In 1782, the Virginia General Assembly passed “An Act to Authorize the Manumission of Slaves” that allowed slaveholders to free their slaves by their last wills and testaments or other writings that were to be proved in a county court by two witnesses. Before its passage in accordance to a law passed in 1723, a special act of assembly was required to set a slave free. Between 1723 and the American Revolution only about twenty-four enslaved people were legally emancipated in Virginia. On May 23, 1791, Francis Drake was the first enslaved black to be freed in Norfolk following the 1782 manumission act.
Francis Drake worked as a slave barber and, like many other skilled artisans, was probably able to hire out his time from his master. He would have found his own work and paid his owner a certain amount of money each week. Any money he had leftover was his to keep. As a result, Drake probably paid cash for his freedom from Thomas Newton in 1791. A prominent Norfolk politician and businessman, Thomas Newton Jr. was elected mayor of Norfolk four times after a long career in the military. Newton, however, had been Drake's owner only for a short period of time. Five months earlier, Newton purchased Drake from Newton's uncle. Drake had probably saved enough money to purchase his freedom, and then chosen Newton to act on his behalf with his owner. As a free man, Drake prospered. He owned four city lots in 1803, he purchased several members of his family from slavery, and he helped other enslaved people to obtain their freedom.
Many free blacks were descendants of other free people who had won their freedom or who had never been enslaved in Virginia. A few enslaved blacks were given their freedom after fighting in the American Revolution. After the passage of the 1782 manumission act, many slaveholders privately manumitted enslaved blacks. Enslaved African Americans sometimes purchased their freedom. A small number petitioned the Virginia legislature to win their freedom. After the United States abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, some enslaved blacks successfully sued for their freedom on grounds that they had been imported illegally. Virginia's free black population grew from about 3,000 to 6,000 at the end of the Revolution to perhaps 30,000 by 1810.
Once manumitted, many rural free blacks moved to cities because of the high demand for skilled labor and domestic service. The rapid growth of the free black population contributed to an overall increase in the urban populations of Virginia. Slaveholders successfully pressed the Virginia legislature by 1793 to pass a law requiring free blacks to register every year. That assembly also passed a law prohibiting free blacks from immigrating to Virginia. After Gabriel's failed rebellion in 1800, a movement by urban whites restricted the residency of free blacks. In 1806, the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing the continuance of private manumissions, but requiring every African American freed on or after May 1, 1806, to leave the state within a year of manumission or risk being reenslaved. The result was a sudden surge of emancipations in the spring of 1806, as well as a race by free blacks to register and prove their manumissions prior to that year.
Virginia's free blacks were the continual subject of white's fears and suspicions in the nineteenth century. Especially after Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, these fears were manifested in severe restrictions for free blacks. Just before Turner's Rebellion, a new law made it illegal for whites to assemble blacks to teach them to read and write. After the rebellion, laws were passed to prohibit black ministers from preaching to their congregations and required that white ministers supervise black religious gatherings, especially at night. State law in the 1830s also restricted the sale of alcohol by blacks.
1. What was the significance of this document for Francis Drake?
2. What does manumit mean?
1. Free African Americans living in Virginia found themselves in the peculiar situation of not being enslaved, yet not enjoying the rights of citizenship. How did the circumstances of a free African American differ from that of a white person in Virginia early in the nineteenth century?
Bogger, Tommy L. Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790–1860: The Darker Side of Freedom. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Nicholls, Michael L. “Strangers Setting Among Us: The Sources and Challenge of the Urban Free Black Population of Early Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108, no. 2 (2000): 155–179.
Schwarz, Phillip J. Slave Laws in Virginia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Campbell, James M. Slavery on Trial: Race, Class, and Criminal Justice in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.