Monday, July 12, 2010

Slave-owning Free Persons of Color in NC

Ok, this post is kind of one of those rambling kind, but the gist of it is a review of the Thomas Day exhibit at the NC Museum of History and ongoing research into free persons of color who owned slaves.

This past Thursday I was in Raleigh, speaking to the Capt. Samuel A. Ashe Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (and I had a wonderful time). Since I did not speak until the evening hours, I spent most of the afternoon at the State library digging out resources for one of my new books. Before I headed over to the archives, I visited the history museum. I usually stop by to see what interesting War-related pieces they have on exhibit. I also noticed that the new exhibit on Thomas Day, a free person of color who was a master cabinet and furniture maker, was open. (I reconnected with Randall Jones, author of In the Footsteps of Daniel Boone while at the Museum).

The Thomas Day exhibit occupies what I would consider the main exhibit hall at the museum. Day lived in Caswell County and built furniture for many years prior to the War. Those interested more in the material culture of the time period will be rewarded with different types of furniture, from the plain to the ornate. There are 70 pieces of furniture made by Day’s shop in Milton. Plus, the Museum has recreated Day’s woodworking machine shop. There are also some great audio visual presentations to go along with the exhibit. The Museum of History has gone an extra step, and pulled out numerous pieces from its collection from the time period, like wedding dresses and militia frock coats.

It was also great to see that the fact that Day was a free person of color who owned slaves was not glossed over. (Is Thomas Day one of the most famous black slave owners?)

If you get a chance, visit the North Carolina Museum of History and check out the “Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker” exhibit. You can learn more by checking out this link here or here.

Thomas Day was not alone in the ownership of slaves by a free person of color. I recently began exploring this topic with the acquisition of my own copy of John Hope Franklin’s The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860. In 1830, Thomas Day was just one of 190 free persons of color to own slaves. He was reported as owning just two slaves. Some of Day’s contemporaries in 1830 owned considerable chattel: Jonathan Critchion of Martin County owned 24; Charles Mallett of Cumberland County owned 36; and, Gooden Bowen of Bladen County owned 44 slaves.

The question that I am hoping that Franklin’s book answers for me is this: why did the number of free persons of color in North Carolina who owned slaves drop from 190 in 1830 to just eight in 1860? Maybe Franklin’s book will clear this up for me.

4 comments:

Pat Southward said...

Don't you think the increasing tensions over slavery, culminating in the Dred Scott decision, must have made people of color feel unsafe in the South? Part of Dred Scott held that even free men were not protected by the Constitution if they were descendants of slaves. Now I think of it, it must be kind of like being a Mexican-American in Arizona these days...how to produce proof of citizenship any moment of any day? In the case of freed slaves, you wouldn't want to carry the manumission document around with you -- for fear of losing it, having it taken etc. -- when you yourself represented a windfall of value. I'd think seriously about moving!

Anonymous said...

I'd also check the NC General Statutes for the period you mention. It's been a while since I researched the topic, but I do recall NC's lawmakers becoming increasingly paranoid and severely restricting the rights of free persons of colors--including the right to acquire slaves.

Michael Hardy said...

Pat – thanks for the note. You (and our anonymous friend) hit upon something. Even if you are a free person of color, you just can’t move around. Thomas Day, would live in Virginia, after he had married a women from North Carolina, had to apply to the General Assemble for permission to move into the state. It was against the law for free persons of color to move from state to state. However, do not interpretive this as “well, the South was a bad place.” I seem to recall reading once that this was the law across the vast majority of states in the Union during the 19th century. It would be interesting to do a study (maybe it has been done) of just when the Northern states lifted their legal restrictions on the movements of free persons of color. For North Carolina, I believe that the 1868 Constitution would have taken care of this, legally.

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