Archive | Free People of Color

A Community Out of Chaos

Martha Bettis Cooper was a survivor.  In spite of the chaos and destruction around it, the city of Leavenworth prospered during the Civil War, and Martha and her family prospered along with it. By November of 1860, about a year after she and her son Drew arrived, she had bought a house lot worth $120. […]

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Leaving Arkansas: Martha Bettis Cooper

When Arkansas’ free people of color were forced to leave the state in 1859, Martha Bettis Cooper  and her son Drew Bettis sold the properties they had acquired in Jacksonport and boarded a steamboat heading north.  With them came a 10-year-old named John Bettis, who was probably a nephew.  They traveled up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers […]

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Slave or Free? The Saga of the Beams Family

The declining status of free people of color during the 19th century, and the increasing precariousness of their lives, can be seen in dramatic relief in Indian Territory.  Attitudes towards African-Americans, free or enslaved, varied considerably among the “five civilized tribes”— Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Cherokees—but as the Civil War drew nearer, the attitudes […]

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Hate Speech and Expulsion: Arkansas’ Free People of Color

The legal disadvantages imposed on free African-Americans, beginning in the late 17th century in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, spread south and west from Virginia.  As a stable, stratified society put down roots on each new frontier, it brought with it new laws designed to strengthen the division between the races, and to keep free […]

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Rivers and Freedom: A Child’s Escape

When Patsie Bettis was freed in 1837, a year after the death of her father Elijah Bettis III, she was the mother of two young sons, Drew, age 7, and Martin, age 2.  Drew was the son of Thomas Stevenson Drew, who was married to Patsie’s white cousin Cinderella Bettis.  Martin’s father is unknown, although […]

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Women of the Border: Roddé Christie Viriat Labbé

Rhoda Christie was 21 years old in 1797, a mulatto slave in Davidson County, Tennessee, when she and her two children were sent to Missouri to be sold.  Her daughter Mary was only six weeks old, and her son Orange 18 months, when they made the 300-mile journey.  Frances Baggett, one of her descendants, has […]

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An Interactive Map: The Spread of the Plantation Economy

Several posts in this series have discussed the gradual loss of rights and dignity by free people of color, as each new frontier became “civilized.”  This fascinating link, shared by Rebecca Krause-Hardie, allows us to see something of what was driving that process.  If you hover over the link for each decade in succession, and […]

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What do you mean, they owned slaves?

In the previous post, I mentioned one thing that made the members of the mixed-race Gibson family “not Negroes” in the eyes of South Carolina’s Governor: the fact that they owned slaves.   Friends to whom I mention this fact sometimes react with shock and disbelief.  How could people whose ancestors had been subject to […]

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Moving West: On the Border Between the Races

As the doors closed around them in the early 18th century, many of Virginia’s free people of color moved west and south.  In the border areas of Virginia, the colony’s restrictive racial laws were only casually enforced, and south of the North Carolina border they did not exist at all.  The extensive research of Paul […]

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History Unearthed: the Genealogy Army

Adele Cobb Kerrigan was in her eighties in 1953, when she completed her 100-page typed manuscript on the genealogy of the Bettis family.  It is an extraordinary document, an indispensable source for Bettis  history, the record of a lifetime’s dedication to the memory of her and my ancestors. It is also crammed with errors, some […]

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