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Free African Americans of
North Carolina and Virginia

by Paul Heinegg

Paul Heinegg's Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia is a collection of genealogies about African American families living in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Garnering the American Society of Genealogists' Donald Lines Jacobus Award in 1994, it is a resource well-worth investigating for any individual tracing families from these locations and time periods.

Here, you can get a taste of Paul Heinegg's research and writing through the Introduction he wrote for this book. Even if you are not researching families from these locations and time periods, you will find that the Introduction provides you with an interesting look at African-American life during this time period. Specifically, he shows how the social status of many landowning African-American families changed so much over the years that "by the 20th century they had no idea their ancestors had been free." It is lengthy, so you may prefer to print it rather than reading it online. Footnotes for the Introduction are included at the bottom of this page. However, to get information about citations shown in square brackets ( [ ] ), please refer to the complete book.


These genealogies, comprising the colonial history of the majority of the free African American families of Virginia and North Carolina, reveal a facet of American colonial history previously overlooked by historians:

  • Most families were the descendants of white servant women who had children by slaves or free African Americans.
  • Families like Gowen, Cumbo, and Driggers who were free in the mid-seventeenth century had several hundred members before the end of the colonial period. They were descended from slaves who were freed before the 1723 Virginia Law which required legislative approval for manumissions.
  • Very few families descended from white slave owners who had children by their slaves, perhaps as low as 1% of the total.
  • Many free African American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia were landowners.
  • The light-skinned descendants of these families formed the tri-racial isolate communities of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Louisiana.

February 5, 1997

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Most of the free African Americans of Virginia and North Carolina originated in Virginia where they became free in the seventeenth and eighteenth century before chattel slavery and racism fully developed in the United States.

When they arrived in Virginia, Africans joined a society which was divided between master and white servant — a society with such contempt for white servants that masters were not punished for beating them to death [McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 22-24]. They joined the same households with white servants — working, eating, sleeping, getting drunk, and running away together [Northampton Orders 1664-74, fol.25, p.31 - fol.31; McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 466-7; Hening, Statutes at Large, II:117].

Some of these first African slaves became free:

  • John Geaween (Gowen) "a negro servant" was free in March 1641 according to the Virginia Council and General Court Records [VMH&B XI:281].
  • Francis Payne of Northampton County paid for his freedom about 1650 by purchasing three white servants for his master's use [DW 1645-51, 14].
  • Emanuell Cambow (Cumbo), Negro, was granted 50 acres in James City County on 18 April 1667 [Patent Book 6:39].
  • John Harris "negro" was free in 1668 when he purchased 50 acres in York County [Deeds 1664-72, 327].
Many were free on the Eastern Shore. There were at least 40 taxable African Americans in Northampton County in the 1670s who were free or later became free, representing one third of the taxable African Americans in the county.Note 1

The Nickens and Weaver families came from Lancaster County where Black Dick (Richard Nickens), his wife Chris, and their children were freed by the 1690 will of John Carter [Wills 1690-1709, 5].

Free African Americans were beginning to be assimilated into colonial Virginia society. Many were the result of mixed race marriages:

  • Francis Payne was married to a white woman named Amy by September 1656 when he gave her a mare by deed of jointure [DW 1655-68, fol. 19].
  • Francis Skiper was married to Ann, an African American woman, before February 1667/8 when they sold land in Norfolk County [W&D E:1666-75; Orders 1666-75, 73].
  • Peter Beckett, a "Negro" slave taxable from 1671 to 1677 in Northampton County, Virginia, married Elizabeth Kettle, a white woman servant of John Tilney [Orders 1664-74, fol. 114; 1674-79, 75, 191; Orders 1683-89, 68, 246; OW 1689-98, 190-1].
  • Hester Tate, an English woman servant in Westmoreland County, had several children by her husband James Tate, "a Negro slave to Mr. Patrick Spence," before 1690 [Orders 1690-98, 40-41].
  • Elizabeth Kay, a "Mulatto" woman whose father had been free, successfully sued for her freedom in Northumberland County in 1690, and married her white attorney, William Greensted [WMQ, 3rd ser., XXX, 467-74].

As the percentage of African Americans increased, so did tension between free African Americans and slave holders. In 1666 Bastian Cane, "Negro," was punished by the Northampton County Court for harboring, concealing, and trading with Francis Pigott's "Negro slave" [1664-74, fol.29]. And as more and more slaves replaced white servants, the Legislature passed a series of laws which designated slavery as the appropriate condition for African Americans:

As the percentage of African Americans increased, so did tension between free African Americans and slave holders.
  • In 1670 the Virginia Assembly forbade free African Americans and Indians from owning white servants [Hening, Statutes at Large, II:280].
  • In 1691 the Assembly prohibited the manumission of slaves unless they were transported out of the colony. It also prohibited interracial marriages and ordered the illegitimate, mixed-race children of white women bound out for 30 years [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:86-87].
  • In 1705 the Assembly passed a law which all but eliminated the ability of slaves to earn their freedom by ordering that the farm stock of slaves
    shall be seized and sold by the church-wardens of the parish wherein such horses, cattle, or hogs shall be, and the profit thereof applied to the use of the poor of said parish [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:459-60].
  • In 1712 all fifteen members of the Anderson and Richards families were freed and given 640 acres in Norfolk County, Virginia, by the will of John Fulcher, creating such a stir that the Legislative Council on 5 March 1712/3 proposed that the Assembly
    provide a Law against such Manumission of Slaves, which may in time by their increase and correspondence with other slaves may endanger the peace of this Colony [McIlwaine, Executive Journals of the Council, III:332].

In an effort to "prevent their correspondence with other slaves" Fulcher's executor, Lewis Conner, by a deed dated 20 March 1712/3, swapped their land in Norfolk County with land on Welshes Creek in Chowan County, North Carolina [Chowan DB B#1:109].

In 1723 the Assembly prohibited the freeing of slaves except in cases where they had rendered some public service such as foiling a slave revolt. Also in 1723, the Assembly amended the 1705 taxation law to make female free African Americans over the age of sixteen tithable [Hening, Statutes at Large, IV:132-3].Note 2

Despite the efforts of the legislature, white servant women continued to bear children by African American fathers through the late seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century. From these genealogies, it appears that they were the primary source of the increase in the free African American population for this period. At least sixty-five of the families in this history appear to be descendants of white women. Many of these white servant women may have been the common-law wives of slaves since they had several mixed race children.Note 3 Thirty-six families appear to be descended from freed slaves.Note 4 It is likely that the majority of the remaining families were also descendants of white women since they first appear in court records in the mid-eighteenth century when slaves could not be freed without legislative approval, and there is no record of legislative approval for their emancipations.

The replacement of white servants with African slaves, begun in earnest in 1660, continued for more than a century. African slaves had still not completely replaced white servants by 17 October 1773 when the jailer in Prince William County advertised in the Virginia Gazette that he had caught a runaway white servant man:

Committed to Prince William gaol a certain William Rawlings, who says he is the property of Francis Smith of Chesterfield. The owner is desired to pay charges, and take him away.

and he advertised in the same edition that he had jailed a runaway white servant woman:

Committed to the gaol of Prince William a servant woman about 26 years of age, named Mary Richardson; has on a short printed cotton gown, and striped Virginia cloth petticoat [R 17Oc73:33].Note 5

Racial contempt for African Americans did not fully develop as long as there were white servants in similar circumstances. It was during this period, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, that free African Americans were accepted in the white community.

Like the newly freed white servants, the first free African Americans moved to the frontier which was then the southside counties of Virginia, the county of New Kent, and the northeastern part of North Carolina, where land was available to anyone who could pay the taxes and was willing to brave frontier conditions.

By 1790 free African Americans were concentrated in these areas, representing about 10% of the free population of the Eastern Shore, 6% of New Kent, 8% percent of the free population of twelve southside Virginia counties, and 17% of the free population of York County [Heads of Families - Virginia, 9].Note 6 The total "other free" population in Southampton County alone exceeded the total "other free" population in 22 other Virginia counties.Note 7


The replacement of white servants with African slaves, begun in earnest in 1660, continued for more than a century. Racial contempt for African Americans did not fully develop as long as there were white servants in similar circumstances.

Many originated in or moved to Surry County, Virginia, where their deeds, marriage bonds, and wills were recorded in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They were the Banks, Blizzard, Byrd, Charity, Chavis, Cornish, Debrix, Jeffreys, Kersey, Peters, Scott, Sweat, Tann, Valentine, Walden, and Wilson families. Descriptions in the Surry County, Virginia, "Registry of Free Negroes" in the late 18th and early 19th century read:

Armstead Peters a Mulatoe man, ...aged about 56 years, born free of a yellowish complexion... (6 October 1794).

James Williams a Mulatto man, pretty dark complexion, born of free parents residents of this county, 35 years old ... (11 May 1797).

Joseph Byrd son of Joseph and Nelly Byrd free Mulatto persons & residents of this county 20 years old, 5'5" high, bright complexion, short thick hair, straight & well made (27 September 1798).

William Tan, a mulatto man and son of Jemima Tan, a white woman late of this county. He is of bright complexion, has straight black hair, pretty stout and straight made, aged 21 last September (3 December 1801) [Back of Guardian Accounty Book 1783-1804, nos. 1, 21, 35, 136].

Many baptized their children in Bruton and Middleton Parishes, James City and Charles City Counties between 1744 and 1767. They were the Allways, Armfield, Ashby, Banks, Bartley, Chavis, Cooper, Flowers, Freeman, Gillett, Grimes, Jameson, Jones, Lewis, Maclin, Peters, Redcross, Roberts, Rosarios, Tann, Wallace, and Williams families who came from as far away as Southampton County [Bruton Parish Register, 4-35].

Ester Gouin was among nine free "Negroes and Molattoes" who came by boat to Norfolk County from Maryland in August 1692 [Norfolk DB 5, pt.2, 265].

Since so many free African Americans were light-skinned, many observers assume that they were the offspring of white slave owners who took advantage of their female slaves. Only one of more than 280 families in this history was proven to descend from a white slave owner. Jean Lovina, the slave of John Nichols was probably his mistress since he called her his "Negro Woman" and her children "my two Molattos" when he gave them their freedom and left them 350 acres by his 11 November 1696 Norfolk County will [6:fol.96, in McIntosh, Lower Norfolk County Wills, 161-162].Note 8

North Carolina

Several free African Americans voted in the North Carolina General Assembly elections in 1701 [Saunders, Colonial Records, I:903]. Jack Braveboy, was living in Chowan County before 17 July 1716 when he was presented by the court:
a negro, Coming into this Government with a woman and do live together as man and wife, it is ordered that the sd. Braveboy produce a Sufficient Certificate of their Marryage [Hoffman, Chowan Precinct North Carolina 1696 to 1723, 224].

In 1725 John Cotton was indicted for marrying a "Molatto Man to a White woman," and in 1726 the Rev. Mr. John Blacknall was fined fifty pounds for "joyning together in ... Matrimony Thomas Spencer and Martha Paule a Molatto Woman" [Saunders, Colonial Records, II:591, 662].

Many of those who were free in Northampton County, Virginia, settled in Craven County, North Carolina. They were the Carter, Copes, Driggers, George, and Johnston families. They can be traced directly back to their seventeenth century Virginia ancestors. Those in the early eighteenth century lists of Northampton County, Virginia tithables who immigrated to North Carolina were the Allen and Roberts families.

The descendants of Nicholas and Bungey Manuel, "negro slaves" freed by the 28 October 1718 Elizabeth City County, Virginia will of Edward Myhill, were in the Edgecombe, North Carolina Militia in the 1750s [Elizabeth City County Deeds, Wills 1715-21, 194-5; Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 675].

James and Peter Black came to Craven County from Essex County, Virginia, where they had been free born. John Heath tried to sell them as slaves to William Handcock, but the Craven County Court intervened on their behalf on 21 June 1745 [Haun, Craven County Court Minutes, III:465].

Moll, Nell, Sue, Sall, and Will Dove, "Negroes," came to Craven County, North Carolina, from Maryland with Leonard Thomas who was trying to keep them as his slaves in September 1749, but William Smith travelled to Maryland and proved their claim that they were free born [Ibid., IV:11-12].

Free African American immigrants were of sufficient number in 1723 that the General Assembly received complaints

of great Numbers of Free Negroes, Mulattoes, and other persons of mixt Blood, that have lately removed themselves into this Government, and that several of them have intermarried with the white Inhabitants of this Province... [Clark, State Records, XXIII:106-7].

Whilst some North Carolina residents were complaining about the immigration of free African Americans, their white neighbors in Granville, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton Counties welcomed them. Their neighbors may have been accustomed to living among free African Americans in Virginia; they may have moved from Virginia in company with them; or perhaps they were drawn together by the adversities of the frontier. Neighbor depended heavily upon neighbor, and whites may have been more concerned with hostile Indians and harsh living conditions than they were with their neighbors' color.

Whites in some parts of North Carolina may have been more concerned with hostile Indians and harsh living conditions than they were with their neighbors' color.

The slave population on the frontier was much lower than in the settled areas of Virginia, so the presence of free African Americans would not have posed a threat to most settlers. And several of these free African Americans owned slaves of their own. However, land ownership was more likely the social equalizer for them and their white neighbors.

The McKinnie family, originally from Isle of Wight County, Virginia, was one of the leading white families in the area around the Roanoke River. Barnaby McKinnie, member of the General Assembly from Edgecombe County in 1735, was witness to many of the early Bass, Bunch, Chavis, and Gibson deeds. John McKinnie called Cannon Cumbo his friend when he mentioned him in his 28 February 1753 Edgecombe County will. Other leading white settlers who sold them land adjoining theirs and witnessed their deeds were Richard Washington, William and Thomas Bryant, Richard Pace, and William Whitehead. Arthur Williams, member of the General Assembly for Bertie County in 1735, and John Castellaw, (brother?) of James Castellaw, a member of the Assembly from Bertie County, had mixed-race common-law wives, Elizabeth and Martha Butler [Saunders, Colonial Records, IV:115 and the Butler history].

On 9 November 1762 many of the leading residents of Halifax County petitioned the Assembly to repeal the discriminatory tax against free African Americans, and in May 1763 fifty-four of the leading citizens of Granville, Northampton, and Edgecombe Counties made a similar petition. They described their "Free Negro & Mulatto" neighbors as

persons of Probity & good Demeanor (who) chearfully contribute towards the Discharge of every public Duty injoined them by Law [Saunders, Colonial Records, VI:902, 982].

About ten years later a similar petition by 75 residents of Granville County included those of a few of the free African Americans of the county: Benjamin, Edward, and Reuben Bass, William and Gibea Chavis, Lawrence Pettiford, and Davie Mitchell (negro) [Ibid., IX:96-97].

By 1790 they represented 1.7% of the free population of North Carolina, concentrated in the counties of Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, Granville, Craven, Robeson, and Hertford where they were about 5% of the free population [Heads of Families - North Carolina, 9-10].Note 9 In these counties most African American families were landowners, and several did exceptionally well.

Edward Carter was the fourth largest Dobbs County landowner with 23,292 acres in 1780 [L.P.46.1 in Journal of N.C. Genealogy XII:1664]. He was head of a Dobbs County household of 8 "other free," one white woman, and 20 slaves in 1790 [NC:137].Note 10 The Bunch, Chavis and Gibson families owned slaves and acquired over a thousand acres of land on both sides of the Roanoke River, and the Chavis and Gowen families acquired over a thousand acres in Granville County.

William Chavis, a "Negro" listed in the 8 October 1754 muster roll of Colonel William Eaton's Granville County Regiment, owned over a thousand acres of land, a lodging house frequented by whites, and 8 taxable slaves [Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 716]. His son, Philip Chavis, also owned over a thousand acres of land, travelled between Granville, Northampton, and Robeson Counties, and lived for a while in Craven County, South Carolina.

Some members of the Gibson family moved to South Carolina in 1731 where a member of the Commons House of Assembly complained that "several free colored men with their white wives had immigrated from Virginia." Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina summoned Gideon Gibson and his family to explain their presence there and after meeting him and his family reported,

I have had them before me in Council and upon Examination find that they are not Negroes nor Slaves but Free people, That the Father of them here is named Gideon Gibson and his Father was also free, I have been informed by a person who has lived in Virginia that this Gibson has lived there Several Years in good Repute and by his papers that he has produced before me that his transactions there have been very regular, That he has for several years paid Taxes for two tracts of Land and had several Negroes of his own, That he is a Carpenter by Trade and is come hither for the support of his Family [Box 2, bundle: S.C., Minutes of House of Burgesses (1730-35), 9, Parish Transcripts, N.Y. Hist. Soc. by Jordan, White over Black, 172].

Like the early settlers of the North Carolina frontier Governor Johnson was more concerned with the Gibsons' social class than their race. In mid-eighteenth century North Carolina we find wealthy mixed race families counted in some years by tax assessors as "mulatto" and in other years as white. Jeremiah and Henry Bunch, Bertie County slave owners, were taxed in Jonathan Standley's 1764 Bertie County list as "free male Molattors" in 1764, but as whites in Standley's 1765 Bertie list, and again as "free Molatoes" in 1766 [CR 10.702.1]. Michael Going/ Gowen was taxed in Granville County as white in 1754 and was called "Michael Goin, Mulattoe" in 1759 [CR 44.701.19].

John Gibson, Gideon Gibson and Gibeon Chavis, all married the daughters of prosperous white farmers. Some members of the Gibson, Chavis, Bunch and Gowen families became resolutely white after several generations.

While some free African Americans owned slaves and were accepted in white society, others married slaves and socialized with slaves. Hester Anderson, one of those freed in 1712 in Norfolk County, was the common-law wife of a slave. She was the ancestor of the Artis family of Southampton County, Virginia, and several North Carolina counties. James Revell of Cumberland County entrusted his executor with the task of making application to the legislature for his wife's freedom [WB C:21].Note 11

Abel Carter was suspected of aiding a runaway slave. The 14 November 1778 issue of the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern advertised a reward for a

negro fellow named Smart ... Tis supposed he is harboured about Smith River by one Abel Carter, a free Negro, as he has been seen there several times [Fouts, NC Gazette of New Bern, I:83].

However, the majority were small farmers owning a few hundred acres who married other free African Americans. Their marriages can be identified from colonial wills and tax lists, and they were recorded in the county marriage bonds starting in the late eighteenth century.

They suffered under the discriminatory North Carolina tax law enacted in 1749 which described taxables as

all and every White Person, Male, of the Age of Sixteen Years, and upwards, all Negroes, Mulattoes, Mustees Male or Female, and all Persons of Mixt Blood, to the Fourth Generation, of the Age of Twelve Years, and upwards, and all white Persons intermarrying with any Negro, mulatto, or Mustee, or other Person of mixt Blood, ... shall be deemed Taxables... [Leary & Stirewalt, North Carolina Research, Genealogy and Local History, chapter 13].

Thus, free African American and Native American households can be identified by the taxation of their female family members over 12 years of age. Some light skinned people would claim to be white to avoid this discriminatory tax, and they would be listed by the tax collector with the notation, "Refuses to list his wife" [Thomas and Michael Gowin in the 1761 list of John Pope, CR 44.701.19]. It was in the interest of the tax collector to classify those of doubtful ancestry as "Mulatto" since he received a portion of the tax. However, those with some political and economic influence like the Bass and Bunch families were often listed as white.

In addition to the discriminatory tax, poor and orphaned African American children were bound out until the age of 21 by the county courts just like their poor white counterparts.Note 12 In July 1733 the General Assembly received complaints from "divers Inhabitants" that

divers free People, Negroes, Molattoes residing in this Province were ... bound out until they come to 31 years contrary to the consent of the Parties bound out. The said comittee further report that they fear that divers Persons will desert the settlement of those parts ...

The General Assembly ruled that those illegally bound should be released and the practice of binding out children to 31 years of age instead of 21 years was to cease [Saunders, Colonial Records, III:556].Note 13

The children were bound as apprentices in various crafts. Some apprentices were bound "to learn the art, trade, and mystery of farming" which may simply have meant working as an unpaid field hand; others were trained as coopers, blacksmiths, cordwainers, or other useful occupations.

The November 1774 Bertie County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions ordered Jemima Wiggins, 8 years old, and Mary Beth Wiggins, 10 years old, "bastard Mulattos of Sarah Wiggins," bound to John Skinner. However, this order was reversed in the May 1775 Court session when Edward Wiggins, the children's father, convinced the court

of the said Skinners ill & deceitful Behavior procuring sd Order... [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, IV:157].

The courts bound out the children of many free African American women because they were the common-law wives of slaves, but Doll Burnett argued against the binding of her daughter, Edith, in the 28 May 1777 Johnston County Court:

and the court taking the Conduct Character and Circumstances of the said Doll Burnet into consideration & finding no just reasons to apprehend that the said Edith would become a charge to this County, Ordered her to be returned to the care of her said Mother again [Haun, Johnston County Court Minutes, II:260].

In some instances the indenture laws virtually enslaved a person for life. George Cummins had the indenture of his white servant woman named Christian Finny extended by a year and her child bound for 31 years by order of the 7 December 1736 Carteret County Court because she had a "Mallatto Bastard Child during her service" [Minutes 1723-47, fol.33c]. She may have been the common-law wife of a slave for she was charged with having another "Melato" born 10 July 1739 [Ibid., fol.58] and another on 20 December 1743 [Ibid., fol.59b-c]. When she applied to the court for her freedom on 9 June 1744, the court ruled that she serve for another five months to pay for the cost of the court suit against her [Ibid., 62d]. When she again applied for her freedom six months later, the court ruled that on checking the record she serve another year since she had a "Mullatto Child in the time of her servitude" [Ibid., 151-2].

Some unscrupulous masters treated their apprentices like slaves. On 21 September 1742 David Lewis brought John Russell, a six year old mixed race boy, into Craven County Court, requesting that he be bound to him and promising to

Cause to be learned the sd Boy to Read & Write a Ledgable hand & teach him or cause to be taught the Shoemakers trade... [Haun, Craven County Court Minutes, III:328].

However, Lewis "made a present of the said boy" to his brother, John Lewis, of Chowan County, and his brother sold the boy to Captain Hews of Suffolk County, Virginia [Ibid., 653].

Between 1759 and 1786 there were sixteen African American apprentices in Craven County who at the completion of their indentures had to petition the court for their freedom. The court ruled in the favor of the petitioners in every case [Minutes 1758-66, 1:22c; 1764-75, 1:50d; 1772-84, 1:49c, 58c-d, 59d, 61c; 2:4b, 34a-b, 49a, 79a; 1784-87, 1:5c, 11c, 33d; 2:26b].Note 14

Caleb Lockalier was bound apprentice to Stephen Kades who assigned him to Francis Kennaday, who assigned him to James Oneal, who assigned him to Thomas Hadley, who refused to release him from his indenture until ordered to do so by the 27 July 1786 Cumberland County Court [Minutes, Thursday, 27 July 1786].

John Harris, a white Hyde County carpenter, found guilty of begetting a bastard child by Mary Ba_row, a white spinster, was required by law to support her. However, in June 1756 when the child was about two months old, the court learned that the child was mixed race. Harris was compensated for his expense by binding the child, a "Molatto Named George," to him for 21 years [Haun, Hyde County Court Minutes, II:174].Note 15

Robert West, Sr., advertised in the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern on 13 March 1752 for Thomas Bowman as if he were a runaway slave:

Ran away from the subscribers, on Roanoke River, a Negro fellow, named Thomas Boman, a very good blacksmith, near 6 feet high, he can read, write and cyper, Whoever will apprehend him shall be paid 12 Pistoles, besides what the law allows [Fouts, NC Gazette of New Bern, I:3].
Almost twenty years later Thomas Bowman was a taxable "free Molatto" in John Moore's household in the Bertie County tax list of 1771, 1772, and 1774 [CR 10.702.1, Box 13].

A South Carolinian advertised in the North Carolina Central and Fayetteville Gazette on 25 July 1795 for Nancy Oxendine, daughter of Charles Oxendine of Robeson County:

$10 reward to deliver to the subscriber in Georgetown, a mustie servant woman named Nancy Oxendine, she is a stout wench, of a light complexion about 30 years old. It is supposed she has been ??els away by her brother and sister, the latter lives in Fayetteville [Fouts, Newspapers of Edenton, Fayetteville, & Hillsborough, 81].

We also find cases where children were willingly bound by their parents to neighbors, friends, and relatives. Lovey Bass bound her illegitimate child, Nathan, to her neighbor, George Anderson. George Anderson was probably the boy's father. He devised his land to Nathan and his farm animals to Lovey Bass but left his wife and children only a shilling each [Original 1771 Granville County will].

Other apprenticeships were simply a way for a person to acknowledge responsibility for a child's support. Mary Bibby, a "black" taxable, had a "base born" child named Fanny who was bound out to Amy Ingram in Bute County on 13 May 1772 [Warren County WB A:227]. However, Mary had been living in the Ingram household for at least ten years prior to this. She and a slave named Charles were "black" taxables in Jesse Ingram's household in Gideon Macon's 1761 list for Goodwin's District of Granville County [CR 44.701.19], and she and Charles were taxables in the Ingram household in the 1771 Bute County tax list of William Person [CR 015.70001]. Mary was Charles' common-law wife according to a 28 June 1893 letter from a Bibby descendant, Narcissa Rattley, to her children.Note 16

Some masters took the apprenticeships seriously. In Bertie County on 26 September 1768 Frederick James, 7 years old, "natural son of Ann James," was bound as an apprentice to John Norwood [CR 10.101.7]. And about 50 years later on 25 February 1817 we find Frederick James able to write his own Bertie County will in good handwriting [Original at N.C. Archives].

Free African Americans were also in danger of having their children stolen and sold into slavery. In his Revolutionary War pension application on 7 March 1834 Drury Tann declared in Southampton County, Virginia, Court that

he was stolen from his parents when a small boy by persons unknown to him, who were carrying him to sell him into Slavery, and had gotten with him and other stolen property as far as the Mountains on their way, that his parents made complaint to a Mr. Tanner Alford who was Then a magistrate in the county of Wake State of North Carolina to get me back from Those who had stolen me and he did pursue the Rogues & overtook Them at the mountains and took me from Them.

An advertisement in the 10 April 1770 issue of the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern describes how the Driggers family was victimized in Craven County, North Carolina:

broke into the house ... under the care of Ann Driggus, a free negro woman, two men in disguise, with marks on their faces, and clubs in their hands, beat and wounded her terribly and carried away four of her children [Fouts, NC Gazette of New Bern, I:65-6].

And John Scott, "freeborn negro," testified in Berkeley County, South Carolina, on 17 January 1754 that three men, Joseph Deevit, William Deevit, and Zachariah Martin

entered by force, the house of his daughter, Amy Hawley, and carried her off, with her six children, and he thinks they are taking them north to sell as slaves.

One of the children was recovered in Orange County, North Carolina, where the county court appointed Thomas Chavis to return the child to South Carolina on 12 March 1754 [Haun, Orange County Court Minutes, I:70-1].

Stealing free African Americans to sell them into slavery in another state was not a crime in North Carolina until 1779. However, free African Americans were afforded some protection under the law. In 1793 the murderer of John James of Northampton County was committed to jail according to the 20 March 1793 issue of the North Carolina Journal:

Last night Harris Allen, who was committed for the murder of John James, a free mulatto, of Northampton County, made his escape from the gaol of this town. He is a remarkable tall man, and had on a short round jacket [Fouts, NC Journal, I:205].


Many of the families in this history have at least one member who fought in the Revolutionary War. Several moved to South Carolina in the 18th century, and their names appear in the musters of the South Carolina Militia in the 1759 Cherokee Expedition [Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 701, 883, 892, 894].

This service alongside whites established long lasting friendships. William Bryan, a Justice of the Peace for Johnston County, testified in court for Holiday Haithcock in support of his application for a Revolutionary War pension on 21 September 1834 explaining that


Many of the families in this history have at least one member who fought in the Revolutionary War. This service alongside whites established long lasting friendships.

in the times of our Revolutionary War free negroes and mulattoes mustered in the ranks with white men ... This affiant has frequently mustered in company with said free negroes and mulattoes ... That class of persons were equally liable to draft - and frequently volunteered in the public Service.

And H. Thompson Venable wrote for him to the Commissioner of Pensions in Washington,

the case of Holliday Hethcock of N.C. has been suspended merely because he was a free man of color. As we understand that several cases of this sort have been admitted, you will oblige us by having it admitted.

Charles Roberson Kee, a leading citizen of Northampton County, testified that he knew Drury Walden for more than twenty years and that

no man, not James Polk himself is of better moral character.

Many free African American families sold their land in the early nineteenth century and headed west or remained in North Carolina as poor farm laborers. This was probably the consequence of a combination of deteriorating economic conditions and the restrictive "Free Negro Code" laws.

Beginning in 1826 and continuing through the 1850s, North Carolina passed a series of restrictive laws termed the "Free Negro Code" by John Hope Franklin. Free African Americans lost the right to vote and were required to obtain a license to carry a gun. Tensions arising from Nat Turner's slave rebellion in nearby Southampton County, Virginia, played a major role in the passage of these laws. It is also possible that moves against the African American population helped to divert the attention of poor whites from their worsening economic conditions in the 1830s.

With the whole state literally up in arms over Nat Turner's rebellion, delegates to the General Assembly from Newbern called on the Assembly "setting forth the incompetency of free persons of color exercising the privilege of voting." Edmund B. Freeman, editor of the Roanoke Advocate, a Halifax County Weekly, boldly came to their support in the January 5, 1832 issue:

It cannot be denied that free negroes, taken in the mass, are dissolute and abandoned — yet there are some individuals among them, sober, industrious and intelligent — many are good citizens; and that they are sometimes good voters we have the best proofs ... We do think that too much prejudice is excited against this class of our population... — but, at the same time, there is a class of white skinned citizens, equally low and abandoned, whose absence whould be little regretted [N.C. Archives, Microfilm HaRA-2].

If his attitude toward free African Americans was typical of white Halifax County residents, this would help to explain why free African Americans made up over 18% of the free population of the county in 1810 [NC:59]. The editor's backhanded compliment certainly compares well to the sentiments of Robeson County residents:

The County of Robeson is cursed with a free-coloured population that migrated originally from the districts round about the Roanoke and Neuse Rivers. They are generally indolent, roguish, improvident, and dissipated [Franklin, Free Negro in North Carolina, 79 (MS in Legislative Papers for 1840-41)].

or a northern paper quoted in the 5 January 1832 issue of the Roanoke Advocate complaining about "the evils arising from the immigration of free blacks" from other states into Pennsylvania:

Overun by an influx of ignorant, indolent & depraved popullation most dangerous to the peace, rights & liberties of our citizens ... [N.C. Archives Microfilm HaRA-2, January 5, 1832].

John Hope Franklin recorded a famous case in which Elijah Newsom of Cumberland County was prosecuted for carrying his gun in the county [Franklin, Free Negro in North Carolina, 77 (State v. Newsom, 27 N.C., 183)]. However, Halifax County and Robeson County appear to have granted gun licenses freely. These licenses were recorded in the county court records from 1841 through 1846.Note 17

Many of those who left the state were enumerated in the 1840-1860 censuses of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Some went to Canada and a few to Haiti and Liberia. By 1857 when Henry Chavers (Chavis) emigrated to Liberia, life for free African Americans in North Carolina must have been truly oppressive. A letter written for him to his friend, Dr. Ellis Malone of Lewisburg in Franklin County, describing Liberia sounds like that of a recently liberated slave:

this Land of Freedom ... a nation of free and happy Children of a hitherto downcast and oppressed Race ... I now begin to enjoy life as a man should do ... did my Coloured Friends only know or could they have seen what I already have seen they would not hesitate a moment to come to this Glorious Country [Ellis Malone Papers, NUCMC, 21-H, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University].Note 18

By 1870 many of those who remained behind were living in virtually the same condition as the freed slaves. In the 1870 census for Northampton County, North Carolina, the most common occupation listed for those who were free before 1800 was "farm laborer," the same occupation as the former slaves. Some married former slaves, and by the twentieth century they had no idea their ancestors had been free.

Some of the lighter-skinned descendants of these families formed their own distinct communities which have been the subject of anthropological research. Those in Robeson County are called "Lumbee Indians," in Halifax and Warren Counties — "Haliwa-Saponi," in South Carolina — "Brass Ankles" and "Turks," in Tennessee and Kentucky — "Melungeons" and "Portuguese," and in Ohio — "Carmel Indians." Several fantastic theories on their origin have been suggested. One is that they were from Raleigh's lost colony at Roanoke and another that they were an amalgamation of the Siouan-speaking tribes in North and South Carolina [Blu, The Lumbee Problem, 36-41].

Documents from a court case held in Johnson County, Tennessee in 1858 provide a detailed description of one such family. They illustrate the extent to which the family was accepted by the white community and the extent to which the family history was already clouded by myths in 1858. Joshua Perkins, born about 1732 in Accomack County, Virginia, was the "Mulatto" son of a white woman [Orders 1731-36, 133]. He owned land in Robeson County, North Carolina in 1761, moved to Liberty County, South Carolina, and in 1785 moved to what later became Washington County, Tennessee [Philbeck, Bladen County Land Entries, no. 1210]. Along the way, succeeding generations of his family married light-skinned or white people. They owned a ferry, race horses, and an iron ore mine; ran the local school house, and were election officials. However, conditions had changed drastically just prior to the Civil War in 1858 when Jacob F. Perkins, great-grandson of Joshua Perkins, brought an unsuccessful suit against one of his neighbors in the Circuit Court of Johnson County for slander because he called him a "free Negro" [The Perkins File in the T.A.R. Nelson Papers in the Calvin M. McClung Collection at the East Tennessee Historical Center].Note 19

More than 50 witnesses made depositions or testified at the trial. Many of the deponents had known three generations of the family in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Tennessee. Sixteen of twenty-two elderly witnesses who had actually seen Joshua Perkins testified that he was a "Negro," describing him as a

dark skinned man with sheeps wool and flat nose ... [Ibid., deposition of Nancy Lipps].

black man, hair nappy ... Some called Jacob (his son) a Portuguese and some a negro [Ibid., deposition of John Nave, 88 years old].

Knew old Jock (Joshua) in North Carolina on Peedee ... right black or nearly so. Hair kinky ... like a common negro [Ibid., deposition of Abner Duncan, 86 years old].

However, eighteen witnesses for Perkins testified that Joshua Perkins was something other than "Negro" - Portuguese or Indian.Note 20 They said little about his physical characteristics and those of his descendants. Instead, they argued that he could not have been a "Negro" and been so totally accepted by his community:

dark skinned man ... resembled an Indian more than a negro. He was generally called a Portuguese. Living well ... Kept company with everybody. Kept race horses and John Watson rode them [Ibid., deposition of Thomas Cook, 75 years old].

mixed blooded and not white. His wife fair skinned ... They had the same privileges [Ibid., deposition of Catherine Roller, 80 years old].

Hair bushy & long - not kinky. Associated with white people ... Associated with ... the most respectable persons. Some would call them negroes and some Portuguese [Ibid., deposition of John J. Wilson, about 70 years old].

He was known of the Portuguese race ... Four of his sons served in the Revolution ... Jacob and George drafted against Indians ... they came from and kept a ferry in South Carolina [Ibid., deposition of Anna Graves, 77 years old].

They kept company with decent white people and had many visitors[Ibid., deposition of Elizabeth Cook, about 71].

I taught school at Perkins school house ... they were Portuguese ... associated white peoples, clerked at elections and voted and had all privileges [Ibid., deposition of David R. Kinnick, aged 77].

Some who testified in favor of the Perkins family had never seen Joshua Perkins and seemed to be genuinely confused about the family's ancestry:

I was well acquainted with Jacob Perkins (a second generation Perkins). A yellow man - said to be Portuguese. They do not look like negroes. I have been about his house a great deal and nursed for his wife. She was a little yellow and called the same race. Had blue eyes and black hair. Was visited by white folks [Ibid., deposition of Mary Wilson].

One of the deponents, 77 year old Daniel Stout, explained very simply how people of African descent could have been treated well by their white neighbors:

Never heard him called a negro. People in those days said nothing about such things [Ibid., deposition of Daniel Stout].


Note 1

Tithable Heads of Household Tithables in White Households
Jno Johnston 2   Ann Harmon  
Phillip Mongon & his wife 2   John Archer Negro  
John Kinge Negro 1   Tho: Rodriggus Negro  
Basshaw Ferdinando Susan Hanna Negros 3   Frances Driggus Negro  
John Francisco Negro & Xian Francisco 2   Mary Rodriggus  
Bastian Cane Grace his wife Negroes 2   Peter Beckett }
Emanuell Drigges 3   Mary Crew } Negroes
King Tony Sara his wife Negroes 2   Tho: Carter }
Wm Harman Negro Jane his wife 2   Edw: Carter }  
Francis Pane Negro 1   Peter George }
Anto. Johnson 1   Jone George }
Tony Longo 3   Jane Guzall } Negroes
      Gabriel Jacob }
      Bab Jacob }
      Danll Webb }
      Isbell Webb }Negroes

[Order Books 1657-64, p.103, fol.104, 176, 198; 1664-74, fol.14, 15, 19, 42, 54, pp. 15, 42, 54, 55; 1674-79, fol.114, p.191]. In the year 1677 there were 25 tithable free African Americans and 53 tithable slaves out of a total of 467 tithables [1674-79, 189-91].

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Note 2

Female free African Americans were made tithable in 1668, but the 1705 law did not include them [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:258-9]. Norfolk County officials did not enforce the 1723 amendment until 1735-1736 when female members of the Anderson, Archer, Bass, Hall, Manley, and Price families were taxed [Wingo, Norfolk County Tithables, 1730-1750, 144, 157, 168, 183, 185, 190]. Surry County probably did not enforce the 1723 amendment until 21 November 1758 when the Surry County Court presented thirteen free African Americans for not listing their wives as tithables. They were the Banks, Barkley, Barlow, Charity, Debrix, Eley, Peters, Simon, Tann, Walden, and Wilson families [Orders 1757-64, 135].

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Note 3

They were the Allen, Armstrong, Arnold, Ashby, Baltrip, Barnett, Beckett, Bibbens, Bell, Berry, Boon, Boyd, Bryant, Bugg, Bunday, Butler, Cassidy, Clark, Collins, Copes, Cousins, Davenport, Day, Dempsey, Donathan, Driver, Dunstan, Elliott, Ellis, Flood, Flora, Francis, Gallimore, Gregory, Hammond, Harrison, Hobson, Hogg, Holt, Howell, Kent, Lewis, Ligon, Locus, Lynch, Magee, Manly, Mills, Morris, Murray, Okey, Oxendine, Perkins, Redman, Robinson, Sample, Simmons, Sorrell, Symons, Tate, Toney, Webb, Williams, Wilson, and Wood families. Other white women who had mixed race children were Susanna Shelton and Mary Poore (two children) in 1686 [Surry Orders 1682-91, 508, 529, 630], Ann Pullen in 1688 [Henrico County Record Book No. 2, 1678-93, 276], Elizabeth Lane in 1691 (two children) [Surry Orders 1682-91, 771, 777], Mary Collowhough in 1691 [Westmoreland Orders 1690-92, 24], Bridget Ludgrove in 1692 [Henrico County Record Book no. 2, 1678-93, 419], Sarah Bunbury and Frances Haward in 1692 [Richmond County Orders 1692-94, 40], Ann Wall in 1693 [Elizabeth City County Orders 1692-99, 19, 38], Mary Phillips in 1694 [Northumberland Orders 1678-98, part 2, 673], Elizabeth Cambridge in 1702 [Essex County Orders 1699-1702, 116], Mary Cicile (3 children) in 1702 [Richmond County Orders 1702-04, 157], Joan Burkett in 1702 [Ibid., 164], Jane Kewmin and Margaret Fitzgerald in 1703 [Ibid., 154, 274], Margaret Shaw in 1715 [Prince George County Orders 1714-20, 30], Mary Owen in 1720 [Ibid., 320], Sarah Williamson in July 1716 [Saunders, Colonial Records of North Carolina, V:114], Ann Pittman in 1722 [Princess Ann County Orders 1717-28, 151], Margaret Theloball in 1735 [Ibid., 1728-37, 272], Ann Vasper in 1732 [Overwharton, Stafford County Register, 1724-74, 30], Mary Sherredon in 1736 [Surry DW&c 1730-38, 569], Christian Finny in 1736 [Carteret County Minutes 1723-47, fol.33c], Mary Rowland in 1740 [Surry Deeds, Wills, 9:172], Mary Range/ Ringe in 1741 and 1744 [Fleet, Northumberland County Record of Births, 76, 81], Ann Bradger in 1744 [Chamberlayne, Vestry Book of Stratton Major Parish, King & Queen County, 56], Ann Tillett in January 1744/5 [Pasquotank County Court Minutes, 1737-53, 141], Mary Taggart in 1751 [Lunenburg Orders 2:474], Margaret Ruffs in 1752 [Surry Orders, 1751-53, 503], Sarah Timber and Sarah Pickart in 1757 [Overwharton Parish, Stafford County, Register 1724-74, 189, 192], Mary Madden in 1760 [Madden, We Were Always Free], Isabel Forbess in 1761 [Historic Dumfries, Records of Dettingen Parish, 114], and the mother of Barbara Baker in 1761 [New Hanover County Minutes 1738-69, 199]. Tamer Smith served a 6 months prison term and paid a 10 pound fine in order to marry Major Hitchens, head of a Northampton County, Virginia, household of 4 free tithables and 2 slaves in 1737 and 1744 [L.P. 1737, 1744; L.P. #24 (1738) by Deal, Race and Class, 216].

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Note 4

These were the Anderson, Archer, Black, Bowser, Cane, Carter, Charity, Clark, Cuffee, Cumbo, Dove, Driggers, Drury, George, Gibbs, Gowen, Grinnage, Harmon, Harris, Jacobs, Jeffries, Johnson, Kersey, Leviner, Lytle, Manuel, Matthews, Mongom, Moore, Mordick, Newton, Nickens, Payne, Roberts, Sisco, and Stringer families.

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Note 5

The same advertiser in that edition clearly identified a runaway free African American, Reuben Dye, as a "Negro man" [Ibid.].

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Note 6

These twelve southside counties were Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Greensville, Henrico, Isle of Wight, Mecklenburg, Nansemond, Powhatan, Prince George, Southampton, Surry, and Sussex. Some of those counted in the 1790 census were freed by the act in May 1782 which allowed Virginia masters to emancipate their slaves without approval of the legislature [Hening, Statutes at Large, XI:39-40]. However, their family histories indicate that the large majority were free before the passage of this act.

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Note 7

These were the counties of Augusta, Bedford, Botetourt, Elizabeth City, Fluvanna, Franklin, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Harrison, Louisa, Monongalia, Montgomery, Orange, Pendleton, Randolph, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Warwick, and Washington.

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Note 8

This was also true in Somerset County, Maryland, which has the most complete colonial tax and levy lists of any Maryland county. From 1745-1755, 35 of 39 free African Americans whose condition at birth was recorded were born of free parents. None were the children of slave mothers [Davidson, "Free Blacks in Somerset County," MHM 80:154].

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Note 9

They were notably absent from the western counties of North Carolina, there being not a single free African American head of household in the counties of Burke, Iredell, Lincoln, Rockingham, Rutherford, and Surry, and only two each in Rowan and Stokes Counties [Ibid., 106-125; 155-158; 164-186].

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Note 10

In a most extraordinary move, on 13 February 1773 the Dobbs County Court recommended to the General Assembly that his daughters be exempted from the discriminatory tax against female children of African Americans [Saunders, Colonial Records of North Carolina, IX:495].

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Note 11

Another member of this family, Hiram Revels, first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate, was born in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, North Carolina in 1822 [Encyclopedia Britannica, Ready Reference & Index VIII:538].

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Note 12

North Carolina and Virginia enacted apprenticeship laws similar to those in England. In 1646 Virginia passed a law giving justices of the peace at their own discretion the right to bind out children of the poor "to avoyd sloath and idleness wherewith such children are easily corrupted, as also for the relief of such parents whose poverty extends not to give them breeding" [Hening, Statutes at Large, XXVII:336].

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Note 13

Carteret County, however, continued this practice at least until 1759 [Minutes, 1747-64, 53]. This attitude of the court may explain why free African Americans made up only 0.3% of the free Carteret County population in 1790 [Heads of Families - North Carolina, 10]. Craven and Granville Counties, on the other hand, bound out free African American girls until the age of 18 - the same as for white girls, and free African Americans made up almost 5% of the free population of these counties in 1790 (4.6 and 4.9% respectively) [Ibid., 10; Craven Minutes 1764-66, 50d; 1779-84, 79a; 1784-86, 49a; 1786-87, 26b; Granville Minutes, 1792-95, 65, 92].

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Note 14

The Craven County Court also ruled in favor of three African Americans who were born free elsewhere but held in bondage in Craven County between 1770 and 1778 [Minutes 1764-75, 2:147b; 1772-84, 2:38d, 48b, 58c-d, 69a].

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Note 15

George Barrow was head of a Hyde County household of 5 "other free" and a slave in 1800 [NC:363] and 9 "free colored" in 1820 [NC:248].

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Note 16

This letter is in the possession of Robert Jackson of Silver Springs, Maryland.

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Note 17

"By petition signed by 5 or more of their respectable neighbors" the 18 August 1845 Halifax Court issued gun licenses to

Lemuel Morgan Aaron Locklear Matthew Jones John Smith Arthur Locklear
Robert Mitchum Fed Haithcock Fed Wilkins Alex Jones Gabriel Locklear
David Reynolds Julius Flood Ambrose Hawkins Simon Purnin William Jones

The November 1841 Robeson County Court issued licenses using the form, "Whereas ... a Colored man residing in this County by name ____ doth sustain a good moral Character therefore it is adjudged that the said ____ be permitted to bear fire armes ... & use the same as any other good Citizen of the Community." They were issued to

David Oxendine Aaron Oxendine Ishmael Roberts David Scott Alexander Oxendine
William Goings Henry Sampson Ethelred Roberts Abraham Jones George Morgan
Willis Roberts Nelson Roberts Levi Locklear John Blanks Hector Locklear

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Note 18

Bell I. Wiley understandably mistook Chavers for a recently manumitted slave, including this letter in his book, Slaves No More (1980), University Press of Kentucky.

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Note 19

Thanks to Wilma Hoffman of Casper, Wyoming, for providing copies of this file. Thanks also to Steve Cotham, head of the McClung Collection.

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Note 20

This use of the term "Portuguese" for a mixed-race person accepted as white was used as early as October 1812 when the Marion District, South Carolina Court of Common Pleas ruled that Thomas Hagans did not have to pay the levy on "Free Negros" because he was Portuguese [NCGSJ IX:259]. Thomas was the son of Zachariah Hagins, a "Mulatto" bound out in Johnston County Court in October 1760 [Haun, Johnston County Court Minutes, I:46].

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About the Author

Paul Heinegg is the author of Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia.
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