“Free Persons of Color”

The February 12, 1909 edition of The Courier, published in Asheboro, printed the following news article under the eye-catching headline “Killed With an Axe”:

Liberty, N.C.– Alex Heath, an old colored man who lived about 2 ½ miles east of here, just over in Alamance County, was found dead in bed on the morning of Feb. 7th. Someone had gone there the night before and killed him with an axe. He was struck right over the eye and his skull broken in. It appears that the old man had gone to bed and was asleep when he was killed. Uncle Alex, as we all called him, was a good, honest old man, and his word was his bond. He had many friends among his white neighbors. He had always been a free negro. Quite a number of Liberty people went down to see him last Sunday, and they said he was the most pitiful sight they had ever seen. He had a negro man and his wife living in the house with him and they had some words the morning before and the man and his wife spent the night at a neighbor’s house about a quarter of a mile distant. He was away from the house two hours or more and suspicion was so strong he was put under arrest.

I have thought for some time that the meanest man on earth was the one who wrote letters and signed no name to them and slipped them under doors at night with the purpose of causing hard feelings among neighbors, but I reckon the man who killed Alex Heath was just a little meaner, and if we had the right man I think he ought to be beheaded and let the devil get him before his feet get cold.

I have always heard that “hell broke alose in Georgia,” but I think it was North Carolina this time. On last Sunday morning some negroes who were cutting wood for Will H. Matthews got into a free-for-all fight and one negro struck another on the head with a skillet, planting the legs of the skillet in his head and then made for Greensboro. Deputy Sheriff Marley is after him and you may expect another boarder in Asheboro soon.

–Liberty Correspondent.

The murder itself is sadly, not that unusual—it could be “ripped from the headlines” still yet today, with the only difference being that it might also soon come back to life as episode of Law & Order. The reason I’m sharing it is the passing note that Uncle Alex Heath “had always been a free negro. ”

“Free Persons of Color” was the 19th century legal term for the people historians now call ‘free blacks’ or ‘free negroes.’ They’ve long interested me because the vast majority of North Carolinians—even the vast majority of its living African-American citizens– assume that every black person is the direct descendant of slaves. This just isn’t correct; in fact it’s part of the dumbing down of history which results from schools teaching only what the standard textbooks recite.

On the eve of the Civil War, the 1860 census recorded that North Carolina had a total of 30,463 free negro citizens. That census showed Randolph County as having 432 free blacks, and Alamance with 422. It’s really interesting that the Census of 1800 found North Carolina with a population of just 7,043 ‘free persons of color’- the population had increased about 500% in half a century, despite the fact that after 1826 it was illegal for slave owners to free (“manumit”) their slaves, and even before that it often took a special act of the legislature to accomplish it.

In 1826 the legislature amended the slave code to declare that “It shall not be lawful for any free negro, or mulatto to migrate into this State” or else “he or she shall be liable to be held in servitude, and at labor for a term of time not exceeding ten years…” (chapter 21, section 1). In 1830 a series of amendments restricted the ability of an owner to free any of his slaves by will or otherwise. Any slave whose master did manage to follow the law and legally free him was required to “within ninety days after granting the prayer of the petitioner to emancipate him, her or them, leave the State of North Carolina, and never afterwards come within the same…” (chapter 9, section 1). Any slave so freed who failed to leave the state, or who subsequently returned, could be arrested and sold back into slavery (chapter 9, section 5).

Interestingly, Warren Dixon of Liberty tells me that “ According to the 1900 Federal Census for Alamance County, Alexander Heath was born March, 1831″— that’s the year of the notorious Nat Turner uprising in southern Virginia. The widespread public hysteria in the aftermath of the Turner rebellion led to a number of laws restricting the rights of free negroes, but before that time in North Carolina, there was no legal distinction between white and black “free men.” As such, they were entitled to the privilege of trial by jury, the rights of habeas corpus; of ownership of property (even to own slaves); to prosecute and defend suits in court, even against whites. There were some restrictions: a free negro was not allowed to bear arms or to have weapons in his possession unless he had a license from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions [Revisal of 1855, ch. 107, p. 577]. In Virginia, ‘freedmen’ were not only forbidden to own a gun, they were not even allowed to own a dog!

North Carolina had never followed its neighboring states in restricting the rights of free negroes. Even after its constitution was rewritten in 1835, North Carolina remained the only slaveholding state which still permitted free negroes the right to vote (Virginia had disenfranchised its free blacks in 1723!). The regressive laws of the 1830s were designed to prevent interaction between free negroes and slaves: they were forbidden to gamble with one another; they were forbidden to preach; they were not allowed to buy or sell spirituous liquor [Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, p. 590 and Laws of North Carolina, Session 1858-59, ch. 31]. After 1855, the marriage of a free negro and a slave was absolutely prohibited by law [75 Revisal of 1855, ch. 107, p. 577].

An ongoing project of the history department at UNC-G is compiling the public records of free negroes, and contains two interesting petitions from Randolph County seeking the legislature’s approval to emancipate local black families. In 1801, eighteen residents of the county petitioned for freedom to be granted to “Sarah Bagnall and Hannah Bagnall,” “two Mulato Children whose mother is also dead” and whose deceased father, John Bagnell, “left no will in writing.” The petitioners were “fully satisfied that he own’d sd. Children to be his & wish’d them to injoy the little property he was possessed of”, and asked the General Assembly to “Entitle them to freedom & to inherite what little property may be found.” [North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina; General Assembly, Session Records, Emancipation Petitions, November–December 1801, Box: 3.]

In Randolph County on November 14, 1818, a free man of color named George Sears asked that an act be passed “to Emancipate & Set free his said Wife Tillah Sears and his two daughters Patsey Sears & Polly Sears…” He stated that William Bell (former Sheriff) emancipated him in 1809 as executor of the will of Richard Sears. George, a blacksmith, married Tillah, a slave he had purchased from Bell for $300, mistakenly thinking that she and all of their future children would be free by virtue of her marriage to a freed man. Now he realizes that his family are “considered slaves unless they are Emancipated by an act of your Honourable body.” Any action taken by the legislature on his petition is not known. [North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina; General Assembly, Session Records, Petition of George Sears and Certificate of Alexander Gray, W. Hogan, et al., [11-14-1818].


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