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Alabama~ Free People of Color

"Alabama's black population also included free blacks. Although the numbers were always small, they were looked upon with distrust by whites, who considered them a dangerous example in a slave society. Siaveowners attempted to limit contact between free blacks and their slaves. By the constitution of 1819, manumission was a right granted only by the legislature on petition; in its first session the Alabama legislature approved the manumission of seventeen slaves. Sometimes masters allowed slaves to purchase their freedom by selling the produce from their garden allotments or using some of the money they made from being hired out. Owners who freed slaves recognized a variety of reasons-for long years of meritorious service to a family or some heroic act or because the planter knew the slaves were his own children.

"After the Nat Turrner rebellion, requests to the legislature for manumission decreased. Frequently planters freed slaves by wills or else provided for their comfon with yearly stipends and the right to occupy certain lands in perpetuity and the request they be allowed to live as though free. Durant Hatch did not free his slave Jacob but charged his executor to settle Jacob on some portion of his land and allow him to "enjoy his own time under direction, control and protection of my executors."

"In 1842 Richard G. Harrison's will set aside 960 acres for six of his slaves and left twenty-four other slaves to benefit the six, requiring that his executor give bond to ensure the will's provisions were carried out.

"The growing threat from abolitionist propaganda influenced the Alabama legislature to prohibit manumission in 1860. Mobile County had a large population of free blacks, many of whom were mulatto descendants of the Spanish and French. These Creole Negroes were well educated due to special provisions of Mobile law. They were prosperous merchants, barbers, blacksmiths, carpenters, draymen, and coachmen. Many were descendants of Pierre Chastang who carried supplies for Andrew Jackson's troops during the War of 1812 and, when yellow fever spread in Mobile in 1819, cared for the sick and buried the dead. He was freed by popular subscription for these public services. When Chastang died in 1848, the Alabama Planter in Mobile lauded him as a "highly esteemed and respected" member of the community.'" In 1850 Mobile had 41 percent of the state's free blacks.

"Solomon Perteet, who operated a store in 1i.1scaloosa, was another well-known free black. When Sir Charles Lyell visited Tusscaloosa in 1846, he was amazed at Perteet's accumulation of wealth from his real estate transactions.

"James T. Rapier, the son of a free Negro woman and a planter from Huntsville, was sent by his father to Canada and Scotland for his education and later during Reconstruction represented Alabama in Congress.

"Many of Alabama's free blacks owned slaves. Seven Chastang families in Mobile owned twenty-seven slaves in 1850, and two other Mobile free blacks owned thirty slaves.

"Horace King was one of the most famous free blacks in Alabama. A slave of South Carolina bridge contractor John Godwin, King supervised the construction of dozens of bridges in Alabama before and after he was manumitted by his owner with the approval of the Alabama legislature in 1846. While it was known that King worked on the Alabama capitol during construction in 1850-51, his responsibilities were not specified; however, he probably built the curving stairs. Restoration of the building in the late 1980s revealed that the bracing design that undergirded the stairs and connected them to the wall without any visible suppon was exactly the method King used to construct his bridges.

"Alabama blacks made valuable contributions to the economic advancement of the state. Besides the state capitol, blacks constructed churches, large white-columned mansions, and brick city buildings. They built roads and bridges and laid railroad tracks. They not only picked cotton, they ginned and baled it. loaded it on drays, delivered it to the river wharves, and worked on steamboats that plied the inland waterways. Without the contributions of blacks, there would have been no cotton kingdom. Yet the price paid was high.

"When former slave Delia Garlic was interviewed in Montgomery in 1937, she offered to talk all day about the "awfulness" of slavery. "It's bad," she said, "to belong to folks dat own you soul an' body." Within a slave society blacks created a rich culture influenced by their African heritage. Although early historians believed little of Africa remained, recent studies have stressed the influences of African culture in the plantation quarters.

"From "dusk to dawn" slaves were not so carefully supervised by whites, and their time was their own. The slave family was strong, and extended families looked after children separated from their parents by sale or death. In the slave cabins, in the cleanly swept dirt streets of the quarters, and in the secluded "hushharbors" of the woods, slaves created a world of their own, secret from the master. In these private places blacks shared the trauma of bondage; worshiped, played, and danced together; developed self-esteem; and worked off hostility and aggression.

"The South's peculiar institution hung as an albatross around the neck of Alabama and its people. With too much capital invested in labor and a labor system that was costly regardless of the need, commercial and industrial development was stifled. Investment diversity was thwarted by lack of capital. Economic advancement seemed to come easily from more land and slaves. Whites believed the labor of blacks could not be relied upon outside slavery, while abolition was inconceivable. White Alabamians thought they could not live in a state where all blacks were free. Yet in isolated rural areas white and black lives were frequently melded in familylike intensity. The irony of it was that so many humans-black and white-were able to live out their lives with honor and dignity within such a society. "

Source: ALABAMA: The History of a Deep South State by William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, Wayne Flynn. The University of Alabama Press. 1994. Quoting from pp 110-112.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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