“Better For Us To Be Separated”


In 1750 there had been only a few thousand free Negroes in the American colonies. But the numbers would soon rise, because the philosophy that legitimized the American Revolution also encouraged emancipation. Slaveholder Joseph Hill of Virginia, for one, writing his will in 1783, gave his bondsmen their freedom upon his death, explaining that “after full and deliberate consideration, and agreeable to our Bill of Rights,” he was “fully persuaded that freedom is the natural life of all mankind.” Virginia law had closely restricted manumission until 1782. After the restrictions were removed, the number of free Negroes in the state rose from fewer than three thousand to nearly thirteen thousand by 1790. That year the number of free Negroes in the United States had grown to just under sixty thousand. Many northern states had abolished slavery or were about to, a process completely accomplished throughout the North by 1818. This further swelled the totals so that in 1820 the census would count more than 233,000 free Negroes.

Free they were, but in no sense equal. They did not live well. Their rights in law were restricted and growing more so; with rare exceptions they could not testify against whites in court, and without exception they could not serve on juries. The punishments for blacks were often more severe than for whites who committed the same crimes. In Virginia, for example, after 1831, free Negroes guilty of many minor offenses received the same punishments—including whippings—as those meted out to slaves for identical misdemeanors. A few states conferred the legal right to vote, but some withdrew it later as the number of free blacks multiplied. And where law did not deny Negroes the vote, custom often did. Circumscriptions were beginning to be placed on the right of free Negroes to move from state to state, as no state particularly relished being a repository for newly emancipated slaves. Education was either not available or was segregated. The jobs open to free Negroes were limited. The result of all this was distilled in the words of the valedictorian of a Negro school in New York in 1819: Why should I strive hard and acquire all the constituents of a man, if the prevailing genius of the land admit me not as such, or but in an inferior degree! Pardon me if I feel insignificant and weak. … What are my prospects? To what shall I turn my hand? Shall I be a mechanic? No one will employ me; white boys won’t work with me. Shall I be a merchant? No one will have me in his office; white clerks won’t associate with me. Drudgery and servitude, then, are my prospective portion. Can you be surprised at my discouragement?

There was plenty of reason for the complaint. Nonetheless, free Negroes, instead of earning sympathy for their disadvantages, were often described in the terms traditionally used to excoriate the poor of any race: they lived “that way” on purpose; they collected in horrid slums, bred disease and incredible numbers of children, committed all sorts of loathsome crimes, did no work unless it was absolutely necessary, were noted for drunkenness, and were, as Henry Clay put it, “a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion” of America’s population. In the ante-bellum South it was often said that free Negroes taught slaves to steal and helped them dispose of stolen goods, that they acted as a powerful lure to freedom for slaves, that they inspired and assisted slave rebellion. And there was no point in wasting education on them, for that would only give them an appetite for privileges unreachable. “The more you improve the condition of these people,” said a Washington lawyer (who was also chief clerk of the United States Supreme Court), “the more you cultivate their minds, the more miserable you make them.”


They were in a trap, with every exit blocked; every exit, that is, but one. The Reverend Robert Finley, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Baskingridge, New Jersey, a community with 1,500 free Negroes, remarked in 1816 upon the depressed condition of those of his parishioners who were black. “Every thing connected with their condition, including their colour, is against them,” he declared, “nor is there much prospect that their state can ever be greatly ameliorated, while they continue among us.” But he went on to propose a remedy. “Could not,” he suggested, “the rich and benevolent devise means to form a Colony on some part of the Coast of Africa … which might gradually induce many free blacks to go and settle, devising for them the means of getting there, and of protection and support till they were established.”

The “rich and benevolent” were much in evidence in that era between 1815 and the 1840’s, supporting a flood of societies that promoted the Bible, peace, temperance, Christian missions, Sunday schools, and the welfare of various underprivileged segments of the community. As it happened, Finley could even point to an existing project similar to the very one he had in mind. The British had freed a number of slaves during the Revolution and transported them to Great Britain. Many had gravitated to the slums, and British philanthropists had undertaken to relocate them in Africa by starting a colony at Sierra Leone. The financing and government had not been well managed, and shortly the Crown had felt constrained to assume responsibility from the philanthropists, but Sierra Leone was now a going concern.