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Jerry Armstrong, Registration of Free Status, 1840


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


Before the end of slavery, free Black Virginians found their liberty in constant jeopardy because they were not considered citizens. After Gabriel's attempted slave rebellion in 1800, the General Assembly passed an act in 1801 requiring county commissioners of the revenue to provide a complete list each year of all free Black men and women in their districts. The list was to contain the name, gender, residence, and trade of each person. The act was intended to regulate the behavior of free Blacks and a copy of the list was supposed to be posted on the door of the county courthouses so that white Virginians would know who had free status in their counties. If a registered free Black person moved to another county, then magistrates there could issue a warrant for them unless they were employed. Otherwise, the person would be jailed as a vagrant. The law was not always uniformly enforced, however. 

The county clerk provided free Black men and women with certificates that they were required to carry on their person at all times. White Virginians could challenge their status at any time and if a free person was not able to prove they were free, they could be sold into slavery.

One acceptable way for a free Black person to prove their status was to provide an affidavit from a white man swearing to that fact. In this legal document signed in 1839 and recorded in 1840, Frederick County resident Jerry Armstrong is described by Jacob Cooper as being the son of a free Black woman and therefore a free man. 

Citation: Armstrong, Jerry (M, 24): Frederick County (Va.), Free Negro Register, 1840, in Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.


USI.5, CE.7, VUS.5, GOVT.3

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Think About It: How do you prove that you are a citizen of the United States? Could you prove it right now if you were asked to? Could the government require you to do so? What would be the pros and cons of such a requirement? 

Post Activities

Another Perspective: Jacob Cooper and Jerry Armstrong might have a good relationship since Jacob is vouching for Jerry’s status. What could happen if Jacob and Jerry should have an argument or other disagreement?

Analyze: Develop a hypothesis about the intent behind the registration of free individuals of color and how it was used.