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Freedom at Risk

Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865

Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Freedom at Risk
    Book Description:

    Kidnapping was perhaps the greatest fear of free blacks in pre-Civil War America. Though they may have descended from generations of free-born people or worked to purchase their freedom, free blacks were not able to enjoy the privileges and opportunities of white Americans. They lived with the constant threat of kidnapping and enslavement, against which they had little recourse.

    Most kidnapped free blacks were forcibly abducted, but other methods, such as luring victims with job offers or falsely claiming free people as fugitive slaves, were used as well. Kidnapping of blacks was actually facilitated by numerous state laws, as well as the federal fugitive slave laws of 1793 and 1850. Greed motivated kidnappers, who were assured high profits on the sale of their victims. As the internal slave trade increased in the early nineteenth century, so did kidnapping.

    If greed provided the motivation for the crime, racism helped it to continue unabated. Victims usually found it extremely difficult to regain their freedom through a legal system that reflected society's racist views, perpetuated a racial double standard, and considered all blacks slaves until proven otherwise. Fortunate was the victim who received assistance, sometimes from government officials, most often from abolitionists. Frequently, however, the black community was forced to protect its own and organized to do so, sometimes by working within the law, sometimes by meeting violence with violence.

    Mining newspaper accounts, memoirs, slave narratives, court records, letters, abolitionist society minutes, and government documents, Carol Wilson has provided a needed addition to our picture of free black life in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4979-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The kidnapping of free blacks into slavery in pre-Civil War America has been a topic frequently noted by scholars but not examined in any detail. This omission may be partly explained by the fact that while slavery has long been a subject of intense interest for both scholars and the general public, comparatively less work has focused on free blacks. However, a significant body of scholarship now provides an image of the diversity of black life before the Civil War. Whether northern or southern, rural or urban, escaped or manumitted slaves, or the descendants of generations of free-born people, black...

  5. CHAPTER ONE “From Their Free Homes into Bondage”: The Abduction of Free Blacks into Slavery
    (pp. 9-39)

    The possibility of being kidnapped and sold into slavery was shared by the entire American free black community, whether young or old, freeborn or freed slave, northerner or southerner. Certainly, however, some were at greater risk than others. Geography may have been the most important factor influencing the degree of risk. Although the practice occurred throughout the nation, residents of the states bordering the Mason-Dixon line were especially vulnerable. The large numbers of free blacks in Delaware, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania, as well as proximity to the South, probably attracted kidnappers to this area.

    Several factors other than geography determined...

  6. CHAPTER TWO “The Legitimate Offspring of Slavery”: Kidnappers Who Operated within the Law
    (pp. 40-66)

    The forceful abduction of free blacks for sale into slavery was illegal in all states before the Civil War. However, the practice of enslaving free people of color was also achieved by legal means. Particularly vulnerable in this regard were free blacks claimed as fugitives. Because blacks claimed as runaways were denied due process under the fugitive slave laws of 1793 and 1850, the potential for enslavement of legally free people was great.

    The federal fugitive slave laws were well-known and protested by many, but numerous lesser-known laws also rendered black freedom precarious. Most southern states, for example, enacted laws...

  7. CHAPTER THREE “Leave No Stone Unturned”: Government Assistance to Free Blacks
    (pp. 67-82)

    The kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves was prohibited in most states, including those in the South. State anti-kidnapping laws offered some measure of protection to free people of color, as did northern personal liberty laws, passed in response to the federal fugitive slave laws.

    But this is not to suggest that the legal system and the government worked to the advantage of free blacks. Kidnapping flourished despite its illegality. Protective laws needed enforcement in order to be effective, and they were upheld only sporadically at best. It was also difficult to prosecute the majority of kidnapping cases...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR “The Thought of Slavery Is Death to a Free Man”: Abolitionist Response to Kidnapping
    (pp. 83-102)

    While government officials sometimes assisted victims of kidnapping, abolitionists were particularly dedicated to helping free blacks who were illegally enslaved. Abolitionist concern over kidnapping can be detected from the movement’s very beginning, in the naming of its early organizations. The names they chose reveal a purpose much broader than simply the outlawing of slavery. The nation’s first abolition society, formed by Philadelphia Quakers in 1775, initially called itself the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. In 1787 it was reorganized as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting Abolition of Slavery, Relief of Free Negroes Held Illegally...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE “An Almost Sleepless Vigilance”: Black Resistance to Kidnapping
    (pp. 103-116)

    Despite the strenuous efforts of government officials and abolitionists on behalf of kidnapped free blacks, the black community and many kidnapping victims came to the realization that they must ultimately rely upon themselves. The struggle of whites to release individuals held illegally in slavery and to gain legal protection for free blacks was admirable. Particularly surprising were the endeavors of a few southerners who risked their own lives when aiding a free black person. Nevertheless, whites could afford to relax in their struggle against kidnapping—and often did so—as it was superceded by the larger sectional controversy. Blacks, however,...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 117-120)

    After a kidnapping occurred in Philadelphia, Quaker educator Anthony Benezet asked, “Alas! how many, both of parents and children, may be taken from their free homes into bondage, terminating only with life.”¹ As Winfield Collins noted of theLiberator’sattempt to quantify kidnapping, the number of incidents that were discovered and recorded was probably substantially lower than the number of kidnappings that actually occurred.² Assuming that this judgment is correct, it is likely that kidnapping produced great fear within the black community. The New York Vigilance Committee reported in 1837 that the kidnapping of free blacks had become so extensive...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 121-145)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 146-165)
  13. Index
    (pp. 166-177)