Several free African Americans voted in the North Carolina General Assembly elections in 1701.
Jack Braveboy, was living in Chowan County before 17 July 1716 when he was presented by the
court: a negro, Coming into this Government with a woman and do live together as man and wife,
it is ordered that the sd. Braveboy produce a Sufficient Certificate of their Marryage.
In 1725 John Cotton was indicted for marrying a "Molatto Man to a White woman," and in 1726 the
Rev. Mr. John Blacknall was fined fifty pounds for "joyning together in ... Matrimony Thomas
Spencer and Martha Paule a Molatto Woman".
Many of those who were free in Northampton County, Virginia, settled in Craven County, North
Carolina. They were the Carter, Copes, Driggers, George, and Johnston families. They can be
traced directly back to their seventeenth century Virginia ancestors. Those in the early eighteenth
century lists of Northampton County, Virginia tithables who immigrated to North Carolina were the
Allen and Roberts families.
The descendants of Nicholas and Bungey Manuel, "negro slaves" freed by the 28 October 1718
Elizabeth City County, Virginia will of Edward Myhill, were in the Edgecombe, North Carolina Militia
in the 1750s.
James and Peter Black came to Craven County from Essex County, Virginia, where they had been
free born. John Heath tried to sell them as slaves to William Handcock, but the Craven County
Court intervened on their behalf on 21 June 1745.
Moll, Nell, Sue, Sall, and Will Dove, "Negroes," came to Craven County, North Carolina, from
Maryland with Leonard Thomas who was trying to keep them as his slaves in September 1749,
but William Smith travelled to Maryland and proved their claim that they were free born.
Free African American immigrants were of sufficient number in 1723 that the General Assembly
Of great Numbers of Free Negroes, Mulattoes, and other persons of mixt Blood, that have lately
removed themselves into this Government, and that several of them have intermarried with the
white Inhabitants of this Province....
Whilst some North Carolina residents were complaining about the immigration of free African
Americans, their white neighbors in Granville, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton Counties
welcomed them. Their neighbors may have been accustomed to living among free African
Americans in Virginia; they may have moved from Virginia in company with them; or perhaps
they were drawn together by the adversities of the frontier. Neighbor depended heavily upon
neighbor, and whites may have been more concerned with hostile Indians and harsh living
conditions than they were with their neighbors' color. Whites in some parts of North Carolina may
have been more concerned with hostile Indians and harsh living conditions than they were with
their neighbors' color.
The slave population on the frontier was much lower than in the settled areas of Virginia, so the
presence of free African Americans would not have posed a threat to most settlers. And several
of these free African Americans owned slaves of their own. However, land ownership was more
likely the social equalizer for them and their white neighbors.
The McKinnie family, originally from Isle of Wight County, Virginia, was one of the leading white
families in the area around the Roanoke River. Barnaby McKinnie, member of the General
Assembly from Edgecombe County in 1735, was witness to many of the early Bass, Bunch,
Chavis, and Gibson deeds. John McKinnie called Cannon Cumbo his friend when he mentioned
him in his 28 February 1753 Edgecombe County will. Other leading white settlers who sold them
land adjoining theirs and witnessed their deeds were Richard Washington, William and Thomas
Bryant, Richard Pace, and William Whitehead. Arthur Williams, member of the General Assembly
for Bertie County in 1735, and John Castellaw, (brother?) of James Castellaw, a member of the
Assembly from Bertie County, had mixed-race common-law wives, Elizabeth and Martha Butler.
On 9 November 1762 many of the leading residents of Halifax County petitioned the Assembly to
repeal the discriminatory tax against free African Americans, and in May 1763 fifty-four of the
leading citizens of Granville, Northampton, and Edgecombe Counties made a similar petition.
They described their "Free Negro & Mulatto" neighbors as persons of Probity & good Demeanor
(who) chearfully contribute towards the Discharge of every public Duty injoined them by Law.
About ten years later a similar petition by 75 residents of Granville County included those of a few
of the free African Americans of the county: Benjamin, Edward, and Reuben Bass, William and
Gibea Chavis, Lawrence Pettiford, and Davie Mitchell (negro).
By 1790 they represented 1.7% of the free population of North Carolina, concentrated in the
counties of Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, Granville, Craven, Robeson, and Hertford where they
were about 5% of the free population [Heads of Families - North Carolina, 9-10].Note 9 In these
counties most African American families were landowners, and several did exceptionally well.
Edward Carter was the fourth largest Dobbs County landowner with 23,292 acres in 1780. He was
head of a Dobbs County household of 8 "other free," one white woman, and 20 slaves in 1790.
Note 10 The Bunch, Chavis and Gibson families owned slaves and acquired over a thousand acres
of land on both sides of the Roanoke River, and the Chavis and Gowen families acquired over a
thousand acres in Granville County.
William Chavis, a "Negro" listed in the 8 October 1754 muster roll of Colonel William Eaton's
Granville County Regiment, owned over a thousand acres of land, a lodging house frequented by
whites, and 8 taxable slaves. His son, Philip Chavis, also owned over a thousand acres of land,
travelled between Granville, Northampton, and Robeson Counties, and lived for a while in Craven
County, South Carolina.
Some members of the Gibson family moved to South Carolina in 1731 where a member of the
Commons House of Assembly complained that "several free colored men with their white wives
had immigrated from Virginia." Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina summoned Gideon
Gibson and his family to explain their presence there and after meeting him and his family
reported, I have had them before me in Council and upon Examination find that they are not
Negroes nor Slaves but Free people, That the Father of them here is named Gideon Gibson and
his Father was also free, I have been informed by a person who has lived in Virginia that this
Gibson has lived there Several Years in good Repute and by his papers that he has produced
before me that his transactions there have been very regular, That he has for several years paid
Taxes for two tracts of Land and had several Negroes of his own, That he is a Carpenter by Trade
and is come hither for the support of his Family.
Like the early settlers of the North Carolina frontier Governor Johnson was more concerned with
the Gibsons' social class than their race. In mid-eighteenth century North Carolina we find wealthy
mixed race families counted in some years by tax assessors as "mulatto" and in other years as
white. Jeremiah and Henry Bunch, Bertie County slave owners, were taxed in Jonathan
Standley's 1764 Bertie County list as "free male Molattors" in 1764, but as whites in Standley's
1765 Bertie list, and again as "free Molatoes" in 1766. Michael Going/ Gowen was
taxed in Granville County as white in 1754 and was called "Michael Goin, Mulattoe" in 1759.
John Gibson, Gideon Gibson and Gibeon Chavis, all married the daughters of prosperous white
farmers. Some members of the Gibson, Chavis, Bunch and Gowen families became resolutely w
hite after several generations.
While some free African Americans owned slaves and were accepted in white society, others
married slaves and socialized with slaves. Hester Anderson, one of those freed in 1712 in Norfolk
County, was the common-law wife of a slave. She was the ancestor of the Artis family of
Southampton County, Virginia, and several North Carolina counties. James Revell of Cumberland
County entrusted his executor with the task of making application to the legislature for his wife's
freedom [WB C:21].Note 11
Abel Carter was suspected of aiding a runaway slave. The 14 November 1778 issue of the North
Carolina Gazette of New Bern advertised a reward for a negro fellow named Smart ... Tis supposed
he is harboured about Smith River by one Abel Carter, a free Negro, as he has been seen there
However, the majority were small farmers owning a few hundred acres who married other free
African Americans. Their marriages can be identified from colonial wills and tax lists, and they
were recorded in the county marriage bonds starting in the late eighteenth century.
They suffered under the discriminatory North Carolina tax law enacted in 1749 which described
taxables as all and every White Person, Male, of the Age of Sixteen Years, and upwards, all
Negroes, Mulattoes, Mustees Male or Female, and all Persons of Mixt Blood, to the Fourth
Generation, of the Age of Twelve Years, and upwards, and all white Persons intermarrying with
any Negro, mulatto, or Mustee, or other Person of mixt Blood, ... shall be deemed Taxables....
Thus, free African American and Native American households can be identified by the taxation of
their female family members over 12 years of age. Some light skinned people would claim to be
white to avoid this discriminatory tax, and they would be listed by the tax collector with the
notation, "Refuses to list his wife". It was in the interest of the tax collector to classify those of
doubtful ancestry as "Mulatto" since he received a portion of the tax. However, those with some
political and economic influence like the Bass and Bunch families were often listed as white.
In addition to the discriminatory tax, poor and orphaned African American children were bound out
until the age of 21 by the county courts just like their poor white counterparts.Note 12 In July
1733 the General Assembly received complaints from "divers Inhabitants" that
divers free People, Negroes, Molattoes residing in this Province were ... bound out until they
come to 31 years contrary to the consent of the Parties bound out. The said comittee further
report that they fear that divers Persons will desert the settlement of those parts ...
The General Assembly ruled that those illegally bound should be released and the practice of
binding out children to 31 years of age instead of 21 years was to cease.
The children were bound as apprentices in various crafts. Some apprentices were bound "to learn
the art, trade, and mystery of farming" which may simply have meant working as an unpaid field
hand; others were trained as coopers, blacksmiths, cordwainers, or other useful occupations.
The November 1774 Bertie County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions ordered Jemima Wiggins,
8 years old, and Mary Beth Wiggins, 10 years old, "bastard Mulattos of Sarah Wiggins," bound
to John Skinner. However, this order was reversed in the May 1775 Court session when Edward
Wiggins, the children's father, convinced the court
of the said Skinners ill & deceitful Behavior procuring sd Order....
The courts bound out the children of many free African American women because they were the
common-law wives of slaves, but Doll Burnett argued against the binding of her daughter, Edith,
in the 28 May 1777 Johnston County Court:
and the court taking the Conduct Character and Circumstances of the said Doll Burnet into
consideration & finding no just reasons to apprehend that the said Edith would become a charge
to this County, Ordered her to be returned to the care of her said Mother again.
In some instances the indenture laws virtually enslaved a person for life. George Cummins had
the indenture of his white servant woman named Christian Finny extended by a year and her
child bound for 31 years by order of the 7 December 1736 Carteret County Court because she
had a "Mallatto Bastard Child during her service". She may have been the common-law wife of a
slave for she was charged with having another "Melato" born 10 July 1739 and another on 20
December 1743. When she applied to the court for her freedom on 9 June 1744, the court ruled
that she serve for another five months to pay for the cost of the court suit against her. When she
again applied for her freedom six months later, the court ruled that on checking the record she
serve another year since she had a "Mullatto Child in the time of her servitude".
Some unscrupulous masters treated their apprentices like slaves. On 21 September 1742 David
Lewis brought John Russell, a six year old mixed race boy, into Craven County Court, requesting
that he be bound to him and promising to Cause to be learned the sd Boy to Read & Write a
Ledgable hand & teach him or cause to be taught the Shoemakers trade....
However, Lewis "made a present of the said boy" to his brother, John Lewis, of Chowan County,
and his brother sold the boy to Captain Hews of Suffolk County, Virginia.
Between 1759 and 1786 there were sixteen African American apprentices in Craven County who
at the completion of their indentures had to petition the court for their freedom. The court ruled in
the favor of the petitioners in every case.
Caleb Lockalier was bound apprentice to Stephen Kades who assigned him to Francis Kennaday,
who assigned him to James Oneal, who assigned him to Thomas Hadley, who refused to release
him from his indenture until ordered to do so by the 27 July 1786 Cumberland County Court.
John Harris, a white Hyde County carpenter, found guilty of begetting a bastard child by Mary
Ba_row, a white spinster, was required by law to support her. However, in June 1756 when the
child was about two months old, the court learned that the child was mixed race. Harris was
compensated for his expense by binding the child, a "Molatto Named George," to him for 21
Robert West, Sr., advertised in the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern on 13 March 1752 for
Thomas Bowman as if he were a runaway slave:
Ran away from the subscribers, on Roanoke River, a Negro fellow, named Thomas Boman, a very
good blacksmith, near 6 feet high, he can read, write and cyper, Whoever will apprehend him shall
be paid 12 Pistoles, besides what the law allows.
Almost twenty years later Thomas Bowman was a taxable "free Molatto" in John Moore's
household in the Bertie County tax list of 1771, 1772, and 1774.
A South Carolinian advertised in the North Carolina Central and Fayetteville Gazette on 25 July
1795 for Nancy Oxendine, daughter of Charles Oxendine of Robeson County:
$10 reward to deliver to the subscriber in Georgetown, a mustie servant woman named Nancy
Oxendine, she is a stout wench, of a light complexion about 30 years old. It is supposed she has
been ??els away by her brother and sister, the latter lives in Fayetteville.
We also find cases where children were willingly bound by their parents to neighbors, friends,
and relatives. Lovey Bass bound her illegitimate child, Nathan, to her neighbor, George Anderson.
George Anderson was probably the boy's father. He devised his land to Nathan and his farm
animals to Lovey Bass but left his wife and children only a shilling each.
Other apprenticeships were simply a way for a person to acknowledge responsibility for a child's
support. Mary Bibby, a "black" taxable, had a "base born" child named Fanny who was bound
out to Amy Ingram in Bute County on 13 May 1772. However, Mary had been living in the Ingram
household for at least ten years prior to this. She and a slave named Charles were "black"
taxables in Jesse Ingram's household in Gideon Macon's 1761 list for Goodwin's District of
Granville County, and she and Charles were taxables in the Ingram household in the 1771 Bute
County tax list of William Person. Mary was Charles' common-law wife according to a 28 June
1893 letter from a Bibby descendant, Narcissa Rattley, to her children
Some masters took the apprenticeships seriously. In Bertie County on 26 September 1768
Frederick James, 7 years old, "natural son of Ann James," was bound as an apprentice to John
Norwood. And about 50 years later on 25 February 1817 we find Frederick James
able to write his own Bertie County will in good handwriting.
Free African Americans were also in danger of having their children stolen and sold into slavery.
In his Revolutionary War pension application on 7 March 1834 Drury Tann declared in Southampton
County, Virginia, Court that he was stolen from his parents when a small boy by persons unknown
to him, who were carrying him to sell him into Slavery, and had gotten with him and other stolen
property as far as the Mountains on their way, that his parents made complaint to a Mr. Tanner
Alford who was Then a magistrate in the county of Wake State of North Carolina to get me back
from Those who had stolen me and he did pursue the Rogues & overtook Them at the mountains
and took me from Them.
An advertisement in the 10 April 1770 issue of the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern describes
how the Driggers family was victimized in Craven County, North Carolina:
Broke into the house ... under the care of Ann Driggus, a free negro woman, two men in disguise,
with marks on their faces, and clubs in their hands, beat and wounded her terribly and carried
away four of her children.
And John Scott, "freeborn negro," testified in Berkeley County, South Carolina, on 17 January
1754 that three men, Joseph Deevit, William Deevit, and Zachariah Martin entered by force, the
house of his daughter, Amy Hawley, and carried her off, with her six children, and he thinks they
are taking them north to sell as slaves.
One of the children was recovered in Orange County, North Carolina, where the county court
appointed Thomas Chavis to return the child to South Carolina on 12 March 1754.
Stealing free African Americans to sell them into slavery in another state was not a crime in North
Carolina until 1779. However, free African Americans were afforded some protection under the law.
In 1793 the murderer of John James of Northampton County was committed to jail according to the
20 March 1793 issue of the North Carolina Journal:
Last night Harris Allen, who was committed for the murder of John James, a free mulatto, of
Northampton County, made his escape from the gaol of this town. He is a remarkable tall man,
and had on a short round jacket.
Many of the families in this history have at least one member who fought in the Revolutionary
War. Several moved to South Carolina in the 18th century, and their names appear in the musters
of the South Carolina Militia in the 1759 Cherokee Expedition.
This service alongside whites established long lasting friendships. William Bryan, a Justice of
the Peace for Johnston County, testified in court for Holiday Haithcock in support of his
application for a Revolutionary War pension on 21 September 1834 explaining that
Many of the families in this history have at least one member who fought in the Revolutionary
War. This service alongside whites established long lasting friendships.
In the times of our Revolutionary War free negroes and mulattoes mustered in the ranks with
white men ... This affiant has frequently mustered in company with said free negroes and
mulattoes ... That class of persons were equally liable to draft - and frequently volunteered in the
And H. Thompson Venable wrote for him to the Commissioner of Pensions in Washington, the
case of Holliday Hethcock of N.C. has been suspended merely because he was a free man of
color. As we understand that several cases of this sort have been admitted, you will oblige us by
having it admitted.
Charles Roberson Kee, a leading citizen of Northampton County, testified that he knew Drury
Walden for more than twenty years and that no man, not James Polk himself is of better moral
Many free African American families sold their land in the early nineteenth century and headed
west or remained in North Carolina as poor farm laborers. This was probably the consequence of
a combination of deteriorating economic conditions and the restrictive "Free Negro Code" laws.
Beginning in 1826 and continuing through the 1850s, North Carolina passed a series of restrictive
laws termed the "Free Negro Code" by John Hope Franklin. Free African Americans lost the right
to vote and were required to obtain a license to carry a gun. Tensions arising from Nat Turner's
slave rebellion in nearby Southampton County, Virginia, played a major role in the passage of
these laws. It is also possible that moves against the African American population helped to divert
the attention of poor whites from their worsening economic conditions in the 1830s.
With the whole state literally up in arms over Nat Turner's rebellion, delegates to the General
Assembly from Newbern called on the Assembly "setting forth the incompetency of free persons
of color exercising the privilege of voting." Edmund B. Freeman, editor of the Roanoke Advocate,
a Halifax County Weekly, boldly came to their support in the January 5, 1832 issue:
It cannot be denied that free negroes, taken in the mass, are dissolute and abandoned — yet there
are some individuals among them, sober, industrious and intelligent — many are good citizens;
and that they are sometimes good voters we have the best proofs ... We do think that too much
prejudice is excited against this class of our population... — but, at the same time, there is a
class of white skinned citizens, equally low and abandoned, whose absence whould be little
If his attitude toward free African Americans was typical of white Halifax County residents, this
would help to explain why free African Americans made up over 18% of the free population of the
county in 1810 The editor's backhanded compliment certainly compares well to the sentiments
of Robeson County residents:
The County of Robeson is cursed with a free-coloured population that migrated originally from
the districts round about the Roanoke and Neuse Rivers. They are generally indolent, roguish,
improvident, and dissipated.
Or a northern paper quoted in the 5 January 1832 issue of the Roanoke Advocate complaining
about "the evils arising from the immigration of free blacks" from other states into Pennsylvania:
Overun by an influx of ignorant, indolent & depraved popullation most dangerous to the peace,
rights & liberties of our citizens ....
John Hope Franklin recorded a famous case in which Elijah Newsom of Cumberland County
was prosecuted for carrying his gun in the county. However, Halifax County and Robeson County
appear to have granted gun licenses freely. These licenses were recorded in the county court
records from 1841 through 1846.
Many of those who left the state were enumerated in the 1840-1860 censuses of Indiana, Illinois,
Ohio, and Michigan. Some went to Canada and a few to Haiti and Liberia. By 1857 when Henry
Chavers (Chavis) emigrated to Liberia, life for free African Americans in North Carolina must have
been truly oppressive. A letter written for him to his friend, Dr. Ellis Malone of Lewisburg in Franklin
County, describing Liberia sounds like that of a recently liberated slave:
this Land of Freedom ... a nation of free and happy Children of a hitherto downcast and oppressed
Race ... I now begin to enjoy life as a man should do ... did my Coloured Friends only know or
could they have seen what I already have seen they would not hesitate a moment to come to
this Glorious Country.
By 1870 many of those who remained behind were living in virtually the same condition as the
freed slaves. In the 1870 census for Northampton County, North Carolina, the most common
occupation listed for those who were free before 1800 was "farm laborer," the same occupation
as the former slaves. Some married former slaves, and by the twentieth century they had no idea
their ancestors had been free.
Some of the lighter-skinned descendants of these families formed their own distinct communities
which have been the subject of anthropological research. Those in Robeson County are called
"Lumbee Indians," in Halifax and Warren Counties — "Haliwa-Saponi," in South Carolina —
"Brass Ankles" and "Turks," in Tennessee and Kentucky — "Melungeons" and "Portuguese,"
and in Ohio — "Carmel Indians." Several fantastic theories on their origin have been suggested.
One is that they were from Raleigh's lost colony at Roanoke and another that they were an
amalgamation of the Siouan-speaking tribes in North and South Carolina.
Documents from a court case held in Johnson County, Tennessee in 1858 provide a detailed
description of one such family. They illustrate the extent to which the family was accepted by
the white community and the extent to which the family history was already clouded by myths
in 1858. Joshua Perkins, born about 1732 in Accomack County, Virginia, was the "Mulatto"
son of a white woman. He owned land in Robeson County, North Carolina in 1761, moved to
Liberty County, South Carolina, and in 1785 moved to what later became Washington County,
Tennessee. Along the way, succeeding generations of his family married light-skinned or white
people. They owned a ferry, race horses, and an iron ore mine; ran the local school house, and
were election officials. However, conditions had changed drastically just prior to the Civil War in
1858 when Jacob F. Perkins, great-grandson of Joshua Perkins, brought an unsuccessful suit
against one of his neighbors in the Circuit Court of Johnson County for slander because he called
him a "free Negro".
More than 50 witnesses made depositions or testified at the trial. Many of the deponents had
known three generations of the family in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Tennessee. Sixteen
of twenty-two elderly witnesses who had actually seen Joshua Perkins testified that he was a
"Negro," describing him as a dark skinned man with sheeps wool and flat nose ... [Ibid., deposition
of Nancy Lipps].
black man, hair nappy ... Some called Jacob (his son) a Portuguese and some a negro [Ibid.,
deposition of John Nave, 88 years old].
Knew old Jock (Joshua) in North Carolina on Peedee ... right black or nearly so. Hair kinky ... like
a common negro [Ibid., deposition of Abner Duncan, 86 years old].
However, eighteen witnesses for Perkins testified that Joshua Perkins was something other than
"Negro" - Portuguese or Indian.Note 20 They said little about his physical characteristics and those
of his descendants. Instead, they argued that he could not have been a "Negro" and been so totally
accepted by his community:
dark skinned man ... resembled an Indian more than a negro. He was generally called a
Portuguese. Living well ... Kept company with everybody. Kept race horses and John Watson
rode them [Ibid., deposition of Thomas Cook, 75 years old].
mixed blooded and not white. His wife fair skinned ... They had the same privileges [Ibid.,
deposition of Catherine Roller, 80 years old].
Hair bushy & long - not kinky. Associated with white people ... Associated with ... the most
respectable persons. Some would call them negroes and some Portuguese [Ibid., deposition of
John J. Wilson, about 70 years old].
He was known of the Portuguese race ... Four of his sons served in the Revolution ... Jacob and
George drafted against Indians ... they came from and kept a ferry in South Carolina [Ibid.,
deposition of Anna Graves, 77 years old].
They kept company with decent white people and had many visitors[Ibid., deposition of Elizabeth
Cook, about 71].
I taught school at Perkins school house ... they were Portuguese ... associated white peoples,
clerked at elections and voted and had all privileges [Ibid., deposition of David R. Kinnick, aged 77].
Some who testified in favor of the Perkins family had never seen Joshua Perkins and seemed to be
genuinely confused about the family's ancestry:
I was well acquainted with Jacob Perkins (a second generation Perkins). A yellow man - said to
be Portuguese. They do not look like negroes. I have been about his house a great deal and
nursed for his wife. She was a little yellow and called the same race. Had blue eyes and black
hair. Was visited by white folks [Ibid., deposition of Mary Wilson].
One of the deponents, 77 year old Daniel Stout, explained very simply how people of African
descent could have been treated well by their white neighbors:
Never heard him called a negro. People in those days said nothing about such things [Ibid.,
deposition of Daniel Stout].
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