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Jim Crow NorthThe Struggle for Equal Rights in Antebellum New England$

Richard Archer

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190676643

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190676643.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 17 April 2021

Emancipation and Free African Americans

Emancipation and Free African Americans

(p.31) 3 Emancipation and Free African Americans
Jim Crow North

Richard Archer

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Except in parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut, slavery was a peripheral institution, and throughout New England during and after the Revolution there was widespread support to emancipate slaves. Some of the states enacted emancipation laws that theoretically allowed slavery to continue almost indefinitely, and slavery remained on the books as late as 1857 in New Hampshire. Although the laws gradually abolished slavery and although the pace was painfully slow for those still enslaved, the predominant dynamic for New England society was the sudden emergence of a substantial, free African American population. What developed was an even more virulent racism and a Jim Crow environment. The last part of the chapter is an analysis of where African Americans lived as of 1830 and the connection between racism and concentrations of people of African descent.

Keywords:   emancipation, New England, racism, racism and population, African Americans in 1830

Despite racism, despite profits and status, slavery at some level grated on New England consciences. It seemed wrong to seize people from their native lands, to break up families, and to enslave them simply because Africans were vulnerable and not Christians. Try as they might to justify the institution, white New Englanders remained uneasy. Even the rationale of converting heathens to Christian beliefs didn’t balance out the evils of the slave trade and perpetual bondage. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the metaphors of slavery to describe their own relationship to the British and British law had a hollow ring as long as they deprived African Americans of their freedom. With slaves being marginal to the economy and a small percentage of the overall population—with the notable exceptions of the Narragansett area of Rhode Island and of eastern Connecticut—it was politically easier to end slavery in New England than it would be in the newly forming states south of the region.1

When Vermont, where few slaves lived, wrote its state constitution in 1777, it banned adult slavery—although a small number of slaves could be found in the state for an additional quarter century. New Hampshire enacted a bill of rights in its 1783 constitution, but it did not explicitly abolish slavery. That would not occur until July 26, 1857, seventy-four years later. The bill of rights of Massachusetts’ 1780 constitution was similarly vague as to the legality of slavery, even though it declared all men to be free and equal. In a series of cases between 1781 and 1783, together called the Quock Walker case after a slave who sued for his freedom, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts interpreted the constitution as intending to outlaw slavery. The decision freed Walker and, although “not (p.32) widely reported,” probably contributed to the rapid demise of slavery in Massachusetts. Years later, Charles Lowell would claim that the court had accurately understood the intent of the framers. His father John Lowell, who had been on the committee that had interjected the clause that all men should be free and equal, had done so, Lowell reported, “for the express purpose of settling the question about slavery in the State.” Connecticut and Rhode Island, each in 1784, provided for gradual emancipation. Any child born of slave parents in Connecticut would become free at the age of twenty-five. In 1797, the legislature reduced the age to twenty-one, and in 1848 it abolished slavery entirely. The Rhode Island legislature freed all children born after March 1, 1784, but their parents remained enslaved as long as their masters wished.2

If we look only at New England laws, the death of slavery was excruciatingly slow. But if we analyze population data, the story is quite different. In 1770, there were 14,892 African Americans in New England. The vast majority were slaves; but because census records before the federal census of 1790 don’t differentiate between those who were slaves and those who were free, it is impossible to know with precision the exact number. What can be known is that after the Revolution, the number of slaves plummeted rapidly. There were 3,870 slaves in 1790, 1,339 in 1800, 418 in 1810, 145 in 1820, and 45 in 1830. Slaves were not randomly distributed across the region but tightly clustered primarily in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Massachusetts, by comparison, had 4,754 slaves in 1770 but none listed in the 1790 census. Even these declining numbers exaggerate how vigorous slavery was. Of the forty-five New England slaves identified in the 1830 census, twenty-four were age fifty-five or older (nineteen of them women), and four were younger than ten.3 Owners almost certainly kept older slaves rather than relegating them, if freed, to the likelihood of severe deprivation.

By contrast, there were 13,059 free black New Englanders in 1790, 17,313 in 1800, 19,488 in 1810, 20,782 in 1820, and 21,224 in 1830. All New England states by 1790 had more free people of African descent (significantly more in all but Connecticut) than slaves.4 Although the laws gradually abolished slavery and although the pace was painfully slow for those still enslaved, the predominant dynamic for New England society was the sudden emergence of a substantial, free African American population.

Just as the rapid growth of slavery in the early eighteenth century prompted a shift in the attitudes of many whites toward blacks, so too did the quick growth of the number of free, black New Englanders in the (p.33) late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Racism and laws regulating African Americans had appeared in the early eighteenth century, but major control rested in the hands of slaveowners. When slavery became a dying institution in the late eighteenth century, that control shrank and all but evaporated outside of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

An even more virulent racism and a Jim Crow environment materialized in its place. Segregation in schools, churches, transportation, housing, and public venues appeared, while what rights there were—such as voting in Connecticut and Rhode Island—and employment opportunities declined or disappeared. A whole genre of derisive entertainment, in the form of “bobalition” broadsides and blackface minstrelsy, emerged that depicted African Americans as buffoons, half-wits, and thrillingly subversive of societal restraints. White New Englanders disapproved of slavery in their midst, but that didn’t mean they approved of equal rights for former slaves. Popular opinion was a significant force behind the abolition of slavery in New England, but it also helped create the world that Hosea Easton and David Walker so hated.5

Emancipation and Free African Americans

Figure 3.1 Bobalition of Slavery, 1832, one of a series of broadsides mocking African Americans—in this case a celebration of the end of the slave trade. (Library of Congress).

The racism and disdain that Easton and Walker experienced in Boston during the 1820s pervaded New England, particularly in cities and towns where there were the largest concentrations of people of color, but there were variations in the expressions of prejudice and even pockets where near-equality existed. Of the 1,319 cities, towns, village, hamlets, and smaller settlements the 1830 Federal Census identified in New England, only 694 (53%) had African American residents. The northern tier of states—Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—had the smallest numbers of African Americans and the most towns populated exclusively by people of European descent. Black New Englanders lived in only 100 of 380 towns in Maine, 91 of 224 in New Hampshire, and 90 of 245 in Vermont. Portland, Maine, with 312 black residents, was the only city in all of upper New England with 100 or more African Americans. By contrast, black New Englanders resided in 250 of 306 towns in Massachusetts, 132 of 133 in Connecticut, and 31 of 31 in Rhode Island.6

Table 3.1 1830 New England Population




American Population


American %

















New Hampshire





Rhode Island















Eight cities, all adjacent to the Atlantic or navigable rivers, each had black populations of 300 or more and together constituted one-quarter of all African Americans in New England. The remaining thirty-one towns and cities with black populations of 100 or more (six in Massachusetts, five in Rhode Island, and twenty in Connecticut) roughly equaled the same combined number of African American inhabitants as did the top eight (see Appendix 1). The remaining half of black New Englanders (p.34) (p.35) lived in settlements ranging from having slightly fewer than 100 African Americans to those with only a single person of African descent. Numbers mattered. In a city such as Boston, black residents could support one another with their own institutions and mutual aid associations. If their children encountered harassment in the classroom, they had the option of creating their own schools. If churches segregated them in rear pews, they could form their own churches. If white shopkeepers wouldn’t serve them, they could patronize black establishments. Where there was a sufficient number of people of African descent, they could build communities. The largest cities provided their own types of humiliation and despair, but the black community at its best offered a haven to the legally free and a shield to fugitive slaves.7

Table 3.2 New England Cities with 300 or More African Americans in 1830

1. Boston, Mass.—1,876 (3.1% of population)

2. Providence, R.I.—1,205 (7.3% of population)

3. New Haven, Conn.—530 (5.5% of population)

4. Newport, R.I.—439 (5.5% of population)

5. New Bedford, Mass.—383 (5.0% of population)

6. Hartford, Conn.—338 (4.8% of population)

6. South Kingston, R.I.—338 (9.2% of population)

8. Portland, Maine—312 (2.5% of population)

The smaller the number of African American residents in a settlement, the fewer options black people had. Accommodation and assimilation were more essential, but not necessarily possible. If children experienced racist remarks or behavior from classmates and teachers, the only option might be to stop attending school. If white neighbors snubbed or avoided them, friends would have to be found in other towns. If racism became intolerable, they might have to move to a town with an established black community. And fugitive slaves would be conspicuous in a town with a small black population and might have to find permanent residence elsewhere. Places with few black residents, however, were less apt to be overtly racist. According to Elise A. Guyette, Hinesburgh, Vermont, with (p.36) a population of 1,660, including nineteen black residents, was such a place. Shubael and Violet Clarke were members of the Hinesburgh Baptist church, and Shubael served on several committees that investigated the purported transgressions of white members. Their children were literate and, Guyette speculates, must have attended school. They had friends among their white neighbors as well as with other African American residents of central and northwestern Vermont. Shubael and Lewis Clarke, Samuel, Prince, and Josephus Peters, and William Langley paid taxes and voted in state and national elections. Some members of the Clarke and Peters families owned property. Hinesburgh was not an aberration, but neither was it typical.8

Some New England towns had few black residents by design. There was no employment for people of African descent in the textile mills, and few African Americans lived in the mill towns. Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, had a total population of 6,474 people but only eleven African Americans (five of whom lived in households headed by whites). Waltham, Massachusetts, had an overall population of 1,857 and not a single black person. Three other Massachusetts mill towns—Oxford, Pawtucket, and Rehoboth—offered similar patterns of few black residents, at least half of whom in each town dwelled in white households. People of African descent in 1830 remained outside the industrial revolution in the country’s most industrialized region.9

The racism and Jim Crow laws and behavior in New England suggest a large African American presence, but people of African descent formed (p.37) a small part of the overall population. Constituting only 1.1 percent of the total, black New Englanders were less than one-half of 1 percent in the northern tier of states and were barely above the regional average in Massachusetts. Rhode Island and Connecticut had small averages, with just 3.7 percent and 2.7 percent, but they were distinct from the other New England states (see Appendix 2). Averages, as is often the case, could be deceptive. Only 3.1 percent of Boston’s population were people of African descent, but there were pockets—such as Ward 6 with 13.4 percent and Ward 7 with 7.8 percent—with significantly heavier concentrations and a vibrant black community. Despite representing a small part of Boston’s overall citizenry, the 1,876 black Bostonians—8.8 percent of all black New Englanders—contributed a substantial number of the leaders seeking African American equality. Conversely, Ervings Grant, Massachusetts, was such a small settlement that with African Americans forming 7.5 percent of the village’s population they still numbered only thirty-four, and every one of them lived in white-headed households. For the most part, however, cities and towns with relatively large black populations also had concentrations well above the region’s average. The number of free African Americans, distributed most heavily in coastal and river towns and in the Narragansett area of Rhode Island and in eastern Connecticut, was large enough to incite racist fears but too small normally to be an effective political force in areas where they could vote.10 These were obstacles to overcome in the struggle ahead.

There is one additional caveat to add in describing the world of Hosea Easton and David Walker. Emancipation did not necessarily provide autonomy from direct white control. There could be a progression between slavery and free nuclear households. Many former slaves first lived in white-headed households or institutions. The great majority were domestic servants, old retainers, and children, but some were prisoners, residents of almshouses, and boarders. No matter what the circumstances, they remained under close scrutiny by white adults, frequently their former owners. As of 1830 when Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine had less than one-quarter of their African American populations living in white-headed households and institutions, roughly one-third of black residents in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire lived in a household or institution headed by a white person. New Hampshire is the anomaly. Rhode Island and Connecticut with their comparatively large numbers of black residents might be expected to be exemplars of paternalism and control, but New Hampshire, it (p.38) would seem, should have been more like Maine and Vermont. The difference apparently was that, no matter the state, in towns and villages with five black residents or fewer, the likelihood that most or all would live in white households was exceedingly high, and New Hampshire stood alone in the number of towns with five or fewer persons of African descent.11

Table 3.3 1830 New England Residential Distribution











































New Hampshire









Rhode Island



























Most African American New Englanders lived in households headed by a black person (see Appendix 3). Some were boarding houses, houses sectioned off as small apartments, or dwellings for extended families or multiple, related nuclear families living under the same roof. Years later, William Brown reminisced about his own experience as a boy in 1820s Providence. He lived next door to a sailors’ boarding house. “There were two rooms upstairs arranged the same as below,” he wrote. “When we first moved in we occupied the upper rooms, until the family below could vacate their rooms, which was some six months after we moved in. Two rooms was considered quite a genteel tenement in these days for a family of six, especially if they were colored, the prevailing opinion being that they had no business with a larger house than one or two rooms.” Approximately half of African Americans in New England lived in two-generation nuclear families in single dwellings, as William Brown’s family eventually did. There were variations—one parent, a boarder, or an elderly grandparent—but the norm was two parents and children. The (p.39) nuclear family, the sole occupants of a house, offered the greatest autonomy and provided proof of the family’s higher status within the black community.12

No matter where a person of African descent lived—a town with a large black population or a small hamlet, in a city or in the countryside, in a vibrant black community or as a member of the only black family in the entire village—he or she inhabited a world restricted by racism. There might not be lynchings as in the post–Civil War South, and there might be some civil rights, such as voting in Massachusetts, but there were limited employment opportunities, the likelihood of poverty, and the near certainty of regular insults and humiliations. Black New Englanders drifted in a sea of whites; their numbers were small and their problems were great. The world depicted by Hosea Easton and David Walker would not change without white cooperation or at least grudging acquiescence. How to alter that world, how to attain that cooperation, was the question. (p.40)


(1.) Breen, “Making History,” in Hoffman, Sobel, and Teute, eds., Through a Glass Darkly, 70–71; Felt, History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton, 120.

(2.) Harvey Amani Whitfield, The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777–1810; Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 229; Davis, Inhuman Bondage, 152; Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color, 90; Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, “The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery,” www.mass.gov/courts/sjc/constitution-and-slavery.html; Charles Lowell to the Editor, May 17, 1847, Boston Courier, in The Liberator, June 4, 1847; Zilversmit, First Emancipation, 112–113, 116, 117, 121, 123–124, 202; Belknap, “Answer to Queries Respecting Slavery,” 203; Steiner, History of Slavery in Connecticut, 400–401; Catterall, Judicial Cases, IV, 413–414.

(3.) Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 369; US Bureau of the Census, Negro Population, 1790–1915, 57; McManus, Black Bondage, 199; 1830 United States Federal Census.

(4.) US Bureau of the Census, Negro Population, 1790–1915, 57.

(5.) Sweet, Bodies Politic, 315–316, 344, 381; Melish, Disowning Slavery, 126; White, “ ‘It Was a Proud Day,’ ” 35, 38; Belknap, “Answer to Queries Respecting Slavery,” 198, 203; Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom, 44–45; Lott, Love and Theft, passim, but particularly 4–15; Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness, 97, 118.

(6.) The tabulations here and throughout this section come from a database I created that is based on the 1830 United States Federal Census. That census only gives names for heads of household and does not identify relationships between those in the household, but it provides data for everyone for gender; range of age; state, county, and town place of residence; whether a person was slave or free; and whether a person according to the census taker was black or white (the only choices). My data sometimes depart from the Census Bureau’s compilation, Negro Population, 1790–1915. For example, my database totals 21,224 African Americans while the Census Bureau uses the figure 21,331 (p. 57). Mistakes were made. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine the subject of that passive sentence.

(7.) Database from the 1830 United States Federal Census; Nash, “Forging Freedom,” In Berlin and Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, 10–11.

(8.) Database from the 1830 United States Federal Census; Guyette, Discovering Black Vermont, passim.

(9.) Database from the 1830 United States Federal Census.

(10.) Database from the 1830 United States Federal Census; Malone, Between Freedom and Bondage, 14.

(11.) Database from the 1830 United States Federal Census; Nash, “Forging Freedom,” 27, and Forging Freedom, 78.

(12.) Database from the 1830 United States Federal Census; Brown, Life of William J. Brown, 33.