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 people of color in an inferior position. It was only on the borders that the discriminatory laws were largely absent or ignored.
By the 1840’s, the new states of Arkansas and Missouri were among the very few that still allowed slaveowners to free their slaves without an act of the legislature. But Arkansas had already required free people of color settling within its borders to post a bond for their own good behavior. In 1843 it barred them entirely, and required all of those already present to post bonds. In the same year in Missouri, a law was passed requiring that all free people of color traveling on steamboats (but not slaves) be jailed at every stop. Their mere existence threatened the neat black and white categories of their society, and their success undermined the justification for slavery as the best system for the childlike and lazy slaves. There was also some quite rational concern about the role of the free people in helping the enslaved escape.
Around 1850 there was a sudden turn for the worse. It was a prosperous decade, and free people of color shared in that prosperity, growing unacceptably assertive and self-confident. In the North, however, abolitionist sentiment was increasing, and beginning to look more and more like an existential threat to the slave-based society. The bitter Presidential campaign of 1856, won by the pro-slavery Democrats, gave rise to rumors of a slave insurrection in Tennessee, resulting in riots in which 19 men were lynched. Black schools were closed, meetings banned, and black preachers persecuted.
The Arkansas legislature began trying to pass bills to expel them all. As the pressure for expulsion grew, it was accompanied by an explosion of hate speech, similar to that which had accompanied the expulsion of the last Indians thirty years earlier. A circular published in 1858 described free people of color as “lazy, worthless, immoral, impudent and unprincipled …. intentionally exerting the worst influence on slaves, encouraging them in all their evil habits and inclinations, hating us who deny them equal privileges with ourselves; ever ready to receive stolen wares and harbor the fugitive; and wholly unfit to be free.” Another circular escalated the hate, citing “the free Negro so worthless and depraved an animal,” and “the laziness and bestiality of a degraded race.”
Finally, in 1859, the expulsion bill passed in Arkansas,requiring all free people of color over 21 to leave the state by January 1,1860. In a provision of pointless viciousness, children between seven and 21 were not allowed to leave the state with their parents, but had to be hired out to the highest bidder until age of 21. Several other Southern states passed similar laws. But as thousands of free people began to sell off their properties and move north, the lawmakers suddenly became aware of their importance to the economies of their states, and of the likelihood that they would be replaced by anti-slavery Northern whites. Every Southern state that had passed such a law promptly reversed itself—except for Arkansas, which merely delayed its operation until 1863. By that time, it had become irrelevant.
Further reading: In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South, by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, provides a vivid, first-person account of a family of slaves and free people of color making their way through their world.Share