Monthly Archives: January 2014

Free People of Color, Expulsion and Enslavement in the Antebellum South

West, Emily. “Free People of Color, Expulsion and Enslavement in the Antebelum South.” In Creating Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century South, edited by William A. Link, David Brown, Brian Ward, and Martyn Bone, 64–82. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.

In this article, Emily West discusses the citizenship of free people of color in the antebellum South.  She specifically focuses on what she calls “voluntary enslavement,” meaning when free African Americans would petition wither the state legislature or county courts to allow them to become slaves of a particular master.  These petitions “blur the lines” between slave and free black (70), and demonstrates different conceptions of citizenship.  For example, some free people of color realized that they could not financially support themselves or their families, alluding to the idea of an economic aspect of citizenship (72).  West then explores some of the reasons why free people would chose slavery.  First, they could have done so to remain close to their family since state legislatures were debating on the forced expulsion of African Americans from states (69).  This is particularly likely because petitions “clustered” around times of these debates.  Second, they might have been threatened or tricked into slavery (71), or, and the most likely reasons West gives, is that free people of color chose enslavement to for family reasons (73).  Maybe a black man’s family were slaves and their owner was about to take them west, or a free black woman wished to remain in a relationship with a white man.  Regardless of the reason, this demonstrates that free people of color did not think of slavery and freedom as polar opposites.  They were sometimes more motivated by familial concerns, rather than trying to fight for citizenship (77).  My takeaway from this article is that freedom for African Americans might not have been preferable to slavery, that as the nineteenth century wore on the status and toleration of free people of color diminished, and that I need to keep free black women in mind as I undertake my research.

Rewriting the Free Negro Past

Jennison, Watson. “Rewriting the Free Negro Past: Joseph Lumpkin, Proslavery Ideology, and Citizenship in Antebellum Georgia.” In Creating Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century South, edited by William A. Link, David Brown, Brian Ward, and Martyn Bone, 42–63. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013.

In this article, Jennison explores an attempt by a late-antebellum Georgia state judge to essentially rewrite the history of free blacks in Georgia. Through his court decisions, Lumpkin, the judge, ignores the judicial precedence in Georgia of free people of color sometimes having certain citizenship rights. He essentially equates free blacks as slaves (45-46). Thus, they cannot be citizens (47). In doing so though, Jennison contends that Lumpkin refuses to acknowledge a tradition of granting citizenship to some free blacks, from treating free people of color as foreign nationals (49) to restrict corporal punishment, etc. (50-51). There are mainly two significant takeaways for me from this article. First, white toleration of free blacks differed across the state, and usually correlated to cities with a higher slave population, like Savannah and Augusta (54-55). Free African Americans were not tolerated where their labor likely competed with the white working class, like Atlanta. I need to see if a similar correlation exists in NC and TN and explore the reason for it. Secondly, free people of color were not a monolithic group, but differed economically as well as socially. Jennison references some free blacks that had more wealth than most whites in GA (56-57).

Potential Advisor Meetings and Thesis Idea

Because my thesis topic essentially determines my advisor, I will begin this post by describing my idea for a thesis and then going on to rehash my meetings with professors.

Last year in our America from 1877 class, I came across a reference to the disfranchisement of free African Americans in Tennessee and North Carolina in the 1830s.  This really intrigued me because 1) Jacksonian America is viewed as the time in American history when most suffrage requirements were eliminated allowing more people (white men) than ever before to take part in political activity and 2) usually the South is depicted as this fundamentally racialized region where blacks, whether free or slave, had no rights to speak of.  So for one of the class’s exploratory papers, I explored the literature on the subject and investigated potential primary sources.  I discovered that historians have not devoted much attention to the disfranchisement of free African Americans and that the best primary sources on the topic are the journals of the states’ constitutional conventions where the rights of free African Americans were revoked.  Also, looking at the changes of the state constitutions of North Carolina and Tennessee is important because the first constitutions did not specifically exclude blacks from voting.  What changed in the interim period?

I am interested in this topic because it combines my period interests with some of my thematic interests and will introduce me to a literature that I need to know.  I have always been most interested in nineteenth-century American history.  It is the time when our nation underwent an enormous amount of change, so understanding this century is very important.  Thematically, I am interested in class dynamic and the relation of geography on political power.  This certainly fits in with the black disfranchisement’s tie to politics.  Recently, my interests have expanded to include aspects of citizenship, and the reciprocal nature of it, what people gain from citizenship and how some of their rights are lost.  Also, I feel like I really need to familiarize myself with the historiography of race because it is an important topic in the history field.  Thus, I hope knowing the literature will help prepare me for Ph.D. work.

In the time since the exploratory paper, I have done some research on my own and further explored potential primary sources.  Based on this work, I think there are three different ways to look at the topic of black disfranchisement.  First is race.  During the constitutional conventions, white delegates actually defined what it meant to be a person of color and what it meant to be white.  They used an ancestral formula that required one to be “pure white” from the fourth generation back until the present.  It might be interesting to explore how this affected people of mixed race and if ancestry was ever actually determined at the local level.  Second, politics seem to be at play here.  Over the break I met with a professor at UNC and he hypothesized that the disfranchisement of African Americans in North Carolina broke down on party lines.  Those delegates at the constitutional convention that would eventually identify with the Whig Party wanted to keep the vote open to blacks, while those seeking disfranchisement usually became Democrats.  Tied up in this debate, especially in North Carolina, is the issue of class, where the people in the western part of the state wanted increased representation in the legislature, but  Easterners wanted to stay in power.  Because more free African Americans lived in eastern cities, there might be some connection.  A third framework is citizenship.  In the Constitutional Convention of 1835, delegates discussed what it meant to be a citizen and how it made no sense that blacks could vote because American citizenship was only for white men.  I think it would be interesting to also explore how citizenship was viewed in locales where African Americans were part of the voting population.

Before I describe specific advisor meetings, all of them really showed the wonderful nature of collaboration between historians and how different people can contributed different ideas.  Although I have to choose one advisor, all of the meetings were positive experiences, and each professor assured me that even if they did not end up being my advisor that they would look forward to helping me on the project.

I first interviewed Dr. Kiechle because of her interest on the nineteenth century.  After familiarizing her with my topic, she made a few wonderful suggestions about going about a thesis on black disfranchisement.  We talked about how New York also was a state that took the vote away from African Americans in this period.  By looking to a Northern state, I might be able to see how the prevalence of slavery affected a state’s outlook on free black suffrage.  She suggested I look at the numbers of free people of color in the New York, Tennessee, and North Carolina and where they reside geographically within the state to see local voting patters or racial tensions between whites and free blacks.  Also, the political culture of the time was a topic Dr. Kiechle suggested I look at.  She made the point that I need to understand the culture of the time so that I will not cast my twenty-first century notions back into the nineteenth century.  She suggested some secondary sources to introduce me to the literature, as well.  The meeting went very well, and Dr. Kiechle told me that she thought I had a good topic that she would be willing to advise me on.  However, she is going on leave in the fall 2014, so it would be difficult, if impossible, for her to serve in as my advisor.

Second, I interviewed Dr. Halpin.  Although he studies American history in the twentieth century, he is interested in race and class, which are key parts of my potential thesis topic.  I again introduced my topic, and he felt like it was very interesting and could be a good thesis.  We then discussed the importance of race to the disfranchisement of African Americans, and he pointed me to some books that might provide a framework that I could emulate.  He admitted that, while interested in the nineteenth century, he did not have a full knowledge of the secondary literature, but he felt like the questions I hope to answer in my thesis are similar to questions in the twentieth-century literature he is familiar with.  Dr. Halpin has no scheduling conflict and would be happy to be my advisor.

Third, I met with Dr. Quigley also because of his expertise in the nineteenth century and familiarization with Jacksonian America.  We had a really great meeting, and he spent a lot of time brainstorming with me about primary sources, a secondary literature, and how my thesis would help me get in to a Ph.D. program.  After discussing my topic, he warned that I probably should look at the disfranchisement of African Americans in Tennessee and North Carolina in such a way that was not simply the outdated mode of political history of only looking at the actions of white elites.  He suggested that while the actions of white delegates in the constitutional conventions are certainly important, the best research could be done to see the reasons for disfranchising blacks and the aftermath of such a decision at the ground level, meaning how ordinary people, both white and black, responded.  He thought my three frameworks of race, citizenship, and politics were good ways to look at the topic and that they were all interrelated.  I talked to him about my attempt to find good primary sources, and he pointed out that voting rolls and newspapers around election dates might have some good information.  In the meeting, I got the impression that Dr. Quigley knew the secondary literature very well, as he suggested many books that could be helpful in shaping my ideas.  He thought my topic had potential and agreed to be my advisor.