Free Blacks in Colonial America

Free Blacks in Colonial America

Mixed-race offspring in colonial America came less from master-slave relationships than from white servants pairing with slaves or former slaves.

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“Freedom in the Archives: Free African Americans in Colonial America” by Paul Heinegg and Henry B. Hoff, in Common-place (Oct. 2004),, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The traditional history of free blacks in early America may need significant revision in light of records Heinegg has found during nearly two decades of sifting through state archives in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Dela­ware. Most of the free African-American families who traced their origins to Virginia and Maryland didn’t descend from enslaved black women and their owners, as is commonly supposed, but “from white servant women who had children by slaves or free African Americans.”

In Virginia, for example, more than 200 free African-American families descended from white women. When Africans were first brought to 17th-century Virginia, they entered a society that held white indentured servants in such contempt “that masters were not punished for beating them to death,” write Heinegg and Hoff, a retired engineer and the editor of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, respectively. Africans and white servants shared a similar lot, joining households where they worked, ate, slept, got drunk, and ran away together. Some slaves were freed, and a number of the men married white servant women. “By the mid-17th century,” the authors write, “some free African Americans were beginning to be assimilated into colonial Virginia society. Many were the result of mixed-race marriages.”

As slaves grew in number in Virginia and increasingly replaced white servants, racial attitudes changed. The colonial legislature “passed a series of laws between 1670 and 1723 designating slavery as the appropriate condition for people of African descent.” It outlawed interracial marriage, required that any illegitimate mixed-race children of white mothers be bound out as servants for 30 years, and restricted the manumission of slaves. Yet “white servant women continued to bear children by African American fathers . . . well into the 18th century.” Indeed, such births appear to have been “the primary source of the increase in the free African American population in Virginia for this period.”

Because so many free African Americans had light skin, it was assumed that they descended from white slave owners who took advantage of their female slaves. But the evidence gathered by the authors does not bear this out: “Only three of the approximately 570 [free black] families in Virginia and the Carolinas were proven to descend from a white slave owner.”

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