African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period

Part 1
Part 2: The Revolutionary Era | Africa or America | The Free African American Press

The Revolutionary Era

African American Soldiers in the American Revolution
Image: Caption follows
George H. Moore.
Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Army of the Revolution.
New York: C.T. Evans, 1862.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-4)

Both the British and the Americans enlisted African Americans during the Revolutionary War. American military leaders were reluctant to allow black men to join their armed forces on a permanent basis, even though black men had fought with the Continental Army since the earliest battles of the war at Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. The British encouraged runaways--male and female--to join their ranks. This work provides excellent documentation of the variety of roles African Americans played during the war when they were finally and officially allowed to join the ranks of the Continental Army.

An African American Revolutionary War Soldier
Revolutionary War documents for Juba Freeman.
State of Connecticut, June 1, 1780.
Gladstone Collection, Manuscript Division. (2-5)

Receipts like this one for Juba Freeman, as well as Revolutionary War muster rolls, pay and service records, and pension applications and awards demonstrate the active participation of African Americans in the American independence movement. Most African American servicemen in the Continental Army did not serve in segregated units. They usually fought alongside the whites in their communities. African names, pension record information and testimonies in other documents sometimes indicate the race of the soldiers.

Free Blacks and Haitian Independence

The presence of a nation ruled by people of color near the United States was an inspiration to African Americans. Haiti--the spelling "Hayti" was common in America--was founded after a slave revolt started in 1791, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, toppled the government of the French colony of St. Domingue. During the early nineteenth century the French government made a disastrous attempt to take back the country. Haiti lived under the threat of renewed French attack until 1825, when the French government officially recognized Haiti's independence. Francis Johnson's march, arranged for the piano and flute, celebrates this event.

Image: Caption follows

Francis Johnson.
Recognition March of the Independence of Hayti. . . .
Philadelphia: F. Willig, [1825].
Sheet music. Music Division. (2-23)

Free People of Color as Professional Musicians: Francis Johnson
Francis Johnson.
Boone Infantry Brass Band Quick Step.
Philadelphia: Osbourn's Music Saloon, 1844.
Sheet music. Music Division. (2-22)

From the beginning of the nineteenth century a number of Philadelphia free people of color supported themselves as professional musicians. Best known of them was Francis ("Frank") Johnson, born in 1792, whose band and dance orchestra were considered the premier Philadelphia performing groups in these genres. In 1837 his band toured England, the first American band to do so. The music of the Philadelphia free blacks was the first African American music to be published as the work of individual musicians.

Africa or America

Is African Colonization The Answer?

Born free in Massachusetts before the Revolutionary War, Paul Cuffe (sometimes spelled Cuffee) became an entrepreneur who saw opportunities in shipping. He thought that Africans and African Americans would be able to enjoy profits if they worked together to establish a shipping network of their own. During an 1811-12 visit to Sierra Leone, he formed the Friendly Society for the purpose of encouraging emigration of free people of color from the United States. He dictated this pamphlet after that visit. Unable to interest anyone in financing his colonization scheme, Cuffe determined to finance it himself, but the U.S., then at war with England, imposed a boycott on trade with British Colonies including Sierra Leone. Finally, in 1815, at a personal expenditure of $4,000, Cuffee took nine free black families to settle in Sierra Leone.

Image: Caption follows

Paul Cuffee.
A Brief Account of the Settlement and Present Situation of the Colony of Sierra Leone in Africa.
New York: Samuel Wood, 1812.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-7)

American Colonization Society Settlements in Liberia

The American Colonization Society was established in 1817 to encourage and assist free African Americans, and later emancipated slaves, to settle in Africa. In 1822, the Society established a settlement in West Africa that would become the independent nation of Liberia in 1847. The name Liberia is derived from a Latin phrase meaning free land, with the country's capital, Monrovia, named in honor of U. S. President James Monroe.

[Northwest part of Montserrado County, Liberia, in ten-mile squares].
Manuscript map, [ca. 1800?].
Geography and Map Division. (2-3)

This map from the Library of Congress's American Colonization Society collection depicts the northwestern part of Montserrado County. The area was mapped in ten-mile squares oriented to the coast line, giving the map its unique shape. Place names such as New Georgia, New York, Harrisburg, Virginia, and Louisiana show the influence of American life.

African American Convention Movement

Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, African American leaders became more impatient with the lack of improvement in political and social conditions for their race. The national convention movement among free persons of color provided an independent arena where their interests could be defined and strategies developed for their improvement. This pamphlet of convention proceedings addressed the "conflict now going on in our land between liberty and equality on the one hand and slavery and caste on the other."

This copy of the Proceedings belonged to women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony, who was a friend and neighbor of the articulate runaway slave, Frederick Douglass. Both lived in Rochester, New York.

Image: Caption follows

Proceedings of the Colored National Convention Held in Rochester July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853.
Rochester: Frederick Douglass, 1853.
Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-17)

David Ruggles, Outspoken Advocate for Freedom
David Ruggles.
The "Extinguisher" Extinguished or David M. Reese, M.D., "Used Up."
New York: D. Ruggles, 1834.
Markoe Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (2-16)

David Ruggles, a free black abolitionist leader, was born in 1819. He was best known for his work with the underground railroad and the New York Vigilance Committee, organized to protect fugitive slaves and prevent kidnapping of free blacks to sell them into slavery. He worked as a bookseller, publisher, and as an activist in the African American convention movement.

During the 1830s Ruggles published numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles persuasively arguing against slavery and colonization. Here he refutes charges made by David Reese and others against the American Anti-slavery Society, particularly that the society encouraged interracial marriage. Slavery, Ruggles argued, was the chief cause of the amalgamation of the races.

The Free African American Press

Freedom's Journal, 1827

"We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly . . . . "

These editorial comments appeared in the premier issue of the first black-controlled newspaper in America on March 12, 1827. The founders of Freedom's Journal, John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, stated in their masthead that the paper was "devoted to the improvement of the colored population." They noted that blacks had been "incorrectly represented by the press and the church. Their faults were always noted but their virtues remain unmentioned." There were 500,000 free persons of color in the U.S. and they anticipated that at least half of them would read the journal. The paper was published until 1830. The Library of Congress has some issues available on microfilm.

Image: Caption follows

Freedom's Journal, March 16, 1827.
John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, founders.
Copyprint from microfilm.
Microform Reading Room, General Collections. (2-9)

The North Star
North Star, June 2, 1848.
Edited by Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany.
Serial and Government Publications Division. (2-10)

Frederick Douglass, one of the best known and most articulate free black spokesmen during the antebellum years, was born a slave ca. 1817. After he ran away, Douglass tirelessly fought for emancipation and full citizenship for African Americans. Despite the failure of earlier African American newspapers, Douglass founded the North Star in December 1847. The masthead contained the motto: "Right is of no sex; truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all--and all are brethren." In 1851 it merged with the Liberty Party Paper and soon changed its name to the Frederick Douglass Paper. A contemporary African American journalist observed that Douglass's ability as a newspaper editor and publisher did more for the "freedom and elevation of his race than all his platform appearances."

Frederick Douglass, Apostle of Freedom

African American artist Charles White, born in 1918, executed many artistic works that symbolize the strength of sinew and character of people of color, including this powerful image of orator, abolitionist, and statesman Frederick Douglass.

Image: Caption follows

Charles White.
Frederick Douglass.
Lithograph, 1951.
Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6167 (2-18)

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search