Life in the Antebellum American South

I’m re-writing and re-setting a short story I wrote years ago. For various reasons, including enhancement of the plot and the tension in the situation, I want to use the pre-Civil War South as a setting. The only problem is that I have only a very general idea of what life was like at the time. I have a few specific questions I want to clear up, but I also would like some IMHO-style recommendations for research reading.

What was life like for free Blacks during the early 1800s? Would it be plausible for a free Black woman to work as the head housekeeper for a plantation owner? How likely would that be compared to having one of the house slaves do the same work? Were there any well-documented mixed marriages from this time period? I’m sure there were at least some mixed marriages, but what I’m looking for is something that would give an idea what it was like for them in that society, like diary entries or narratives.

I am not particularly interested in works that spend a great deal of time talking about how terrible conditions were for slaves and that document the abuses of the system. Frankly, those kinds of books are very easy to find. I have a few in my reading stack right now. I’m looking for ones that seem more difficult to find: books that show what life was like for free Blacks.

Also, anything that gives a good idea of what daily life was like for most of other segments of society would be very helpful. I realize that to give the story both credibility and depth I’ll have to know quite a bit about how people thought, what they did every day, how they spent their leisure time, how they all interacted with each other.

This is a pretty complex topic. I will give you the piece that I know.

I believe free blacks could do whatever they could arrange. There were even wealthy free blacks and a few of them even owned slaves (this relates mainly to Louisiana why I am from and where race relations were extremely complicated). The difference between a free black and slave doing the same work would be that one is property and the other is just being paid for doing a job. The specifics would vary between each employer and employee. I would believe that it is similar to the area that I grew up in where poor blacks are treated affectionately but also a little paternally by the people that employ them in individual work like housekeeping.

If you want to set your story in Southern Louisiana, you can justify just about any combination of wealth, poverty, marriage, influence etc. that you want to. Other areas were more regimented.

Title: Free blacks in America, 1800-1860 / edited by John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, Elliott Rudwick.
Publisher: Belmont, Calif. : Wadsworth Pub. Co., c1971.
Description: 160 pages ; 22 cm.
Series: Explorations in the Black experience
Contents: The free Negro in Mississippi before the Civil War, by C. S. Sydnor. — The traditions of the free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina, by E. H. Fitchett. — Racial segregation in ante-bellum New Orleans, by R. A. Fischer. — The free Negro in the economic life of ante-bellum North Carolina, by J. H. Franklin. — Peter Still versus the peculiar institution, by R. B. Toplin. — The Negroes of Cincinnati prior to the Civil War, by C. G. Woodson. — The Providence Negro community, 1820-1842, by J. Rammelkamp. — The Negro vote in old New York, by D. R. Fox. — The Negro in gold rush California, by R. M. Lapp. — The rise of Negro society, by R. A. Warner. — The Federal Government and the free Negro, by L. Litwack.

Author: Berlin, Ira, 1941-
Title: Slaves without masters; the free Negro in the antebellum South.
Edition: [1st ed.]
Publisher: New York, Pantheon Books [1975, c1974]
Description: xxi, 423 pages; 25 cm.

Author: Bodenhorn, Howard.
Title: The complexion gap : the economic consequences of color among free African Americans in the rural antebellum South / Howard Bodenhorn.
Publisher: Cambridge, MA. : National Bureau of Economic Research, c2002.
Description: 47 pages ; 22 cm.
Series: NBER working paper series ; no. 8957
Working paper series (National Bureau of Economic Research) ; working paper no. 8957.
Portion of title: Economic consequences of color among free African Americans in the rural antebellum South
Notes: “May 2002.”
Also available in PDF from the NBER world wide web site (

Author: Lawrence-McIntyre, Charshee Charlotte.
Title: Free Blacks : a troublesome and dangerous population in antebellum America / by Charshee Charlotte Lawrence-McIntyre.
Publisher: 1984.
Description: viii, 373 leaves : chart.
Notes: Thesis (Ph. D.) — State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1985.

Author: Horton, James Oliver.
Title: Free people of color : inside the African American community / James Oliver Horton.
Publisher: Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press, c1993.
Description: ix, 238 pages; 24 cm.

Author: Hodges, Willis Augustus, 1815-1890.
Title: Free man of color : the autobiography of Willis Augustus Hodges / edited with an introduction by Willard B. Gatewood, Jr.
Edition: 1st ed.
Publisher: Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, c1982.
Description: lxxiii, 97 pages: ill. ; 23 cm.

Author: Wilson, Carol, 1962-
Title: Freedom at risk : the kidnapping of free Blacks in America, 1780-1865 / Carol Wilson.
Publisher: Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c1994.
Description: 177 pages; 23 cm.

A LOT depends on exactly when and where the story is set, because laws governing what free blacks could and could not do varied extremely widely from state to state (sometimes even county to county) and from time to time. In some states free blacks could own land, in others they could not, in some it was required that a slave seeking to purchase his freedom be given the opportunity if he raised the money, in others not, etc… Virginia in the 17th century, for example, was amazingly liberal and forbade blacks to be enslaved for more than 7 years, after which their master must provide them with tools and property, but Virginia at the dawn of the Civil War had become so Draconian that free blacks could not even remain in the state without special permission. The revolts of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey (and the NYC rebellions) all resulted in harsher restrictions and eliminations of rights as well (Turner’s rebellion was why teaching a slave to read was punishable by imprisonment or death in some areas, and it was enforced- the first person ever sentenced to the state prison in Wetumpka, Alabama was sent there for 20 years hard labor for teaching a slave [who later escaped] to read).

It would probably be more likely that a free black woman would hire herself as a cook or seamstress to a plantation rather than as a maid. Maid’s work wasn’t particularly skilled, but then as now a good cook or seamstress was a more valuable commodity.

One thing that was pretty universal about blacks in the south is that children took the legal status of their mothers, so if the mother was a slave and the father was free the children were slaves and property of their mother’s owner (unless they were sold- technically they had to be 14 before they could be sold away from both parents but this wasn’t always observed). Blacks could own other blacks and in some states (most notoriously Mississippi and Louisiana) they did. Most often it was a case of a freed man owning his wife and children, though there were black plantation owners (usually mulatto and having received assistance from white relatives).

Blacks in Louisiana and South Carolina tended to have much more of an African identity in their language, religion and even tribal alliances than those in other states, due in large part to the rice industries that saw the landowners deliberately import slaves from rice growing regions of Africa. Slaves on a cotton plantation in Lowndes County, Alabama, would probably not have a clue whether their great-grandfather was a Mandinka or an Ibo or whatever and probably wouldn’t even understand the question, while in Lousiana and South Carolina there are accounts of slaves who would not willingly marry or fraternize with slaves on the same plantation who were of a particularly tribe or clan in Africa.

A really good documentary recommendation (available through Netflix and many public libraries): Africans in America and Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (which, since it’s based on the recording of surviving slaves during the Depression, is comprised mainly of tales from the late antebellum era).

PS- There is a good National Geographic special on the slave culture at Colonial Williamsburg at the dawn of the American Revolution, but I can’t find it in video. It goes into detail about slave diets and what’s been discovered in archaeology of slave cabins (one thing being that almost all of them had storage pits where the slaves kept what valuables they had and food they killed to supplement their diets).

At Monticello there were a surprising number of Cowrie shells found in the ruins of the slave cabins. This shell is not native to America, only to the Pacific and Indian oceans, and is believed to have had totemic & religious as well as ornamental value to the slaves (a holdover from Africa, where similar shells were used in rituals and magic). The Gullah cultures of South Carolina were absolutely incredible and even bled into the white cultures (for example, the use of blue glass and blue paint to drive away evil spirits, which began in Africa, was employed by whites in their own homes, particularly after the first major earthquake following the city’s founding).

PPS- I assume that by mixed marriages you’re referring to free/slave marriages, of which there were more than a few. Miscegenation was illegal in the entire nation. In some areas whites could not legally marry Indians either. Blacks could and did intermarry with Indians, and more than a few people of African ancestry (in full or in part) travelled west on the Trail of Tears. Indians also owned slaves, usually communally (i.e. the tribe owned them rather than an idividual). Slaves who lived with Indian settlements usually had less by way of manufactured goods than those with whites (though those owned by whites certainly didn’t have much) but they were treated more as members of the tribe and after a time were usually officially adopted into the tribe.

Westville is a “town” in Georgia that was created by moving antebellum buildings from all over the state and arranging them into a township. (The buildings are all authentic, the town itself never existed.) The year they established for the settlement is 1850. It’s a very interesting place and the curators can help you with details of daily life as it’s explicit purpose is “how the regular folk lived”, both white and black.

Shagnasty, thank you for the recommendation for Louisiana, that gives me a more solid focus for research.

Walloon, thank you for the list of books. One of the reasons I’m turning to the boards for help instead of doing my usual week-long library session when I have questions like this is because I don’t have access to an English language library. I’m going to be ordering these from Amazon Japan, probably. Would you have particular recommendations from among your books, as in if you had to pick 3-5 books, which ones would they be?

Sampiro, thank you for your posts. That gave me some good background that I can already use for planning. I actually was considering “mixed” as in multi-racial, as I thought that miscegenation laws were mostly later than the c. 1800 time period I was considering. That may have to be re-thought.

Sorry, I have not read any of the books that I listed above. I found them using the subject key words “blacks — history — to 1863” or “African Americans — history — to 1863”, plus the title key word “free”. The Library of Congress subject headings for African-American history pivot around the year of the Emancipation Proclamation.

If you have Internet access to Lexis-Nexis, you may be able to find journal reviews of the titles I’ve given you, to help you decide which to buy.

Some more books:

Bethel, Elizabeth Rauh.
The roots of African-American identity : memory and history in free antebellum communities / Elizabeth Rauh Bethel.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
xiii, 242 pages ; 22 cm

Barrigher, Clara F. (Clara Frances)
The forgotten, despised, and chosen : the free Black class in the U.S.A. during the slavery period (1619-1865 A.D.) / by Clara F. Barrigher.
[1st ed.].
[Pleasantville, N.J.] : C.F. Barrigher, [1999- ]
v. <1 > : illustrations ; 30 cm.

Race, slavery, and free Blacks . Series I, Petitions to southern legislatures, 1777-1867 [microform] / edited by Loren Schweninger ; assistant editor Robert Shelton.
Bethesda, MD : University Publications of America, c1999.
23 microfilm reels ; 35 mm.

Race, slavery, and free Blacks. Series II, Petitions to southern county courts, 1775-1867 [microform] / edited by Loren Schweninger ; assistant editors, Lisa Maxwell and Chad Bowser.
Bethesda, MD : LexisNexis, 2002-
59 microfilm reels ; 35 mm. + printed guides <pt. A, B, C >

Something I was wondering about. As was posted, there were free blacks who were slave owners. And there were “black” slaves who in some cases were actually 15/16 white. So were there any cases where a black person owned white slaves? I have a hard time imagining it was allowed; but would it have been illegal or just a really bad idea?

Define “white person” or “black person”. At what point does a black person become a white person?

Black Slaveowners.

Free Black Slaveowners in South Carolina.

There were most definitely marriage-like unions between whites and blacks, but they weren’t consecrated or legally recognized. In the biography Having Our Say, written with and about the remarkable Delany sisters (both were well educated African American professionals [dentist and teacher respectably] who not only lived to be well over 100 but kept their minds and their bodies in amazing order [Oprah, who fell in love with them, had them demonstrate Yoga headstands on her show when the youngest was 104]) they discuss their own biracial ancestry.

Their mother was one of several children of a white father and black mother who lived together for half-a-century, from the late antebellum era til their grandmother’s death in the early 20th century. Neither ever married another person, it was a monogamous relationship, but they lived in separate houses on the same property. When the grandfather became old and infirm one of his children and her children moved home to take care of him, and he astonished his white relatives who were rude to his daughter’s kids by telling them “Don’t you talk that way to my grandsons!” It was one thing to have biracial progeny, but to actually acknowledge them was taboo.

A more incredible case in the Delany ancestry was in this same line. The Delany’s were descendants of a white plantation mistress who when her husband left her in the early 19th century began an affair with one of her slaves. The union produced two daughters. The amazing thing was that her husband returned and they reconciled, but he forgave the affair and raised the biracial daughters along with his own children. Though they were legally black, they did inherit property in their mother’s will and they were never slaves. Both married black men, and one produced the Delany’s grandmother who lived her entire life with the man mentioned above. Children of white mothers/black fathers were never common, but they were more common than many people realize.

My mother knew several black-white unions growing up. One was between a very wealthy tubercular white man (this was when tuberculosis was a death sentence in the minds of many and people avoided people with the highly contagious condition) and his housekeeper, a by all accounts brilliant and beautiful and by all accounts insane African American. (She at one point convinced herself that she owned the railroads that went through her property and began sending letters demanding that they stop sending trains through during the night, and the letter was so well phrased the railroad sent out an investigator.) They had several children and there was a nasty legal battle when he left his property to them and his white nephews and nieces contested the will. (It was settled out of court, with the white relatives taking the land and houses and the black family taking the cash.)

I don’t think it would violate any great confidence or legal matter to say, incidentally, that the actress Nell Carter was a granddaughter of the union mentioned above.

In Project Gutenberg ( you will find a massive set of articles titled Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, all done by FDR’s Work Projects Administration. These may be of interest to you. But since they were done in the early 1930’s, they are mostly elderly people who were small children at the time the Civil War ended slavery in America.

But searching Project Gutenberg for “slave narrative” will also find other books of interest.

And, of course, all are available online for free.

Keep in mind that the OP asked for information about free blacks in the antebellum period, not slaves.