, that have lately removed themselves into this Government, and that several of them have intermarried with the white Inhabitants of this Province... [Clark, State Records, XXIII:106-7].

    The slave population on the frontier was much lower than in the settled areas of Virginia, so the presence of free African Americans would not have posed a threat to most settlers. And several of these free African Americans owned slaves of their own. However, land ownership was more likely the social equalizer for them and their white neighbors.

    The McKinnie family, originally from Isle of Wight County, Virginia, was one of the leading white families in the area around the Roanoke River. Barnaby McKinnie, member of the General Assembly from Edgecombe County in 1735, was witness to many of the early Bass, Bunch, Chavis, and Gibson deeds. John McKinnie called Cannon Cumbo his friend when he mentioned him in his 28 February 1753 Edgecombe County will. Other leading white settlers who sold them land adjoining theirs and witnessed their deeds were Richard Washington, William and Thomas Bryant, Richard Pace, and William Whitehead. Arthur Williams, member of the General Assembly for Bertie County in 1735, and John Castellaw, (brother?) of James Castellaw, a member of the Assembly from Bertie County, had mixed-race common-law wives, Elizabeth and Martha Butler [Saunders, Colonial Records, IV:115 and the Butler history].

    On 9 November 1762 many of the leading residents of Halifax County petitioned the Assembly to repeal the discriminatory tax against free African Americans, and in May 1763 fifty-four of the leading citizens of Granville, Northampton, and Edgecombe Counties made a similar petition. They described their "Free Negro & Mulatto" neighbors as

    persons of Probity & good Demeanor (who) chearfully contribute towards the Discharge of every public Duty injoined them by Law [Saunders, Colonial Records, VI:902, 982].

    About ten years later a similar petition by 75 residents of Granville County included those of a few of the free African Americans of the county: Benjamin, Edward, and Reuben Bass, William and Gibea Chavis, Lawrence Pettiford, and Davie Mitchell (negro) [Ibid., IX:96-97].

    By 1790 they represented 1.7% of the free population of North Carolina, concentrated in the counties of Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, Granville, Craven, Robeson, and Hertford where they were about 5% of the free population [Heads of Families - North Carolina, 9-10]. In these counties most African American families were landowners, and several did exceptionally well.

    Edward Carter was the fourth largest Dobbs County landowner with 23,292 acres in 1780 [L.P.46.1 in Journal of N.C. Genealogy XII:1664]. He was head of a Dobbs County household of 8 "other free," one white woman, and 20 slaves in 1790 [NC:137]. The Bunch, Chavis and Gibson families owned slaves and acquired over a thousand acres of land on both sides of the Roanoke River, and the Chavis and Gowen families acquired over a thousand acres in Granville County.

    William Chavis, a "Negro" listed in the 8 October 1754 muster roll of Colonel William Eaton's Granville County Regiment, owned over a thousand acres of land, a lodging house frequented by whites, and 8 taxable slaves [Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 716]. His son, Philip Chavis, also owned over a thousand acres of land, travelled between Granville, Northampton, and Robeson Counties, and lived for a while in Craven County, South Carolina.

    Some members of the Gibson family moved to South Carolina in 1731 where a member of the Commons House of Assembly complained that "several free colored men with their white wives had immigrated from Virginia." Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina summoned Gideon Gibson and his family to explain their presence there and after meeting him and his family reported,

    I have had them before me in Council and upon Examination find that they are not Negroes nor Slaves but Free people, That the Father of them here is named Gideon Gibson and his Father was also free, I have been informed by a person who has lived in Virginia that this Gibson has lived there Several Years in good Repute and by his papers that he has produced before me that his transactions there have been very regular, That he has for several years paid Taxes for two tracts of Land and had several Negroes of his own, That he is a Carpenter by Trade and is come hither for the support of his Family [Box 2, bundle: S.C., Minutes of House of Burgesses (1730-35), 9, Parish Transcripts, N.Y. Hist. Soc. by Jordan, White over Black, 172].

    Like the early settlers of the North Carolina frontier Governor Johnson was more concerned with the Gibsons' social class than their race. In mid-eighteenth century North Carolina we find wealthy mixed race families counted in some years by tax assessors as "mulatto" and in other years as white. Jeremiah and Henry Bunch, Bertie County slave owners, were taxed in Jonathan Standley's 1764 Bertie County list as "free male Molattors" in 1764, but as whites in Standley's 1765 Bertie list, and again as "free Molatoes" in 1766 [CR 10.702.1]. Michael Going/ Gowen was taxed in Granville County as white in 1754 and was called "Michael Goin, Mulattoe" in 1759 [CR 44.701.19].

    John Gibson, Gideon Gibson and Gibeon Chavis, all married the daughters of prosperous white farmers. Some members of the Gibson, Chavis, Bunch and Gowen families became resolutely white after several generations.

    While some free African Americans owned slaves and were accepted in white society, others married slaves and socialized with slaves. Hester Anderson, one of those freed in 1712 in Norfolk County, was the common-law wife of a slave. She was the ancestor of the Artis family of Southampton County, Virginia, and several North Carolina counties. James Revell of Cumberland County entrusted his executor with the task of making application to the <a name="text11"></a>legislature for his wife's freedom [WB C:21].

    Abel Carter was suspected of aiding a runaway slave. The 14 November 1778 issue of the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern advertised a reward for a

    negro fellow named Smart ... Tis supposed he is harboured about Smith River by one Abel Carter, a free Negro, as he has been seen there several times [Fouts, NC Gazette of New Bern, I:83].

    However, the majority were small farmers owning a few hundred acres who married other free African Americans. Their marriages can be identified from colonial wills and tax lists, and they were recorded in the county marriage bonds starting in the late eighteenth century.

    They suffered under the discriminatory North Carolina tax law enacted in 1749 which described taxables as

    all and every White Person, Male, of the Age of Sixteen Years, and upwards, all Negroes, Mulattoes, Mustees Male or Female, and all Persons of Mixt Blood, to the Fourth Generation, of the Age of Twelve Years, and upwards, and all white Persons intermarrying with any Negro, mulatto, or Mustee, or other Person of mixt Blood, ... shall be deemed Taxables... [Leary & Stirewalt, North Carolina Research, Genealogy and Local History, chapter 13].

    Thus, free African American and Native American households can be identified by the taxation of their female family members over 12 years of age. Some light skinned people would claim to be white to avoid this discriminatory tax, and they would be listed by the tax collector with the notation, "Refuses to list his wife" [Thomas and Michael Gowin in the 1761 list of John Pope, CR 44.701.19]. It was in the interest of the tax collector to classify those of doubtful ancestry as "Mulatto" since he received a portion of the tax. However, those with some political and economic influence like the Bass and Bunch families were often listed as white.

    In addition to the discriminatory tax, poor and orphaned African American children were bound out until the age of 21 by the county courts just like their poor white counterparts. In July 1733 the General Assembly received complaints from "divers Inhabitants" that

    divers free People, Negroes, Molattoes residing in this Province were ... bound out until they come to 31 years contrary to the consent of the Parties bound out. The said comittee further report that they fear that divers Persons will desert the settlement of those parts ...

    The General Assembly ruled that those illegally bound should be released and the practice of binding out children to 31 years of age instead of 21 years was to cease [Saunders, Colonial Records, III:556].

    The children were bound as apprentices in various crafts. Some apprentices were bound "to learn the art, trade, and mystery of farming" which may simply have meant working as an unpaid field hand; others were trained as coopers, blacksmiths, cordwainers, or other useful occupations.

    The November 1774 Bertie County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions ordered Jemima Wiggins, 8 years old, and Mary Beth Wiggins, 10 years old, "bastard Mulattos of Sarah Wiggins," bound to John Skinner. However, this order was reversed in the May 1775 Court session when Edward Wiggins, the children's father, convinced the court

    of the said Skinners ill & deceitful Behavior procuring sd Order... [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, IV:157].

    The courts bound out the children of many free African American women because they were the common-law wives of slaves, but Doll Burnett argued against the binding of her daughter, Edith, in the 28 May 1777 Johnston County Court:

    and the court taking the Conduct Character and Circumstances of the said Doll Burnet into consideration & finding no just reasons to apprehend that the said Edith would become a charge to this County, Ordered her to be returned to the care of her said Mother again [Haun, Johnston County Court Minutes, II:260].

    In some instances the indenture laws virtually enslaved a person for life. George Cummins had the indenture of his white servant woman named Christian Finny extended by a year and her child bound for 31 years by order of the 7 December 1736 Carteret County Court because she had a "Mallatto Bastard Child during her service" [Minutes 1723-47, fol.33c]. She may have been the common-law wife of a slave for she was charged with having another "Melato" born 10 July 1739 [Ibid., fol.58] and another on 20 December 1743 [Ibid., fol.59b-c]. When she applied to the court for her freedom on 9 June 1744, the court ruled that she serve for another five months to pay for the cost of the court suit against her [Ibid., 62d]. When she again applied for her freedom six months later, the court ruled that on checking the record she serve another year since she had a "Mullatto Child in the time of her servitude" [Ibid., 151-2].

    Whilst some North Carolina residents were complaining about the immigration of free African Americans, their white neighbors in Granville, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton Counties welcomed them. Their neighbors may have been accustomed to living among free African Americans in Virginia; they may have moved from Virginia in company with them; or perhaps they were drawn together by the adversities of the frontier. Neighbor depended heavily upon neighbor, and whites may have been more concerned with hostile Indians and harsh living conditions than they were with their neighbors' color.

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