A Contested Presence: Free Black People in Antebellum Mississippi, 1820–1860

by Dernoral Davis / May 2000

During its first half century as a territory and state (1810-1860), Mississippi was an agrarian-frontier society. Its population was made up of four groups: Native Americans, White people, enslaved people, and free Black people. All four groups were present in Mississippi from its territorial beginnings.1

Black people in Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South, became free in several ways. Prior to 1825, it was common and legal for enslaved people to become free either by purchasing their freedom or by slaveholders freeing them. Beginning in the mid-1820s, both forms of emancipation became increasingly less common and even illegal. The primary pathways to free status were blocked.

In the decades after the 1820s, the legal avenues to freedom and emancipation were limited only to children born to free mothers and parents and to those approved by the Mississippi legislature through petitions for emancipation. With the passage of an 1822 law, the legislature became directly involved in slave emancipation for the purpose of limiting the state’s free black population. The 1822 law gave the legislature authority to approve or reject all slave emancipations in the state. Largely as a result, emancipations sharply declined and Mississippi’s free Black population remained small, never exceeding 1,400.2

About 1810, the decade before Mississippi became a state, free Black people numbered fewer than 300. Following statehood in 1817, the size of the free Black population, while nearly doubling, remained comparatively small, totaling only 458 in 1820. By 1830 the state’s free Black community had grown modestly to 519. During the 1830s and by 1840, Mississippi’s free Black populace stood at roughly 1,400, an increase of more than 150 percent over the previous decade. The growth of the 1830s was followed by a decline of almost a third in the 1840s, reducing the state’s 1850 free Black population to fewer than a thousand. In the 1850s, the decade immediately preceding the Civil War, Mississippi’s free Black community shrank until only 773 remained in the months before secession.

Mississippi laws

The consistently small number of free Black people in Mississippi between 1810 and 1860 was a direct result of a network of controls, backed by laws and race prejudice. Most apparent were those controls that discouraged and prevented them from moving into Mississippi. If and when they did arrive – and there were never many – their lives were governed by an ever-widening range of laws specific to free Black people. Laws in Mississippi as early as 1820 presumed every “negro,” or person of color, to be a slave. To prove otherwise, free Black individuals were required to secure certification for their free status.

Mississippi’s laws required every person of free status to appear before the local court to give evidence of his or her freedom. When the court was provided satisfactory proof, the applicants received certificates of free status, or freedom papers, as the certificates became commonly known. The certificate indicated the bearer’s name, color, physical stature, and any distinguishing features, such as scars. Every three years the certificate had to be renewed at a fee of $1, the equivalent of $25 today. In 1831 the fee was increased to $3.3

Free Black people in Mississippi placed themselves at great risk if they failed to have in their possession a certificate of registration. They ran the risk of seizure and even jail. If blacks were unable to establish their free status within a specified period of time, they could, as allowed by law, be sold into slavery at public auction. For free people, the certificates of registration were their single most important source of documentation.

Excerpt from Charles Griffin’s free papers

Note: This excerpt is from the original records on microfilm at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Because of extensive use by researchers, the microfilm is heavily scratched, making it impossible to get a copy with all words legible for reproduction in Mississippi History Now.

From the Deed Record, Volume S, Year 1830
Adams County Court House
Natchez, Mississippi

Charles Griffin’s freepapers

Commonwealth of Kentucky, Gallaton County to wit:

I, Perceval Butler clerk of the court of the county do hereby certify that at a court held for said county at the courthouse thereof on Monday the 13th of December 1813, an instrument of writing under the hands and seals of Nelly Love and James Love emancipating Charles Griffin a negro man slave, aged twenty seven years and acknowledging the receipt of four hundred and fifty dollars as a full consideration therefor and containing a general guarantee of the freedom of the said Charles Griffin was presented into court and proved by the oath of Joseph Hardy and Mary Hardy subscribing witnesses thereto and ordered to be recorded and certified. And it was further ordered that the clerk of the said court shall give to the said Charles Griffin a certificate of his freedom, in the manner prescribed by law, which is hereby done accordingly.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixes the seal of said county this 11th day of August 1814 and in the 23rd year of the Commonwealth.

P. Butler

Free people faced extensive limitations and restraints. The required certificate of registration, rather than ensuring for physical mobility of free persons of color, hampered their movement instead. They were frequently treated as vagrants and arrested when traveling outside their county of residency, especially if proof of “honest employment” was not provided. Furthermore, all firearms and weapons of free Black people had to be licensed. If engaged in commerce, they could sell their goods and wares only in an incorporated town. They were not allowed to sell grocery items or liquor to the public. Laws in Mississippi further prohibited free persons of color from operating a house of entertainment or a printing establishment.4

Even harsher restrictions directed at the free Black populace were either passed or considered following the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 (Turner, a Virginia slave, urged blacks to rise up and slay their white enemies. He and his followers went on a rampage through the Virginia countryside, killing some fifty-seven people in what was the bloodiest slave uprising of the antebellum South), the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 (The Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional because it deprived a person of his property – a slave – without due process of law), and John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859 (Brown, a white man of determination, seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in order to set off a revolt of slaves through the South). All laws passed were intended to “remove from the state all free persons of color.” To this end, a bill debated, but not passed, in the legislature during the 1830s ambitiously proposed that “it shall be the duty of the Governor to transport all free negroes who may be banished under the provisions of this act to the colony of Liberia in Africa at the expense of the county from which they are removed.”5

Despite the state’s apparent concern about the removal of “all free persons of color,” the enforcement of existing laws was less than rigid. In fact, free people were sometimes allowed to remain in the state even though they failed to meet the legal requirements. Usually, for services rendered, the legislature granted special permission for the continued residency of a free Black in the state.6 Furthermore, those people “removed” or otherwise transported out of the state, were not free persons of color, but slaves, most of them elderly. These slaves were relocated to Liberia, West Africa, through efforts of the American Colonization Society and its Mississippi affiliate. Initially, the society in Mississippi planned to provide money for the few free Black people living in the state to return to Africa, but soon the society’s work expanded to resettle slaves there.7

The laws that proved most effective in limiting the free Black population were those that restricted slave emancipation and freedom. As long as the state’s anti-emancipation and manumission laws were enforced and in-migration was held to a minimum, the free Black population remained checked and began to decline, especially after 1840.

Free Black communities

Between 1820 and 1860, southwest Mississippi, principally the Natchez District, was the most settled and developed part of the state. It was home to a majority of the state’s free black population. In 1840, when Mississippi had its largest free black population of almost 1,400, nearly a third lived in just two of the state's fifty-six counties – Adams and Warren counties, both river counties. The majority of the free blacks in each county were urban dwellers.

In 1840, in Adams County nearly 75 percent of the free blacks resided in Natchez, and almost 70 percent of Warren County free blacks lived in Vicksburg. By 1850, although the number of free black residents in both counties had declined, the percentage residing as urban dwellers was higher than ten years earlier. By 1850, for example, fully 83 percent in Adams County were Natchez residents. The laws of Mississippi that required free blacks to confine most of their public activities to urban areas were a major factor in free persons of color becoming city dwellers.8

Free blacks as a group tended to be biracial and mulatto. In 1860, roughly 80 percent of Mississippi's free black population of 800 were of mixed racial ancestry. By contrast, among the state’s more than 400,000 slaves on the eve of the Civil War, fewer than 10 percent were mulatto. Whites, slaveowners in particular, contributed to both the origins and existence of a free black, mulatto-dominated population in Mississippi. Court records from local chancery cases and records of the Mississippi Supreme Court clearly indicate the role of white slaveowners. In wills slaveowners sometimes admitted fathering mulatto offspring, and they frequently emancipated their children and left them property.9


Excerpt from William Barland’s will

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from the original records on microfilm at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Because of extensive use by researchers, the microfilm is heavily scratched, making it impossible to get a copy with all words legible for reproduction in Mississippi History Now.

From Will Record, Volume 1
Adams County Courthouse
Natchez, Mississippi

William Barland’s will Proven at April term 1816.

In the name of Almighty God amen I, William Barland of Adams County in the Mississippi Territory being now of sound mind and disposing memory but solemnly considering the uncertainty of human life Do make and publish this my last will and Testament.

Whereas on the seventh day of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine, in presence of David Monro, James Stodart, William Bannah, and John Short, I did purchase my friend and companion Elizabeth Barland and three infant children called Andrew Barland, Elizabeth Barland and Margarett Barland (our natural begotten children)…And whereas I did on the same day and date in the same year in conformity with Spanish Laws and usages set her free manumit, and forever exempt from Slavery my said friend and Companion Elizabeth Barland and our three natural born children…Now Therefore in consequences of her attachment and fidelity to me as a friend and companion and her industry and affection to her and my children as a mother, I do in the most solemn, unequivocal and ample manner, confirm unto her and her children…their full and entire freedom and exemption from Slavery from and after the said seventh day of April in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred eighty…

…I did make deeds of gift in fee simple of real property, with indisputable titles to each of my following named children…to the amount of Two thousand dollars which at this time I consider each of their just proportion of my real estate therefore in order to secure to my friend and companion Elizabeth Barland a home and a comfortable living during her natural life, and in order that my children not yet of age, may be clothed, schooled, and brought up in the principles of virtue and morality…Second, I give and bequeath unto my friend and companion Elizabeth Barland and my three youngest children otherways unprovided for Alexander Barland Susana Barland and John Barland all and singular the plantation on which I now live together with the dwelling and out houses, stock of black cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and farming utensils also thirteen slaves…

The inheritance of money probably accounts for some slaveownership among free blacks. Fully 12 percent, 45 of the 519 free persons of color in 1830, owned slaves or were in slave-owning households. Most of these slaveowners, nearly 70 percent, were mulatto. Free black slaveholders owned an average of four slaves. However, William Perkins of Claiborne County held seventeen in bondage, and George Winn’s household in neighboring Adams County included sixteen slaves.10

William Johnson (1809-1851), perhaps Mississippi’s best known free black, was a slaveholder as well. In 1834, the Adams County native owned three slaves and roughly 3,000 acres in real property. He went on to diversify his financial interests. He speculated in farmland, rented real estate, and owned a bath house, delivery firm, and toy shop. He even hired out his slaves to haul coal and sand. Throughout his life, the white community in Natchez and Adams County held Johnson in high regard. He associated with and was close to many of Adams County’s most prominent white families.11 Following Johnson’s untimely death at the hands of a free black, Baylor Winn, the Natchez Courier was moved to comment that Johnson held a “respected position [in the community] on account of his character, intelligence and deportment.”12

Johnson obituary in Concordian Intelligencier

From The Concordian Intelligencier
Natchez, Mississippi
June 21, 1851

Dreadful Murder in Natchez

On Monday evening last, just at dusk, as Mr. William Johnson, an esteemed citizen, and long known as the proprietor of the fashionable barber's shop on Main Street, when returning from his plantation, a few miles from the city, was fired upon and killed from the road side. He was accompanied by two or three young persons, one of them being his son. The oldest boy with him, named Hoggatt, was desperately wounded by the same shot; as well as two of the horses with the party. Johnson was seen to fall, as if killed instantly and the rest of the party, the wounded boy with them, made as rapid flight as they could to Natchez, and gave the alarm. Dr. Blackburn, in his carriage, instantly repaired to the spot and found Johnson lying on his face apparently insensible. On turning him over, he groaned; and when the Doctor gave him some cordial, he revived sufficiently to speak. The first words announced the name of his murderer, as also did his last, as he died, in great distress, at his family residence at two o'clock the following morning.

About an hour after Johnson's death, Mr. Baylor Winn, a planter, living some seven miles below Natchez, was arrested by officers Dillon and Benbrook, and brought to the city jail. The officers were accompanied by Messrs. W. Rotrammel, John Munce, N. Strickland and B. Massey; but no resistance to the process was made, and the prisoner surrendered himself without any remark, or appearance either of fear or surprise. The boy Hoggatt still lingers in a most precarious condition, with but little hope of his life. Johnson was shot through the left lobe of the lungs, and the boy in the abdomen.

The court of examination before the Justices will commence this morning at the Natchez Court House, and will no doubt be attended by many hundreds. Both parties being in good pecuniary circumstances, the best lawyers of the Natchez bar have been arrayed, either for the prosecution or the defence.

The funeral of Mr. Johnson was attended by a numerous procession on Wednesday morning, the Rev. Mr. Watkins of the Methodist Church performing the religious services. This event has made a deep and painful impression upon our community.

The original news clipping resides at the Department of Archives and History.

Yet most free Black people were decidedly less respected and prosperous than Johnson. Through agriculture, their primary economic pursuit, they struggled to eke out a living. Males not engaged in agriculture worked in skilled or semi-skilled trades or as unskilled laborers. Barbering, carpentry, and blacksmithing were the trades most often engaged in by free blacks, but most of them worked as day laborers. Free Black women were agricultural laborers, domestic servants, laundresses, and, if allowed, hucksters (peddlers of grocery items such as eggs, butter, fruits).13

During the decades before the Civil War, the small free Black community in Hinds County, Mississippi, was probably typical of such communities in the state. Created in 1821, Hinds County, located in central Mississippi, and as of 1822 site of the state capital, remained isolated and decidedly frontier throughout the antebellum period. Furthermore, Hinds County neither attracted nor supported a large free Black population. The county never had nor was home to as many as fifty-free Black people. It had only fifteen free people in 1830, forty-five in 1840, twenty-five in 1850, and thirty-six on the eve of the Civil War.14

Generally, free persons of color in Mississippi resided in communities of fewer than one hundred. By contrast, free people to the west and south of Hinds County in Warren, Adams, and Claiborne counties, lived in larger, more complex and diverse communities, making them less typical of the group.

Even so, free Black people in Hinds County between 1821 and 1850 – not unlike those in Adams, Warren, and Claiborne counties – lived in the local towns and villages of Jackson, Clinton, Edwards Depot, and Raymond, the county seat.

Among the free Black population, there was an equal number of males and females. In 1860, for example, seventeen free Black people resided in Jackson, nine of them were females and eight were males. Nine of the seventeen were adults and eight were children, five of them mulatto. Several of the adults worked as skilled tradesmen – one as a barber, another as a blacksmith – but most, both male and female, earned their livelihood as unskilled laborers. The men worked at odd jobs as day laborers, while Jackson’s Black women of free status were washerwomen and domestic servants. None of the county’s free Black people were slaveholders, and only a few were large property holders.15

But whether free people of color lived in Jackson, Natchez, Hinds or Adams counties, their location mattered less than their racial identity. As a group, they shared a recurring plight. They existed in a state and a region where African-descended people were almost all slaves. Laws in Mississippi regarding free Black people were established to reduce their number, if not to eliminate their presence entirely.

An 1831 Mississippi law enacted after the Nat Turner slave revolt was specifically intended to trigger free Black out-migration from the state. The law required that free Black people between the ages of sixteen and fifty leave Mississippi or risk being sold into slavery. The exceptions were the people who were able because of “good character and honest deportment” to obtain and hold secured bonds.16

In ways large and small, free Black people met many challenges – hostilities, resentment, and a seemingly never-ending circle of restrictions. They paid a high and continuing price for their free status. They paid heavily as their group’s numbers were kept low and their dreams and aspirations went unrealized. Their lives were bleak, and their Blackness continued to be equated with servitude. These restrictions are the keys to appreciating and understanding the challenge-filled world of free Black people in 19th-century Mississippi. Clearly, theirs was a world between slavery and freedom.

Dernoral Davis, Ph.D., is associate professor of history, Jackson State University.

End Notes

Jack Elliott, “The Fort of Natchez and the Colonial Origins of Mississippi,” The Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 52 (August 1990), pp. 179-186; William Hamilton, “The Southwestern Frontier, 1795-1817: An Essay in Social History,” The Journal of Southern History, vol 10 (February 1944), pp. 395-402; Patricia Galloway, Native, European and African Cultures in Mississippi, 1500-1800 (Jackson, Ms: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1991), pp. 7-103, see especially pp. 77-90.

Charles S. Sydnor, “The Free Negro in Mississippi Before the Civil War,” American Historical Review, vol. 32 (July 1927), pp. 771-779; Terry Alford, “Some Manumissions Recorded in the Adams County Deed Books in Chancery Clerk's Office, Natchez, Mississippi, 1795-1835,” The Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 33 (February 1971), pp. 39-50.

Hutchinson’s Code of Mississippi, 1798-1848, pp. 524-525, 533.

Ibid., pp. 514, 534, 948; Revised Code of Laws of Mississippi (1857), p. 255.

Journal of the General Assembly of Mississippi, 1831: House Journal, pp. 7, 252.

See, for example, Laws of Mississippi, 1828, pp. 61-62; 1833, pp. 131-132; 1854, p. 295.

Franklin L. Riley, “A Contribution to the History of the Colonization Movement in Mississippi,” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, vol. 9, pp. 345-348.

Mississippi Official and Statistical Register for 1908, p. 387; Compendium of the Sixth Census (1840).

Sydnor, “The Free Negro in Mississippi,” pp. 787-788.

Carter G. Woodson, “Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830,” Journal of Negro History, vol. 9 (July 1924), p. 65.

Edwin Davis and William Hogan, The Barber of Natchez (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), pp. 15-16, 28-29, 45-46, 75; Eric Shoenbaum, “A Precious Balance: The Free Blacks of Natchez,” pp. 3-7, an unpublished paper. A copy in the possession of the author.

William Hogan and Edwin Davis (eds.) William Johnson’s Natchez: The Diary of A Free Negro in Ante-Bellum Natchez (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), pp. 58-59.

Sydnor, “The Free Negro in Mississippi,” p. 784.

Clifton Marshall, “The Free Blacks of Hinds County, Mississippi, 1850-1860,” (M.A. thesis, Jackson State University, 1978), pp. 1-4.

Ibid., pp. 9-12.

Hutchinson’s Code of Mississippi, p. 533.



Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1974.

Davis, Ronald, The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720-1880. Natchez: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1992.

Hogan, William and Davis, Edwin (eds.) William Johnson’s Natchez: The Diary of A Free Negro in Ante-Bellum Natchez. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951.

_____, The Barber of Natchez. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Johnson, Michael and Roark, James. No Chariot Let down: Charleston’s Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Sydnor, Charles. Slavery in Mississippi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.


Alford, Terry. “Some Manumissions Recorded in the Adams County Deed Books in Chancery Clerk’s Office, Natchez, Mississippi, 1795-1835.” The Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 33 (February 1972).

Sydnor, Charles. “The Free Negro in Mississippi Before the Civil War.” American Historical Review. Vol. 32 (July 1927).

Other Sources

Galloway, Patricia, (ed.), Native, European, and African Cultures in Mississippi, 1500-1800. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1991.

Clifton Marshall, “The Free Blacks of Hinds County, Mississippi, 1850-1860.” M.A. thesis, Jackson State University, 1978.

Schoenbaum, Eric. “A Precarious Balance: The Free Blacks of Natchez.” An unpublished paper.