AfriGeneas Free Persons of Color Forum
Charleston FPOC link
I found this essay recently while surfing for FPOC tax list data.
On Borrowed Ground: Free African-American life in Charleston, South Carolina 1810-61 by Jason Poole.
Norfolk never had as large a population as Charleston, but the data suggests that whites did make distinctions between free mulattoes and free blacks. By distinctions, I mean that they included color descriptions in records. I am not sure, but I believe that record keepers may have used the mulatto designation to say perhaps "this person/these people probably has/have ties to influential whites..." and therefore are also protected. Thus in some cases, free mulattoes may have received better treatment than they would have otherwise.
I couldn't find cases where mulattoes themselves made distinctions or formed color-based elitist societies, but I do know that at least one Baptist church in Norfolk seated its congregation by color.
And following the author's point, dark complected free blacks used their associations with whites to create buffers against restrictive laws and oppression. I have one good example where a free black drayman, Ackey White, petitioned the Virginia legislature for permission to remain in the state. More than 20 whites signed the document and his petition was approved. However when the men signed the petition, they described him as a free man "of colour," which I've come to understand as a white code for "acceptable." Ackey White's employment ties with influential whites made a significant difference, one that he certainly didn't fail to understand and use.
As for slaves, I've found at least 112 people who were allowed to live on their own. When enumerating these individuals throughout Norfolk, the commissioner explained that many were elderly slaves who were allowed to live apart from their owners. The reason being of course, that their labor was considered worthless, their masters were exempted from paying taxes on them and they weren't expected to live much longer.
Frank Shepherd, for example, was listed as a "slave; protection of A. J. McCormic" and Tibby Stone who "hires hershelf, belongs to Dr. Stone." These are examples of notes that alerted other whites and probably prevented either slave from being arrested as suspected fugitives or charged with breaking laws that applied to the average slave.
While reading the essay, it was clear to me how each group managed to use this "borrowed ground" for their own purposes. Although the leverage elite mulattoes gained in antebellum Charleston was shortsighted and short-lived, what's remarkable is that they DID manage to effect changes that benefitted several classes of African Americans.