free slaves

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In the 1800s, there was a group of Americans who were prohibited from living in certain states; they were routinely insulted and sometimes physically attacked when they walked on the streets; they were assumed to be inferior to other Americans; and they lived in such poor conditions that many of their babies died in infancy—and yet they were called “free.” They were the free blacks of the slavery era—African Americans who were not enslaved, typically because their masters had freed them, their parents, or their ancestors. However, they were only free in the sense that no one legally owned them. They lived in both the North and the South, but perhaps surprisingly, they often led harder lives in the North. Despite suffering from oppressive discrimination, free blacks in the North managed not only to survive but to build a community that helped them thrive. In the North, the economic barriers facing free blacks were severe. Because of prejudice, free black men found it especially hard to find employment in skilled trades such as construction. White workers often refused to work alongside blacks. In Cincinnati, a city that is just across the Ohio River from the then-slave state of Kentucky, the president of a union was put on trial by his organization for taking on a black apprentice (Curry 19). In New York City, white dock workers used violence to keep black men from obtaining jobs on the docks. As a result of such attitudes and behavior, 87 percent of the employed African Americans in that city in the 1850s worked in menial occupations (Takaki, Iron Cages 111). In 1830, a writer who called himself “a Colored Philadelphian” said, “If a man of color has children, it is almost impossible for him to get a trade for them, as the journeymen and apprentices generally refuse to work with them” (qtd. in Curry 19). A young free black man of that era wrote, “Shall I be a mechanic? No one will employ me; white boys won’t work with me” (Takaki, A Different Mirror 110). To feed themselves and their families, most free black men in the North took whatever work they could find as servants, day laborers, or sailors. Women often worked as maids, cooks, or laundresses (“African American History”). When people cannot find good jobs, the lack of money forces them to live in squalid conditions; and the combination of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate diet can result in disease and death. A large proportion of northern free blacks lived “in alleys and on closed courts, or crammed into the rear portion of narrow lots” (Curry 79). Even more prosperous blacks, who had managed to achieve success in business or the professions, could not live in affluent neighborhoods because whites feared a loss of property value (Africans in America). In addition, discrimination had a more far-reaching effect than just where families could live. A study in Philadelphia in 1846 found that almost all babies in impoverished African American families died in infancy (Africans in America). Moreover, jobs were far from the only part of daily life in which free blacks encountered prejudice. They faced segregation and hostility at almost every turn. Free blacks in the North were routinely refused admission to, or placed in segregated sections of, hotels, restaurants, theaters, and streetcars. Jail cells, hospitals, workhouses for the poor, cemeteries, fairs, and even the New York City zoo were segregated (Curry 91–93). In 1818, white volunteer firefighters in Philadelphia refused to allow black men to form a volunteer company for their own neighborhood—a completely peaceful, useful activity (Curry 93). The situation was similar to what existed in the South under “Jim Crow” laws—laws permitting segregation—during the early twentieth century. In fact, in the judgment of historian Margaret Washington, “The whole idea of Jim Crow and segregation of the races really originates in the North” (Africans in America). For free black people in the North, just walking...
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