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Uncovering a Free Black Man’s Past: Buying a Slave to Unite His Family

Dear Harold,

When searching for family roots in the South, a researcher might assume his or her African American ancestors were slaves. While it is true that, by far, the overwhelming percentage of black people in the South were doomed to spend their entire lives in slavery prior to the Civil War, it is also true that a small percentage lived as free citizens. And some, like your ancestor, were even able to prosper.

In 1840, for example, five years before your ancestor died, there were a total of 319,599 free black people living in the United States, about 13.4 percent of the entire black population, as Ira Berlin writes in Slaves Without Masters. Of those, 170,728 lived in the North and 215,575 lived in the South. North Carolina was fourth in the South behind Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana with a total of 22,732 free blacks, or about 8.5% of the state’s total black population. This makes sense, since the vast majority of free black people lived in the Upper South (174,357 in 1840 versus 41,218 in the Lower South in 1840).

Lewis Freeman was one of those free black citizens of North Carolina in 1840, which makes it more likely we’ll find an answer to your search to find his birthdate. Unfortunately, however, few records from Chatham County or the Pittsboro area from the early 1800s exist. In North Carolina, births and deaths were not recorded until after 1913, and marriages were often lost or not recorded regularly before 1868. So, as is the case for many who lived in the 1700s and early 1800s, no clues exist about Lewis Freeman’s age in vital records. Accordingly, to find the answer to your question, we had to search elsewhere.

 

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