Free people of color
A free person of color in the context of the history of slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 in the Americas, is a person of full or partial African descent who was not enslaved. In the United States, such persons were referred to as "free Negroes
Free Negro
A free Negro or free black is the term used prior to the abolition of slavery in the United States to describe African Americans who were not slaves. Almost all African Americans came to the United States as slaves, but from the earliest days of American slavery, slaveholders set men and women free...

," though many were of mixed race (in the terminology of the day, mulatto
Mulatto denotes a person with one white parent and one black parent, or more broadly, a person of mixed black and white ancestry. Contemporary usage of the term varies greatly, and the broader sense of the term makes its application rather subjective, as not all people of mixed white and black...

s, generally of European and African descent).

Free people of color was especially a term used in New Orleans and the former Louisiana Territory
Louisiana Territory
The Territory of Louisiana or Louisiana Territory was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from July 4, 1805 until June 4, 1812, when it was renamed to Missouri Territory...

, where a substantial third class of primarily mixed-race, free people developed. There were also free people of color in Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

 and Latin American slave societies. There colonial societies classified mixed-race people in a variety of ways, generally related to appearance and to the proportion of African ancestry.


Free people of color, or gens de couleur libre, played an important role in the history of New Orleans and the southern part of the state, former Louisiana Territory. When French settlers and traders first arrived in the colony, the men took Native American
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America, their descendants and other ethnic groups who are identified with those peoples. Indigenous peoples are known in Canada as Aboriginal peoples, and in the United States as Native Americans...

 women as their concubines or common-law wives; and when African slaves were imported to the colony, they took African women as wives.

As the colony grew and more white women arrived from France and Germany
German Coast
The German Coast was a region of early Louisiana settlement located above New Orleans on the Mississippi River – specifically, from east to west, in St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and St. James parishes of present-day Acadiana. The four settlements along the coast were Karlstein, Hoffen,...

, some French men or ethnic French Creoles still took mixed-race women as mistresses or placées
Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in which white French and Spanish and later Creole men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of African, Indian and white Creole descent. The term comes from the French placer meaning "to place with"...

before they officially married. In the period of French and Spanish rule, the free people of color had developed formal arrangements for placées, which the young women's mothers negotiated, often to include a kind of dowry or property transfer to the young women, freedom for them and their children, and education for the children. The French Creole men often paid for education of their "natural" (illegitimate) mixed-race children from these relationships, especially if they were sons.

Free people of color developed as a separate class between the colonial French and Spanish and the enslaved black African workers. They often achieved education and some measure of wealth; they spoke French and practiced Catholicism, although there was also development of syncretic religion. At one time the center of their residential community was the French Quarter
French Quarter
The French Quarter, also known as Vieux Carré, is the oldest neighborhood in the city of New Orleans. When New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the city was originally centered on the French Quarter, or the Vieux Carré as it was known then...

. Many were artisans who owned property and their own businesses. They formed a social category distinct from both whites and slaves.

Free people of color were also an important part of the history of the Caribbean
History of the Caribbean
The history of the Caribbean reveals the significant role the region played in the colonial struggles of the European powers since the 15th century. In the 20th century the Caribbean was again important during World War II, in decolonization wave in the post-war period, and in the tension between...

 during the period of slavery and afterward. Again as the descendants of French men and African slaves, they achieved wealth and power, particularly in the French colony of Saint-Domingue
The labour for these plantations was provided by an estimated 790,000 African slaves . Between 1764 and 1771, the average annual importation of slaves varied between 10,000-15,000; by 1786 it was about 28,000, and from 1787 onward, the colony received more than 40,000 slaves a year...

. It achieved independence as Haiti
History of Haiti
The recorded history of Haiti began on December 5, 1492 when the European navigator Christopher Columbus happened upon a large island in the region of the western Atlantic Ocean that later came to be known as the Caribbean. It was inhabited by the Taíno, an Arawakan people, who variously called...

 in 1804. In Saint-Domingue, Martinique
Martinique is an island in the eastern Caribbean Sea, with a land area of . Like Guadeloupe, it is an overseas region of France, consisting of a single overseas department. To the northwest lies Dominica, to the south St Lucia, and to the southeast Barbados...

, Guadeloupe
Guadeloupe is an archipelago located in the Leeward Islands, in the Lesser Antilles, with a land area of 1,628 square kilometres and a population of 400,000. It is the first overseas region of France, consisting of a single overseas department. As with the other overseas departments, Guadeloupe...

, and other French Caribbean colonies before slavery was abolished, the free people of color were known as gens de couleur libres, and affranchi
"Affranchi" is a former French legal term denoting a freedman or emancipated slave. It is used in English to describe the class of freedmen in Saint-Domingue and other slave-holding French territories, who held legal rights intermediate between those of free whites and enslaved people of color...

. They were also an important part of the populations of British Jamaica
History of Jamaica
Jamaica, the 3rd largest Caribbean island, was inhabited by Arawak natives when it was first sighted by the 2nd voyage of Christopher Colombus on 5th May 1494. bob marley. christian. asmin. david...

, the Spanish Captaincy General of Santo Domingo, Cuba
History of Cuba
The known history of Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands, predates Christopher Columbus' sighting of the island during his first voyage of discovery on 27 October 1492...

 and Puerto Rico
History of Puerto Rico
The history of Puerto Rico began with the settlement of the archipelago of Puerto Rico by the Ortoiroid people between 3000 and 2000 BC. Other tribes, such as the Saladoid and Arawak Indians, populated the island between 430 BC and 1000 AD. At the time of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New...

, and Portuguese Brazil
History of Brazil
The history of Brazil begins with the arrival of the first indigenous peoples, thousands of years ago by crossing the Bering land bridge into Alaska and then moving south....



Many slave societies allowed masters to free their slaves. As the population of color became larger and more threatening to the white ruling class, governments put increasing restrictions on manumission
Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves. In the United States before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished most slavery, this often happened upon the death of the owner, under conditions in his will.-Motivations:The...

s. These usually included taxes, requirements that some socially useful reason be cited for manumission, and requirements that the newly freed person show that he or she had some means of support. Masters might free their slaves for a variety of reasons, but the most common was family relationship between master and slave.

Throughout the slave societies of the Americas, some white male slaveowners took advantage of the subordinate status of their female slaves and required them to engage in sexual relations. The Southern diarist Mary Chesnut famously wrote that "like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children..." In some places, especially in Caribbean and South American slave societies, the European might acknowledge the relationship and his children. Some were common-law marriages of affection. Slaveholders were more likely to free their mixed-race children of these relationships than they were to free other slaves. They also sometimes freed the enslaved women who were their concubines.

Slaves might achieve freedom by purchasing it, whether at market or reduced value. Some masters hired out their slaves and allowed them to keep a portion of their earnings. From money saved, they could buy freedom. In other cases, relatives who were already free purchased the freedom of another. Sometimes masters, or the government, would free slaves without payment as a reward for some notable service: a slave who revealed slave conspiracies for uprisings was commonly rewarded with freedom.

Some enslaved black people, such as Charlotte Dupuy
Charlotte Dupuy
Charlotte Dupuy, also called Lottie Charlotte Dupuy was still living in 1860. She and her husband Aaron were listed by name as free persons in the 1860 Census for Fayette County, Kentucky. They were respectively 70 and 76 years old...

, held by a slave of Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

, Secretary of State, sued for freedom in what were known as freedom suits
Freedom suits
Freedom suits were legal petitions filed by slaves for freedom in the United States and its territories before the American Civil War, including during the colonial period. Most were filed during the nineteenth century. After the American Revolution, most northern states had abolished slavery, and...

. Slavery law included provisions for persons to sue on the basis of being illegally held in slavery, through a free maternal line, or other reasons. In the nineteenth century, with the abolition and prohibition of slavery in northern states, and increased travel, some slaves sued for freedom on the grounds of having been held illegally in a free state. (Most free states had provisions that slaveholders had to forfeit their "property" if they remained in the state.) These legal cases often created an ambiguous legal space, even if they did not always side in favor of the black defendants. Dupuy lost her suit because it was based on the promise of freedom from an owner before Clay. In the freedom suits, the court had to "assume" the defendant's freedom in order to acknowledge the petition, since enslaved people ordinarily had no legal standing as citizens. For a greater discussion of the liminal space of freedom created by these court cases refer to Edlie Wong's forthcoming Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel.

Many free people of color were born free. By the 19th century, there were flourishing families of free coloreds who had been free for generations. In the United States many of the "old issue" free people of color (those free before the Civil War) were descended from African Americans born free during the colonial period in Virginia. Most of those were descendants of white servant women who entered into relationships with African men, indentured servant, slave or free. Their relationships demonstrated the fluid nature of the early working class, before institutionalized slavery hardened lines between ethnic groups. Many of their descendants later migrated to the frontiers of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, and west, as well as further south.

Sometimes they formed isolated settlements in the frontier where they were relatively free of racial strictures common to the plantation areas. In many cases they were well received and respected on the frontier. Sometimes they identified as Indian or Portuguese, or their neighbors classified them that way, in an attempt to explain their physical characteristics that were different from northern Europeans.

After the American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

, a number of slaveholders in the North and Upper South freed their slaves in the period from 1783-1810. From the language of the deeds and wills, many were inspired by the Revolution's ideals; others awarded service. In Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, Quakers and Moravians were influential in persuading slaveholders to free their slaves. The proportion of free blacks went from one percent before the Revolution to 10 percent by 1810 in the Upper South. By 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, 91 percent of blacks in Delaware
Delaware is a U.S. state located on the Atlantic Coast in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It is bordered to the south and west by Maryland, and to the north by Pennsylvania...

 were free, and 49.7 percent of blacks in Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...


Technically a maroon
Maroon (people)
Maroons were runaway slaves in the West Indies, Central America, South America, and North America, who formed independent settlements together...

 was also a free person of color. This term described slaves who had escaped and lived in areas outside settlements. Because maroons lived outside slave society, scholars regard them as quite different in character from free people of color, who made their way legally within societies.

Many people who lived as free within the slave society did not have formal liberty papers. In some cases these were runaways, who just hid in the towns among free people of color and tried to maintain a low profile. In other cases they were "living as free" with the permission of their master, sometimes in return for payment of rent or a share of money they earned by trades. The master never made their freedom official. Like the maroons, these people were always at risk of losing their freedom.

Economic impact

Free people of color filled an important niche in the economy of slave societies. In most places, they worked as artisans and small retail merchants in the towns. In many places, especially in British-influenced colonies such as the United States, there were restrictions on people of color owning slaves and agricultural land. Many free blacks lived in the countryside and some became major slaveholders. Many stayed on or near the plantations where they or their ancestors had been slaves, and where they had extended family. Masters often used free blacks as plantation managers or overseers, especially if one had a family relationship with the mixed-race man.

Free people of color often were hired by the government as rural police, to hunt down runaway slaves and keeping order among the slave population. From the view of the white master class in places such as Haiti or Jamaica, this was a critical function in a society in which the enslaved people on large plantations vastly outnumbered whites.

In places where law or social custom permitted it, some free coloreds managed to acquire good agricultural land and slaves and become planters themselves. There were free colored-owned plantations in almost all the slave societies of the Americas. In the United States, free people of color may have owned the most property in Louisiana, which had developed a distinct creole
- Languages :A Creole language is a stable, full-fledged language that originated from a pidgin or combination of other languages.Creole languages subgroups may include:* Arabic-based creole languages* Dutch-based creole languages...

 or mixed-race class. A man who had a relationship with a woman of color sometimes also arranged for a transfer of wealth to her and their children, whether through deed of land and property to the mother and/or children under the system of plaçage, or by arranging for an apprenticeship to a trade for their mixed-race children, which provided them more of a chance to make a skilled living. In St. Domingue/Haiti by the late colonial period, gens de couleur owned about one-third of the land and about one-quarter of the slaves.


When the end of slavery came, the distinction between former free coloreds and former slaves persisted in some societies. Because of advantages in education and experience, free people of color often provided much of the leadership for the newly freed, as in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture, the national liberator, and several of his top generals were former free coloreds.

Similarly, in the United States, many of the blacks elected as state and local officials during Reconstruction in the South had been free in the South before the Civil War. In addition, many educated blacks whose families had long been free in the North went to the South to work and help the freedmen. Some were elected to office.

Notable free people of color

  • Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution
    Haitian Revolution
    The Haitian Revolution was a period of conflict in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and the founding of the Haitian republic...

  • Chevalier de Saint-Georges
    Chevalier de Saint-Georges
    Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George was an important figures in the Paris musical scene in the second half of the 18th century as composer, conductor, and violinist. Prior to the revolution in France, he was also famous as a swordsman and equestrian...

    , composer and swordsman in late 18th-century France.
  • Julien Raimond
    Julien Raimond
    Julien Raimond was an indigo planter in the French colony of Saint-Domingue .-Early activism:He was born a free man of color, the son of a French colonist and the mulatto daughter of a planter, in the isolated South province of the colony. Raimond owned over 100 slaves by the 1780s, and was one of...

    , leader from Saint-Domingue
    The labour for these plantations was provided by an estimated 790,000 African slaves . Between 1764 and 1771, the average annual importation of slaves varied between 10,000-15,000; by 1786 it was about 28,000, and from 1787 onward, the colony received more than 40,000 slaves a year...

     of the campaign in France and the colony to extend full citizenship to free men of color following the French Revolution
    French Revolution
    The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

  • Frederick Douglass
    Frederick Douglass
    Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing...

    , American slave who escaped to the North, achieved education and led abolition movement in the US.
  • John Sweat Rock, born free in New Jersey
    New Jersey
    New Jersey is a state in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic regions of the United States. , its population was 8,791,894. It is bordered on the north and east by the state of New York, on the southeast and south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by Pennsylvania and on the southwest by Delaware...

    , 19th c. teacher, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, first black admitted to the US Supreme Court Bar.
  • James Forten
    James Forten
    James Forten was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman. He worked at many jobs, including dentist, carpenter, pastor and minuteman....

    , born free in Philadelphia, became a wealthy businessman (sailmaker) and strong abolitionist.
  • Charles Henry Langston
    Charles Henry Langston
    Charles Henry Langston , an American abolitionist and political activist born free in Louisa County, Virginia, was one of two men tried after the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, a cause célèbre in 1858 Ohio that helped gain impetus for abolition. In 1835 he was one of the first blacks admitted to...

    , abolitionist and activist in Ohio and Kansas
  • John Mercer Langston
    John Mercer Langston
    John Mercer Langston was an American abolitionist, attorney, educator, and political activist. He was the first dean of the law school at Howard University and helped create the department. He was the first president of what is now Virginia State University. In 1888 he was the first African...

    , abolitionist, politician and activist in Ohio, Washington, DC; and Virginia, first dean of Howard University Law Department, first president of Virginia State Univ., first black elected to US Congress from Virginia (1888)
  • Robert Purvis
    Robert Purvis
    Robert Purvis was an African-American abolitionist in the United States. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, educated at Amherst College, and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. Purvis and his brothers were three-quarters European by ancestry and inherited considerable wealth from...

    , born free in Charleston
    Charleston, South Carolina
    Charleston is the second largest city in the U.S. state of South Carolina. It was made the county seat of Charleston County in 1901 when Charleston County was founded. The city's original name was Charles Towne in 1670, and it moved to its present location from a location on the west bank of the...

    , became active abolitionist in Philadelphia, supported the Underground Railroad
    Underground Railroad
    The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists,...

     and used inherited wealth to create services for African Americans.
  • Marie Laveau
    Marie Laveau
    Marie Laveau was a Louisiana Creole practitioner of Voodoo renown in New Orleans. She was born free in New Orleans....

    , early 19th c.
  • Edmond Dédé
    Edmond Dédé
    Edmond Dédé was a free-born Creole musician and composer. He moved to Europe to study in Paris in 1857 and settled in France. His compositions include Quasimodo Symphony, Le Palmier Overture, Le Sermente de L'Arabe and Patriotisme...

  • Rose Nicaud
  • John Chavis
    John Chavis
    John Chavis was a black educator and Presbyterian minister in the American South during the early 19th century.-Early life:The exact date of Chavis's birth is not known. It is believed that he was born in either 1762 or 1763...

    , born free c. 1762 in North Carolina, Chavis was a teacher and a preacher among both white and free persons on color until the mid-19th century when laws became stringent.
  • Thomas Day
    Thomas Day (North Carolina)
    Thomas Day was a free black American furniture designer and cabinetmaker in Caswell County, North Carolina. Day's furniture-making business became one of the largest of its kind in North Carolina, employing at one point up to twelve workers, and distributing furniture to wealthier customers...

    , born free c. 1801 in Virginia. Famous furniture maker/craftsman in Caswell County, North Carolina.
  • William Ellison
    William Ellison
    William Ellison Jr, born April Ellison, was a free negro who achieved great success in business eventually becoming one of the largest property owners, including slaves, and certainly the wealthiest Negro property owner in South Carolina...

    , born a slave c. 1790, Wealthy businessman.

External links

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