Free African Americans Before the Civil War (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Antebellum free African Americans in the North and South[edit | edit source]

The 1860 federal census enumerated almost four million enslaved African Americans and just under five hundred thousand free African Americans, nationwide. Nearly every African American family present during this period descended at some point from slaves, though some free families of color lived in the American colonies going back to the seventeenth century.

Most free African American families attained their freedom by one of the following options:

  • the end of the term of service for an indentured African servant during the colonial period;
  • the abolition of slavery in northern states;
  • a deed of manumission by their slave owner;
  • manumission by the will of their slave owner;
  • escape from enslavement and assimilation into society as a free person;
  • in rare cases, free people of African descent immigrated from another country.

To discover which of these options allowed for a specific slave to be free, you will have to trace the family’s lineage back to the point of their attaining freedom.

In general, you can research antebellum free African Americans in the same manner as you would research any other free person during any other period. They created many of the same records, including deeds and probate records, and appear in federal censuses and tax lists.

The racial policies of the antebellum period also created unique records related to free African Americans. These may include, in some states, registration with the county in which they resided (often called free negro registers) or applications for certificates of freedom (or passes) to allow free movement and prove that they were not runaway slaves. These records may provide rich detail about these free families.

Several northern states—e.g., Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey—introduced systems of gradual emancipation to end slavery. Under these systems all slaves of a certain age on a certain date were declared free, while slaves born after that date were considered slaves until they reached a certain age. The specific details of the gradual emancipation acts varied from state to state. However, these laws all generally created a unique set of records for researching African Americans. The records are generally called slave birth registers, and they record the births of most African Americans born after the passage of the emancipation laws.

In the 1830s, due in large part to the efforts of the American Colonization Society, many free African Americans was sent back to Africa. Quite a few records exist concerning free African Americans during this period, including many that did not emigrate. For example, a “census of free negroes” survives from 1832 in several Maryland counties.

Paul Heinegg has done extensive research on free African Americans during the colonial period. His research is online.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.