Death or Liberty:
Avenues to Freedom
From the beginning of the Virginia colony’s history some African Virginians were not held as slaves. As time progressed many free blacks were descendants of other free people who had won their freedom or who had never been enslaved in Virginia. A few free blacks were rewarded freedom after fighting in the American Revolution. After the passage of the 1782 manumission act, many slaveholders privately freed enslaved blacks. Enslaved African Americans sometimes purchased their freedom. A small number petitioned the Virginia legislature to win their freedom. 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.
After manumission, many rural free blacks moved to cities because of the high demand for skilled labor and domestic service. 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 led to restrictions on the residency of free blacks in Virginia. In 1806, the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing the continuance of private manumissions, but required every African American freed on or after May 1, 1806, to leave the state within a year of manumission or be reenslaved.
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. These new laws and rules especially restricted the assemblage of African Americans and the practice of their religions.