What was the name used for African Americans born before the Civil War whose parents were not slaves?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prior to and during the American Civil War, blacks who were not slaves, mainly, needless to say, north of Mason-Dixon Line, and the children born to them were referred to as “Free Blacks.”  This designation placed them firmly in a separate category from blacks who continued to live in bondage until the Civil War and President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Despite their recognition as “free,” however, even in the North these so-called “Free Blacks” were denied most basic rights enjoyed by whites.  Children born of a relationship, forced or otherwise, between a white slave owner or other Caucasian and a slave were often freed by the white father.  Such mixed-race or mulatto children usually enjoyed the status of “free blacks” or “free negroes.”

Occasionally, different colonies passed legislation specific to blacks within their borders designating the children of “free blacks” or of slaves as of a specific legal status, for example, the concept of partus sequitur ventrem, which meant that the status of the mother rather than of the father determined the child’s legal status, thereby ensuring that the children of female slaves were themselves categorized as slaves irrespective of whether the father was white or black.  Some states established apprenticeship arrangements in which the children of free black women, in the absence of a father, were taken away and used essentially as slaves.  Free black women without property could be expected to lose legal custody of their children. 

In short, the status of the children of “free blacks” could be complicated and often depended upon the colony or state in which the child resided.  In the South, there were far more likely to be laws designed to enslave the children of “free blacks” than in the North, especially in the cases where the blacks in question were not landowners.  The children of “free blacks” were more likely to be considered free prior to the Declaration of Independence than those born afterwards, especially in the American South.  Once the United States was formally established and colonies became states under a federal or confederate system, then the variations increased dramatically.  Finally, and sadly, the children of “free blacks” were at perennial risk of being stolen from their parents and sold into slavery.  This, however, is an entirely other category beyond the scope of this essay.

In short, the name for children born to "free blacks" before the Civil War varied depending upon the circumstances.  In most instances, in the American North, they were considered "free" themselves.  In the South, however, their legal status was considerably more complicated.