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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Manumission certificate of Sam Barnett, 3 March 1859 (detail)
Buying Freedom
- Venture Smith buys his freedom, 1760
- Elizabeth Keckley buys her freedom, 1855
- "I paid an enormous sum for my freedom," selections from 18th-19th c. slave narratives (PDF)

Opportunities for most enslaved African Americans to attain freedom were few to none. Some were freed by their owners to honor a pledge, to grant a reward, or, before the 1700s, to fulfill a servitude agreement. A few were bought by Quakers, Methodists, and religious activists for the sole purpose of freeing them (a practice soon banned in the southern states). Many ran away to free territory, and some of these "fugitives" succeeded in avoiding capture and forced to the South (see Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT: #8, Runaways, and Theme III: COMMUNITY: #7, Fugitives.)

A rare option was "self-purchase" (the term itself revealing the base illogic of slavery). In 1839 almost half (42%) of the free blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio, had bought their freedom1 and were striving to create new lives while searching for and purchasing their own relatives.
  • Venture Smith. Born in west Africa, Venture Smith was enslaved as a child and brought to Barbados in the Caribbean and later to Rhode Island and Connecticut in New England. Resolutely determined to become free, he purchased his own freedom by 1765, and, by 1775, he earned and saved enough money to purchase his entire family—his wife, son, and two daughters.

  • Elizabeth Keckley. Enslaved in St. Louis, Missouri, Elizabeth Keckley sought to purchase freedom for herself and her son. Her slaveholder finally agreed to a sum of $1200, but her plans to go to New York and raise money as a seamstress were thwarted when she was unable to acquire enough signed guarantees that she would return. Help arrived from her clients among the wealthy women of St. Louis, as Keckley relates in her autobiography. Later in Washington, DC, she became a valued dressmaker and seamstress to Mary Lincoln and other women of the governing elite.

  • "I paid an enormous sum for my freedom." In 1839 almost half (42%) of the free blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio—across the Ohio River from slave territory—had bought their freedom.1 Here we read the rare and arduous process of "self-purchase" described in the narratives of John Berry Meachum, William Troy, Elizabeth Keckley, Moses Grandy, and Venture Smith. (For free blacks' letters to their former slaveholders, see Theme IV: IDENTITY: #3, Slave to Free).
Also see the letters of free blacks to their former slaveholders in Theme IV: IDENTITY: #3, Slave to Free. (15 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did enslaved blacks acquire enough money to purchase the freedom of themselves and their families?
  2. How did they acquire enough influence with their slaveholders to negotiate a price and a process for their freedom?
  3. How did the goal of purchasing their family members (and locating them in some instances) affect their lives as freemen?
  4. Where did they choose to live after buying their freedom? How did they make a living as free people?
  5. How did they relate to their former slaveholders? to members of their families still enslaved?
  6. How did they relate to themselves as "self-purchasers"?
  7. Compare the experiences of those who gained freedom through self-purchase, manumission, flight to free territory, and general emancipation in 1865. How do they each relate to freedom? to building a life after slavery?

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

Venture Smith narrative:  6
Elizabeth Keckley narrative:  4
Selections from 18th-19th-c. narratives:  5
TOTAL 15 pages

Supplemental Sites
Full text of the narratives excerpted in this section in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Library

1 Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915 (University of Illinois Press, 1997), p. 66; cited in Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 187.

Image: "In the matter of the emancipation of": manumission certificate of Sam Barnett, 3 March 1859 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center (Ohio) and the Ohio Historical Society.

*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. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

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

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