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The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Manumission certificate, New York City, 24 April 1817
Manumission certificate [enlarge]
Slave to Free
- Slave to free, selections from 19th- & 20th-century narratives (PDF)
- Letters from newly freed African Americans
- Newly arrived freedmen in Washington, DC, 1862, description in Keckley narrative

Before the general emancipation of American slaves during the Civil War, many secured their own freedom through escape, self-purchase, or being freed by the slaveholder. How did it feel to shed the status of "slave" and become free? The conditions of "former slave" and "freeman" did not occur simultaneously for many slaves, psychologically or in reality. Runaways who arrived in free territory were "fugitives" with an ambiguous status for weeks or years, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. During the Civil War, slaves in Union-occupied territory were "contrabands" with a similar ambiguous status. How African Americans defined their identity as newly freed men and women (before general emancipation) is the focus of this section.

  • Slave to free. We begin with statements from twenty-six formerly enslaved people, compiled from: (1) interviews conducted in 1855 with African Americans who had fled slavery and settled in Canada, published by Benjamin Drew, a journalist and abolitionist, in A North-side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (1856); (2) interviews conducted in the mid 1930s with former slaves in the southern U.S. by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency during the Great Depression; and (3) the 1843 narrative of Moses Grandy, who purchased his freedom after two failed attempts and later tried to locate and purchase the freedom of his children. What patterns do you find in their responses to becoming free?

  • Letters from newly freed African Americans:

    • Letter from Cato. Through this letter to the Freeman's Journal in 1781, newly freed Cato appealed to the Pennsylvania assembly to preserve a gradual abolition law that was in danger of repeal. "Our lots in slavery were hard enough to bear," asserts Cato, "but having tasted the sweets of freedom, we should now be miserable indeed." The law was not repealed.

    • Letter from Henry Bibb. "I thank God that I am not property now," writes Bibb to his former slaveholder, "but am regarded as a man like yourself." Writing from Detroit before moving to Canada where he founded the Refugees' Home Colony with his wife, Mary, and Josiah Henson (another fugitive slave whose narrative is excerpted in this Toolbox), Bibb states that he holds no malice and is willing to "forget the past," yet it is clear he offers no forgiveness or warmth to his former owner. How does he convey these seemingly contradictory messages?

    • Letter from John Boston. Having arrived behind Union lines in Virginia n early 1862, John Boston wrote his wife in Maryland: "this Day i can Adress you thank god as a free man." He hopes they will meet again, asks her to write him soon, and extends his gratitude to the wife of their owner for "her kindness to me." What can be inferred from this hastily written letter about the experience of being newly, and finally, free?

  • Newly arrived freedmen in Washington, DC. "Fresh from the bonds of slavery, fresh from the benighted regions of the plantation," writes Elizabeth Keckley in 1862 as slaves freed by Union troops in Virginia arrived in Washington; "they came to the Capital looking for liberty, and many of them not knowing it when they found it." A freed slave herself, having bought her freedom in Missouri, Keckley records her personal response to the arrivals' bewilderment and anxiety, which she channeled into founding a relief society for the "contrabands" [slaves in Union-occupied territory].

Combine these readings with those in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT, #8, Runaways; and Theme III: COMMUNITY, #7, Fugitives, and #8, Canada; and especially Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #7, Emancipation. (14 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Overall, what was the experience of becoming a former slave? of becoming free?
  2. How did these two conditions differ, while overlapping in real and psychological time?
  3. How did a person make the psychological transition from being a slave—to a former slave (and perhaps "fugitive")—to being a "freeman"? What were the greatest challenges?
  4. Compare the two collections of interviews with former slaves—those conducted in 1855 in Canada and in the 1930s in the southern United States. In what ways does the passage of time influence the interviewees' perspectives?
  5. What consistencies do you find in the interviews, despite the passage of time?
  6. What causes joy, celebration, and pride for the newly freed African Americans?
  7. What brings them grief, anger, and remorse? How do they express and deal with these emotions?
  8. How does Cato use the new republic's rhetoric of liberty and autonomy in his appeal to maintain Pennsylvania's gradual abolition law?
  9. How does Henry Bibb deliver seemingly contradictory messages to his former slaveholder—that he "holds no malice" yet extends no forgiveness?
  10. What do we learn from John Boston's letter to his wife, hastily written hours or days after reaching freedom, about the experience of becoming free?
  11. What might explain the thinly veiled contempt of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave herself, for the newly arrived freedmen in Washington, DC?
  12. How does she also express compassion and understanding for the arrivals?
  13. Compare these experiences with those of slaves freed in the general emancipation at the end of the Civil War (Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #7: 1865).

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Slave to free:  6
Cato letter:  2
Bibb letter:  2
Boston letter:  1
Newly arrived freedmen:  3
TOTAL 14 pages
Supplemental Sites
Letters from freed slaves to their former slaveholders: Document regarding the emancipation of Adam, 1694, from the Massachusetts Historical Society

North American Slave Narratives, full text of 18th- & 19th-century slave narratives, in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library WPA narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, from the Library of Congress

- Photograph captioned "urban freedmen," no date, no place [NHC note: From the damaged building in the background, the site may be Richmond at the end of the Civil War]. Reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
-Manumission certificate for a slave named George, signed by Radcliffe and Riker, New York City, 24 April 1817. Reproduced by permission of the New York Public Library, Slavery and Abolition Collection. Text of certificate (written words italicized):
By Jacob Radcliff Mayor, and Richard Riker / Recorder, of the City of New-York,
     It is hereby Certified, That pursuant to the statute in such case made and provided, we have this day examined one certain [illegible] --- Negro Slave named George ----- the property of John [Delaney?] --- which slave is about to be manumitted, and he appearing to us to be under forty-five years of age, and of sufficient ability to provide for himself we have granted this Certificate, this twenty fourth day of April in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and seventeen
[Signed] Jacob Radcliffe
P Riker

Register's office Lib no. 2 of manumissions page 62 - / W F Slocum Register

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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