For a number of African-Americans, it is possible to locate ancestors on U.S. census records before 1870. This historical population is referred to as free persons of color and they were free on the basis of manumission or by birth. The condition of slavery followed the mother. If the mother was free, then so were her children.
This precarious freedom literally required a price to be paid. In Virginia and North Carolina-as two examples, ever-increasing tithable laws made it difficult for persons of color to access or to maintain freedom.
In my own family history, I have lines that are connected to free persons of color. Specifically, my great-grandmother, Mattie Brewington Braswell, had a mother and father whose ancestors, for the most part, were free persons of color in North Carolina.
There were nearly 477,000 persons of color in the 1860 U.S. census, according to research. Most of whom were in the Upper South. As you trace your genealogy and search from census year to census year, know that is very possible to locate black families in the very midst of but not bound by slavery.
Again, this freedom was very precarious. Delicate. Nearly all of us have heard of the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was not free from the color of his skin, and so found himself enslaved for twelve years.
In your search, follow the history, written and oral, and follow the records. It is important to remember that the African-American experience is not singular, not monolithic, as you trace your ancestry. Still, and without question, the interconnectedness of free persons of color and enslaved persons was and is undeniable and complicated. There are instances where free persons had close family members who were enslaved, and there were people of color who were free that enslaved others.
Further, after emancipation, some of the communities that formerly identified as free persons of color moved to isolate themselves from the newly freed men in order to protect their interests. They drew rigid lines right through families so that they would not suffer the codes that were being forced upon blacks.
Our story is not monolithic, but it is universally compelling.
This is our situation…