To Free a Family

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Most of the English colonists arrived as indentrued servants, hiring themselves out as laborers for a fixed period to pay for their passage. In the early years the line between indentured servants and African slaves or laborers was fluid. Some Africans were allowed to earn their freedom before slavery became a lifelong status. Colonial laws were enacted to allow whites to control their slaves. The first of these was the North Carolina Slave Code of Under these laws, whenever slaves left the plantation they were required to carry a ticket from their master, which stated their destination and the reason for their travel.

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The code also prevented slaves from gathering in groups for any reason, including religious worship, and required whites to help capture runaway slaves. The colony lacked the extensive plantation system of the Lower South, and when Carolina split into the North and South Carolina in , North Carolina had about slaves, only a fraction of the slave population of South Carolina. Slaves deeply feared this fate because it usually meant permanent separation from friends and family. The law also limited manumission — the freeing of slaves. A master could only free a slave for meritorious service, and even then the decision had to be approved by the county court.

Perhaps the most ominous of all the laws was the one regarding runaway slaves: If runaways refused to surrender immediately, they could be killed and there would be no legal consequences. By , there were about 40, slaves in the North Carolina colony.

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About 90 percent of these slaves were field workers who performed agricultural jobs. The remaining 10 percent were mainly domestic workers, and a small number worked as artisans in skilled trades, such as butchering, carpentry, and tanning.

Because of its geography, North Carolina did not play a large part in the early slave trade. The one major exception is Wilmington — located on the Cape Fear River, it became a port for slave ships because of its accessibility. By the s, blacks in Wilmington outnumbered whites 2 to 1.

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Most of the free black families formed in North Carolina before the Revolution were descended from unions or marriages between free white women and enslaved or free African American men. Because the mothers were free, their children were born free. Many had migrated or were descendants of migrants from colonial Virginia.

The North Carolina Provincial Congress passed a ban on importing slaves in , because they felt increasing the number of slaves in the colony would increase the number of runaways and free blacks. The fear of slave uprisings only increased with the advent of the Revolutionary War in The British offered to help slaves escape if they would fight against the colonists, and a number of North Carolina slaves accepted.

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After the war ended and the new country was founded, tensions between whites and blacks in the state continued to increase. Besides slaves, there were a number of free people of color in the state. Most were descended from free African Americans who had migrated from Virginia during the eighteenth century.

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After the Revolution, Quakers and Mennonites worked to persuade slaveholders to free their slaves. The number of free people of color rose markedly in the first couple of decades after the Revolution.

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The huge seines nets could measure up to two miles in length. By , there were around , blacks living in the state. A small number of these were free blacks, who mostly farmed or worked in skilled trades. The majority were slaves working in agriculture on small- to medium-sized farms.

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After , cotton and tobacco became important export crops, and the eastern half of the state developed a plantation system based on slavery, while the western areas were dominated by white families who operated small farms. In addition, 30, free people of color lived in the state. They were also concentrated in the eastern coastal plain, especially at port cities such as Wilmington and New Bern where they had access to a variety of jobs. Free African Americans were allowed to vote until , when the state rescinded their suffrage. Antebellum Slavery As in the colonial period, few North Carolina slaves lived on huge plantations.

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Fifty-three percent of slave owners in the state owned five or fewer slaves, and only 2. In fact, by , only 91 slave owners in the whole state owned over slaves.

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Because they lived on farms with smaller groups of slaves, the social dynamic of slaves in North Carolina was somewhat different from their counterparts in other states, who often worked on plantations with hundreds of other slaves. In North Carolina, the hierarchy of domestic workers and field workers was not as developed as in the plantation system. There were fewer numbers of slaves to specialize in each job, so on small farms, slaves may have been required to work both in the fields and at a variety of other jobs at different times of the year.

Another result of working in smaller groups was that North Carolina slaves generally had more interaction with slaves on other farms. Almost two decades after escaping, Walker brought her family back together. Her compelling journey reinforces that slavery, in all its brutality, did not destroy the African-American family. Warren, Choice. Mary Walker, the focus of this study, was a light-skinned fugitive who escaped from a North Carolina planter couple when she accompanied them to Philadelphia in Her history, though unique in many ways, is illustrative of the hardships and challenges such migrants faced and the support they sometimes received from abolitionist networks.

Her efforts to preserve her freedom, gain economic independence, and locate and purchase the freedom of her children still held as slaves is pieced together here by Nathans from the papers of Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders. The result is an engrossing and readable study, thoroughly researched and well documented, that fills a significant gap in the history of the period.

It is recommended for all readers seriously interested in the experience of fugitive slaves in Antebellum America. The intimacy achieved through the use of letters between friends and family is remarkable; here is history lived in an ordinary household. Nathans has transformed the paraphernalia of academia ploughing through archives, thorough documentation, guarded speculation into a book that will entrance the general reader, inform the scholar, and engage both.

Nathans brilliantly narrates a neglected area of the black experience.