Northern Black People’s Freedom Struggle in the Nineteenth Century

African Americans posed outside of a church, Georgia, 1899 [or 1900] (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During the mid-nineteenth-century, Black people collectively fought for racial equality and social justice within the U.S. The scholarship of historians, including Herbert G. Gutman and Jennifer L. Morgan, collectively illustrate that enslaved people consistently and diversely challenged the complex institution of slavery. Their work, for instance, highlights that enslaved people demonstrated agency (over an extended period and locations) in their unified demands for the recognition of their humanity.

To be clear, there is no question that the important histories of enslaved people (later freedpeople) should continue receiving both public and academic attention. At the same time, turning attention to northern freeborn Black people, who lived in free states, gives avenues to understanding how racial discrimination evolved, in numerous ways, outside of slavery. Additionally, focusing on northern freeborn Black people provides ways to explore how they repeatedly demonstrated agency against their white oppressors.

Living in free states, during the antebellum and Civil War-era, did not guarantee that freeborn Black people could avoid becoming enslaved themselves. While the threat of becoming a victim of Blackbirding—the kidnapping of a Black person for the explicit purpose of selling them into slavery—was a sad reality in the early-nineteenth-century, the threat dramatically intensified after the Compromise of 1850. More specifically, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (FSA of 1850), a revised version of the 1793 federal policy, legalized slaveowners’ attempts to reclaim enslaved people who refugeed, regardless of the length of freedom, to a free state. In addition to forcing any deputized white person (regardless of their stance on slavery) to participate in the detainment of a suspected refugee, the federal law provided latitude for a slaveowner to claim any Black person was their “property.” Black people throughout the nation understood that the passage of the FSA of 1850, which free state Congressmen supported to keep the U.S. unified, sanctioned war on all Black people as their citizenship and humanity, regardless of their status, was unimportant to the U.S. government.

Northern Black communities swiftly mobilized to condemn the policy, while seeking to protect Black people from possibly becoming bondspeople. In various northern localities, Vigilance Committees (some of which originated in the 1830s) refocused their efforts to offer aid and possible safety to “fugitives.” For instance, the New York City Vigilant Committee successfully helped 1,000 people avoid enslavement. Northern Black women were critical members of the Vigilance Committee, including working to keep freeborn Black children from becoming victims of the FSA of 1850 (sometimes as they traveled and from school). Black women also helped adults avoid becoming enslaved as well.

In September of 1850, when James Hamlet became the first FSA of 1850 victim in New York City, the local Black community quickly raised funds to pay for his freedom from a local jail. Shortly afterward, Black New Yorkers held an event (with 1,500 attendees) that celebrated Hamlet’s release. Most of the attendees were Black women, illustrating how they publicly condemned the inhumane federal policies that simultaneously protected slaveowners’ “property rights” and denigrated Black lives.

Meanwhile, throughout the North, the public education system was rife with racially discriminatory practices and policies that attempted to hinder the educational development of Black youths, which reinforced white supremacy across multiple generations. In 1854, for example, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation that ordered the creation and maintenance of racially segregated public schools if twenty (or more) Black children attended public school with white pupils. Unfortunately, many northern Black public schools dealt with several issues, including overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, and unqualified (and sometimes) openly racist white teachers. 

In order to challenge the racialized inequalities that northern Black children experienced, northern Black community members, especially women, regularly criticized the inequalities in northern public schools.s Their collective actions, such as performing impromptu inspections of the schools, reveal that Black people remained committed to ensuring that Black children could receive a quality education. Furthermore, when a school did not meet the standards of the local Black community, they openly expressed their displeasure. Some Black families chose one option to remove their school-age children from the racially segregated institutions. For instance, Black Philadelphians threatened to stop sending youths to the Colored Public School on Sixth Street if Miss Donnelly, a white teacher who was racially hostile towards her pupils, did not lose her job. Black Philadelphians informed the school, “…We [c]an break up the school up by preventing our children for going; and we will do it rather than have our children taught by such teachers.”1 

Unfortunately, freeborn northern Black people (regardless of their age, gender, or socio-economic standing) discovered that racial discrimination could evolve in free states. Many white northerners, including U.S. Congressmen, focused on appeasing the “rights” of southern slaveowners to maintain the “unity” of the U.S. Other white northerners imposed state and local laws that illustrated that their race defined their lived experience to freeborn Black people. Moreover, even with the constant pressures of racial discrimination, northern Black people continued fighting for racial equality and social justice. Their collective efforts were, and remain, an inspiration for people seeking to establish a more inclusive society. 

  1.  Miss Donnelly’s first name is unknown. “Colored Public School, Sixth St., Philadelphia,” Christian Recorder, January 23, 1864.
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Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Dr. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Furman University. His book, The Families' Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in June of 2022. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.