In what ways were free people of color not truly free in the time of slavery?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Free black men and women faced different circumstances in different slave societies. In Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) for instance, many gens de couleur libre, usually men of mixed race, were quite wealthy, owning large plantations, including the slaves that worked on them. But these people were not completely equal to the grandes blancs, whites mostly from France. They could not vote, for instance, and had to observe a sort of caste system that isolated them from whites. In the British North American colonies, later the United States, most free black men and women lived in towns and cities. Their numbers increased dramatically after the American Revolution, when there was a short burst of emancipationist sentiment in the new nation. Some of these men and women were skilled workers, but for the most part they worked as stevedores, household workers, and other low-paying jobs. They were also denied the right to vote, and were always viewed with suspicion as a potentially unsettling influence on slaves. In many states, laws were passed requiring emancipated slaves to leave the state within a certain time period. These laws were aimed at shrinking the size of the free black population. So while free, black men and women, even those who enjoyed considerable material comfort, were not fully free. One of the leading historians of slavery, Ira Berlin, has describe free black men and women as "slaves without masters." 

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