More study of free Black people who owned slaves needed
3/11/2021, 6 p.m.
It recently was announced that four state-supported institutions of higher learning in Virginia have inaugurated an exploratory group, tentatively named The Center for the Study of Free Black Men and Women in Virginia, in hopes of telling some untold stories of our Commonwealth and to add to an accurate understanding of Virginia’s history. One such “untold story” is that of free Black owners of slaves, documented in part by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who was known as “the father of Black history.”
Dr. Woodson was born in Buckingham County, the son of former slaves. He received his doctorate from Harvard University, rose to prominence as a writer and historian and was the editor of The Journal of Negro History. He is best known for establishing Black His- tory Week, which evolved into Black History Month.
In 1924, Dr. Woodson compiled from the U.S. Census records of 1830 the names and numbers of free Black owners of slaves, listed by state, along with the number of slaves owned by each. The statistics were copied by three assistants under his supervision and published in “Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, Together with Absentee Ownership of Slaves in the United States in 1830.”
Most of the listings are in the South, but there also are listings of free Black owners of slaves in the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
In the North, Pennsylvania had the most free Black owners of slaves, numbering 23, with New York and New Jersey next.
In the South, the majority of free Black owners of slaves were found in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana.
In many of these cases, Dr. Woodson wrote, the ownership was philanthropic, with a free husband purchasing his wife, or a free wife purchasing her husband.
In many other cases, the land and slave holdings of these free Black people rivaled those of white planters.
In Virginia, more than 900 free Black owners of slaves were listed in 1830, with one who owned 71. More than 230 of these owners were residents of the city of Richmond.
In all, more than 9,600 slaves in Virginia in 1830 were owned by free Black people, including more than 1,150 in the city of Richmond.
It is hoped that any study of free Black men and women in Virginia will not neglect to mention this unique component of Virginia history.
H.V. TRAYWICK JR.