A Black Woman’s Story of Sacrifice and Survival

An enslaved woman washing clothes (Digital Public Library of America)

On January 4, 1861−one week before Alabama officially seceded from the Union−a 65-year-old freed Black woman named Sally Johnson, petitioned the Mobile County probate court to return to slavery.1 Sally’s petition is among several filed by free Black people in the antebellum South under intensifying pressure from white authorities in the years leading up to the Civil War. Learning of Sally’s choice to return to slavery may be mind-boggling for some, but upon deeper scrutiny, it is clear that Black women in the antebellum period and beyond have often been forced into precarious circumstances in which they had to make inconceivable decisions to survive. Nevertheless, Sally’s choice to return to slavery not only highlights the hostile environment that free Blacks endured in a society where blackness was closely intertwined with enslavement, but also indicates the salient theme of sacrifice and survival in the history of poor, working-class Black women victim to a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system.

Free southern Black folks constantly lived under the shadow of bondage and were largely unable to freely travel, come together, or openly organize institutions as their counterparts were able to in the North. After the Revolutionary War, antislavery sentiment permeated some Northern spaces as freedom suits and manumissions enlarged the free Black population. However, as sectional debates over slavery intensified, free Blacks were an anomalous group and often drew just as much attention as the enslaved population, if not more. Free Black persons in the North lived under the threat of kidnapping and re-enslavement. They could be accused of being “fugitive” slaves from the South and taken by force, or enticed by other methods, into slavery. Notably, Solomon Northup (1807-1864), a professional violinist who was born free in New York, experienced this fate when he was lured to Washington, D.C. for a job offer as a traveling musician and subsequently drugged, kidnapped, and enslaved in Louisiana for twelve years. This danger was far greater in the South as states like Alabama increasingly restricted the lives of their free Black population with a frightening vigor. In many instances, regulations governing free Black persons were similar to Slave Codes: large gatherings were illegal; the sale of liquor to a Black person was impermissible; and free Black people were banned from carrying firearms, voting, and serving on juries. Life was complicated for the free Black population as they were not slaves, yet they were denied a myriad of civil and human rights that made true liberation an ideal rather than a reality.

Before the Civil War, white supremacists sought to make the lives of the free Black population intolerable and, on some occasions, oust them from their respective states. Pro-slavery whites viewed free Black persons as “slaves without masters” and threats to the institution of slavery. Who better to foment insurrection amongst the enslaved population than a free Black person? From the 1810s through 1860s, white supremacist politicians often debated on the expulsion and resettlement of free Black folk to curb their fears of racial integration and slave rebellions on plantations (strengthened by an alliance between free and enslaved Black people) that would upend the slavocracy of the South. In the aftermath of the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion, the Alabama legislature tightened its reins on emancipation. By 1834, petitions to emancipate were permitted, but newly freed Black persons were prohibited from permanently residing in the state. Once a county judge determined the validity of a petition, the legislation ordered newly freed persons to “remove” themselves from Alabama “within twelve months after such emancipation, never more to return.” The 1834 act also stated that if freed Black persons returned to the state “he, she, or they shall be subject to be apprehended by the sheriff of the county” and “may be sold to the best bidder for cash, as slaves for life.” Moreover, it compelled sheriffs, constables, and patrols to diligently apprehend free people who entered Alabama, fundamentally exposing all free Black people to abduction and enslavement with no legal defense. However, these laws were perhaps not strictly enforced because free Blacks continued to move into urban areas like Mobile, which offered more opportunities for work in a locale with a relatively sizable population of free Black people. Nevertheless, Ms. Sally Johnson was more than likely no stranger to this vulnerability and increased danger.2 Her petition was perhaps the product of the uneasiness that the southern free Black population felt before the Civil War.

On a national level, organizations like the American Colonization Society tried to solve this “Negro Problem” by sending free Black people to American settlements in West Africa. In a similar vein, President Abraham Lincoln contemplated expelling free Blacks to proposed colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean, like Linconia in Chiriquí, Panama, and Île-à-Vache in Haiti. As these efforts proved unsuccessful in several ways, voluntary enslavement became an encouraged, yet uncommon, practice in the late antebellum South. A small number of the free Black population surrendered their nominal freedom and joined the ranks of the enslaved, usually to keep their families intact and/or to have access to food, shelter, and provisions when they could not survive as a self-sufficient, free person. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, nine slaveholding states passed voluntary enslavement legislation, including Alabama, symbolizing a pro-slavery rhetoric that recognized slavery as a “positive good.”

By 1860, Sally Johnson had spent a significant portion of her life enslaved, but was now among a cluster of free Black people residing in Mobile, Alabama, a port city approximately 169 miles away from Montgomery, the future capital city of the Confederacy. Sally lived in Alabama for 30 years and was held by several enslavers before she was sold to her husband in 1845. After her husband died, Sally was technically free, but freedom was an unpleasant experience. As widespread emancipation in Alabama became more difficult and the war drew near, some middle-aged and elderly freedmen believed enslavement was the safest option because they were not citizens in the eyes of the law and therefore could not rely on government protection for survival during wartime. In January 1860, Alabama passed Act 36, which made it illegal to emancipate the enslaved through wills and, soon after, put forth a set of procedures that allowed free Blacks to petition their local probate judge to become enslaved. In February 1860, the Alabama Legislature passed Act 71, encouraging voluntary enslavement: “any free person of color, or free negro residing in this State, and desiring voluntarily to surrender his or her freedom, shall be permitted to do so on application by petition…praying to become the slave of some white person of good moral character and standing.” Sally would have followed this procedure the following year when she petitioned to become the property of a Mobile physician. According to the handwritten petition, Sally was told she had to leave the state because she was not enslaved, however she could remain in Alabama if she consented to re-enslavement. Sally was elderly, “of feeble constitution,” and illiterate, having signed the petition with an “X” as her mark. It is possible that Sally was coerced into this agreement, given that she was potentially impoverished and of poor health as a freed person. Nevertheless, legislation concerning freedmen in slave states like Alabama during this period exemplifies how free Black people of all age, class, and health statuses were viewed as major threats to the institution of slavery as the war approached.

Sally Johnson’s life beyond the information provided in her 1861 petition for voluntary enslavement is unknown. However, at the crux of her story is a tale of survival, ubiquitous in the history of Black women in the United States. Our history is littered with moments in which poor, Black women are forced to make impossible decisions to survive. Working-class Black women are often compelled into labor-intensive and health-depleting situations for survival that are in opposition to their self-interest. Any society with a capitalist political economy that enslaves its workers will always require the exploitation of the most vulnerable. Many of us remain stuck between that proverbial “rock and a hard place” that Sally Johnson knew all too well. We find Sally’s survival spirit in the Black women who wake up every day and make do in a world that encourages antipathy towards our lives. Seemingly inconceivable decisions become less so as we truly look into the lives of those who aren’t lionized in the stories we tell of our collective past.

  1. Sally Johnson and Thomas Easton, “Petition to Return to Slavery,” January 4, 1861, The Probate Court of Mobile County, Alabama Archives.
  2. Sally Johnson may have migrated to a neighboring state, but places like Florida and Louisiana passed laws prohibiting free Black people from settling within their boundaries. This further demonstrates the limited mobility of free Blacks in the Deep South.
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Alexis Cathcart

Alexis N. Cathcart is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History, Geography, and Museum Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. They were born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, and earned their bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Their research focuses generally on 20th-century U.S. political and intellectual history and specifically on the bends and curves of dissident political ideologies and anti-radicalism in the U.S. from 1948 to 1991. Outside their studies, you can find them indulging in horror films, astrology, fantasy novels, and indie rock music.

Comments on “A Black Woman’s Story of Sacrifice and Survival

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    Great job! I’m looking forward to seeing future work on Black folks in Alabama!
    —fellow Alabamian and UAB graduate

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    Enlightening and thought-provoking article! I am particularly drawn to your depiction of Sally choosing the “lesser of two evils”for survival. This article explicitly reverberates the struggle and uphill battles that our black women faced and are dealing with today. Alabama has progressed some but the mentality and governing laws have a long way to go for our black women to truly thrive. Its articles like this that paints a vivid picture of our past and lay the foundation for our path forward. Thank you Alexis
    Carlington Hewitt-UB

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    wonderful, such a pointed reflection and statement of the problems with our ‘democracy’ then and it continues.

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    This was an informative article. I was not aware that one could petition to return to slavery, although, it unfortunately, makes sense.

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    This is such a challenging topic to write about, because then and now white supremacists are keen to misinterpret it as evidence slavery was not only not so bad but actually preferred by Blacks. Only when we contextualize the actions of those “seeking” to be re-enslaved within the desperate circumstances carefully enacted by racist laws and official, and also individual African Americans’ desire to remain with kin and community, can we begin to understand what was behind a decision like this. Folks interested in this topic might want to read the book Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement in Antebellum Virginia by Ted Maris-Wolf, which examines numerous cases, albeit in a different state in the decades preceding the Civil War.

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    Thank you for introducing us to Auntie Sally Johnson. This is a remarkable discovery of a black woman whose lived experience would otherwise be overlooked and silenced in the historical record. We learn of her strength and fortitude as she operated in her agency and made unimaginable decisions. When we investigate how the enslaved negotiated their limited and circumscribed geography, we realize the complexities of slavery. When we thought we had heard it all, her voice called out from the past and summoned you because she had something to say.

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