The Concealed History of Free People of Color in America

The early history of people of color in the United Stated has focused almost exclusively on their enslavement, which has incompletely presented and positioned the identities of, ideologies about, and policies toward blacks in this country up through the modern age. In actuality, there were approximately a quarter of a million free African Americans living in the Antebellum South. In Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, author Ira Berlin extensively documents the oft-untold experiences of free people of color between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

After the U.S. War of Independence, there was an initial wave of slave emancipation that freed thousands of African Americans in the South. Slaves Without Masters casts its focus on this diverse population of free blacks during the antebellum era. Their lives varied drastically based on geography (border states vs. upper South vs lower South, rural vs. urban); the constantly changing laws and racial codes of the day; the perceived value of their occupational skill set and level of education; their alliances–or lack of positive relationships–with other FPOC and with other whites; and, markedly, the specific hue of their skin.

Despite the uncertainty and instability of life leading up to and through the Civil War, some emancipated people of color were able to acquire formal education, start their own businesses, buy homes, own landed properties and form influential community organizations. Others, however, lived in shanty dwellings or were forced to roam from town to town and state to state as white Southerners debated what should be done to control the expanding presence and power of free blacks in their communities. Many–if not most–free people of color were continually in fear of falling afoul of constantly changing ‘black codes’, and they were regularly threatened with unwarranted imprisonment, unexpected violence, and serious threats of expatriation or enslavement.

Berlin paints a vivid portrait of the historical events and socio-political influences that birthed and embedded racism so thoroughly into the American psyche and the country’s institutions. He levels a scathing indictment against the amoral use of the legal system for socio-economic gain to ensure the stability of power for the elite white slaveholders. Yet what is perhaps most illuminating and impactful about this historical narrative is that provides a nuanced analysis of the varied cultural perspectives, social ideologies and political and economic agendas that shaped and shifted the lives of free people of color during this vacillating and volatile period leading up to the Civil War.

Slaves Without Masters explores the devastating legacy of slavery and the bittersweet promise of freedom and opportunity in the face of a perilous future when one’s status was continually redefined and threatened. In doing so, one gains a deeper understanding of how the U.S. caste system developed and how it was reinforced over time to justify the continued existence of slavery while other African Americans lived in comparative freedom.

As a descendant of both enslaved African Americans and free people of color, reading this book has been monumentally revelatory in developing an understanding of the contrasting experiences and perspectives of my ancestors. American history and family history paralleled, intersected, intertwined and illuminated each other. Vital historical context, previously unrevealed, more fully brought to life my genealogical research and personal exploration of family history, giving me a deeper appreciation of who my ancestors were. I also have a greater and more complete perspective on their legacies that I carry in me today; a greater sense of the responsibility I have to share their previously untold stories.

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