Research explores free people of color in the early South

Posted on August 19, 2020

Warren Eugene Milteer Jr and the cover of his book, North Carolina's Free People of Color 1715-1885
Headshot of Warren Milteer
Dr. Warren Milteer, Jr.

The history of race relations in the U.S. South often tends to be viewed from a strict Black-White binary.

Most of us learn that from the colonial period through the Civil War, Black people were slaves, and White people were free. But what about multiracial people? Were they free or enslaved? And how did gender and class intersect with race?

Dr. Warren Milteer, Jr., assistant professor of history at UNC Greensboro, argues that social hierarchies and race relations in the early South were a lot more nuanced – and intersectional – than we think.

Milteer’s new book, “North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715 – 1885,” unpacks North Carolina’s history as a slave state and sheds light on a group that has been understudied in American history: free people of color.

Milteer explains that there were several different paths to becoming free in the slave state of North Carolina. First, you could be born free. If your mother was free, then you were free, so if a White woman had children with a person of color, then her children would be free. Descendants of Native American women also fell into the category of free people of color.

Another path to freedom was through the legal process of manumission. Slaves could purchase themselves from their masters. Some slaves would earn money from side jobs or get a loan, and some slave masters were willing to free their slaves for a variety of personal reasons.

In 1860, there were about 30,000 free people of color in North Carolina. And while freedom certainly didn’t mean equality, Milteer says that some people of color, especially men, were able to find success in their communities.

“Some free people of color were going to college in the 1800s. Free men of color had the right to vote, while all women, no matter their race, could not. Some free men of color owned certain types of property, which meant they could vote in certain elections that White men could not vote in. Hierarchies were more nuanced – they depended not just on race but on class and gender.”

Milteer also argues that racial categories were viewed differently in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, there was more flexibility in terms of how people were categorized, he says.

“The term ‘free people of color’ captures a broad spectrum of society, and I think the people at the time knew that. People of diverse appearances and ancestries could all fall under the category of free people of color. Today, I think we tend to use our racial categories in a way in which we assume that people who fit into those categories really have some strong ancestral commonality that they may not actually have.”

Milteer’s interest in this group stems from his own personal history – some of Milteer’s ancestors were free people of color. Milteer started exploring this topic as an undergraduate, and then continued the work as a graduate student. His new book, based on work from his doctoral dissertation, involved archival research throughout North Carolina and in Washington, D.C.

Milteer reiterates that most people of color – nearly 90% in 1860 – were enslaved. Yet through his work, he hopes to challenge current understandings of race and social hierarchy in the South.

“The story of free people of color forces us to think deeper about the history of freedom in American society. Freedom is not equality, so how do we challenge ourselves to move beyond simple rhetoric about personal liberty and push ourselves to see freedom as a spectrum in which hierarchies of race, gender, and wealth help create opportunities for some and obstacles for others?”

Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications

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