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All of us, including scholars in various fields, have so much information to assimilate on a daily basis that it is difficult to avoid shorthand in conversation. The problem arises when we simplify and thereby distort. This is especially true when it comes to the history of slavery. Most of us know that before the American Civil War there were so-called slave states and free states. Knowing this, our minds fill in the map with logic.

Genealogists for our Finding Your Roots PBS series told me that I had descended from three sets of fourth great-grandparents who had been freed well before the Civil War. Unless, like comedian Wanda Sykesyou descend from a mulatto child born to a white mother, all of your African-American ancestors were once slaves; the only question is when they became free, which for 90 percent of us was either during the Civil War or with the ratification of the 13th Amendment following the war.

Two sets of my own ancestors the Cliffords and the Redmans were free people by the time of the American Revolution, and the other set, the Bruces, were freed in the will of their master in All of these people, and their descendants, continued to live in slave-holding Virginia, even during the Civil War. Their part of Virginia would the Union as the state of West Virginia in the middle of the war, but they had no way of knowing this when they decided to remain there, rather than flee. Free Negroes headed north just as soon as they could, right? Let me break that down further: A few months before the Confederacy was born, there were 35, more free black people living in the slave-owning South than in the North, and removing D.

And they stayed there during the Civil War. You can now fact-check the s yourself on the U. Census Bureau website. Amazing, right? Even if, as Berlin illustrates in a companion table, percent of the African Americans living in the North were free in compared to only 6. Census was taken in and future states were added did free blacks in the North ever out those in the South! Black history is full of surprises and contradictions, and this is one of the most surprising and seemingly contradictory ones that I have encountered.

First things first: How did more free blacks end up living in the South?

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To understand how the South created — and acquired — its majority of free black people, you would have to travel back further in time to the Revolutionary War, when natural rights fever and military necessity first, among the British stimulated the first major surge of free blacks in America. Before then, there were a scant few, Berlin writes inMaryland, the only English colony to keep track, counted 1,; Virginia had about the same in There were other sources besides manumissions formal acts of emancipation by slaveownersto be sure, including an increase in runaways and immigrants.

Among the immigrants were free blacks fleeing the West Indies often with their own slaves during the slave revolt against the French in Saint-Dominque, which became the independent Republic of Haiti in With it, the U. Still another group of free people of color originally from Saint-Dominique emigrated to New Orleans from Cuba inin the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, doubling the size of the black population there. While the rate of growth among Southern free blacks would slow across nearly every decade leading up to the Civil War the growth rate was a mere 10 percent between andby the South had a free black population that was there to say.

The short answer is they lived as far as they could from what we know as the Gone With the Wind South. They were predominantly female Free blacks also were lighter in color Consequently, there were two broad groups of Southern free blacks, Berlin writes. Not only did the vast majority live in the Upper Southin versus 36, in the Lower South inthey were on average darker-skinned and more rural than their Lower South counterparts.

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By contrast, free blacks in the Lower South were fewer inlighter-skinned and more urban, creating a much more pronounced three-caste system and within it various gradations of blackness, including mulattoes those who would be called biracial todayquadroons those with one black grandparent and octoroons those with one black great-grandparent. Throughout the region, repressive laws helped create the conditions for a vast underclass that for most free blacks meant living along a very thin line between slavery and freedom, debt and dependency, poverty and pride.

In fact, many of those same laws would lay the groundwork for what would follow after the Civil War and Reconstruction during the Jim Crow era. By the s, Berlin reveals, only Delaware, Missouri and Arkansas still allowed legal manumission of free blacks, and Arkansas, on the eve of secession, threatened its small population of free blacks with an impossible choice: self-deport where have we heard that before? Add to them those who passed as white or were kidnapped back into bondage, and it begins to make even the clearest of census s seem shaky.

So under those conditions, why would any free black remain in the South?

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Until then, remember to be careful what you say shorthand in conversation. As I told an audience in Charlotte, N. Read all Facts on The Root. Find educational resources related to this program - and access to thousands of curriculum-targeted digital resources for the classroom at PBS LearningMedia. Originally posted on The Root. Who They Were and How They Got There To understand how the South created — and acquired — its majority of free black people, you would have to travel back further in time to the Revolutionary War, when natural rights fever and military necessity first, among the British stimulated the first major surge of free blacks in America.

So who were they? Tags: 19th centuryCivil WarJ. RogersJim Crowslaveryunderground railroad. Connect with Prof. Share Your Story! Growing up, how did you learn about the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans? How has your understanding or knowledge of African-American history changed over time? We invite you to share your story. Submit Your Story Now. All rights reserved. PBS is a c 3 not-for-profit organization.

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