The Appalling Indifference to the History of Free Blacks


Ms. Wills is a writer, researcher, and genealogist, and author of the book, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color: Colonial Virginia, 1650-1850 (March 2003).

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

"We reside among you and yet are strangers; natives and not citizens; surrounded by the freest people and most Republican Institutions in the world and yet enjoying none of the immunities of freedom though we are not slaves we are not yet free." -- Memorial of the Free People of Color, African Repository, December 1826, Baltimore MD
African American History month is a month in which Americans celebrate the history of people of African descent. It is a sharing of a culture long ignored by the dominant society. Yet much of the history begins and ends with the Civil War. Little is written about Free Blacks, or Free Persons of Color, a group who made significant contributions to American History.

A country's unbiased history should include all of the players, not just those with whom society is comfortable. Black historians ignore this group claiming they made no significant contributions. While other historians treat them as if they were either white or black. The race issue continues to overshadow any achievement this group made. The racial designations in Colonial Virginia and Pennsylvania were many, Mulatto, Negro, Colored, Free Black, Free Person of Color. They were designations assigned by white male dominated courts to so-called minority populations.

In Colonial Virginia, there was a large group of "FPC" or Free Persons of Color. This group were a mixture of free blacks, Negroes, natives, and mulattoes. They were legislated into existence by the laws of Colonial Virginia. One family which fell under this designation were the Bowdens. The family was headed by Mary Bowden, who would be the first of three generations of Bowdens to serve forced indentures to George Washington's family.

Mary ("Mol") Bowden was born about 1730, in Westmoreland County Virginia. She was born free, and lived for the first seven years of her life as a free person. At the age of seven, Augustine Washington Senior (George Washington's father) took her to the Westmoreland County Courthouse and received a thirty-year indenture (Westmoreland County Court records show a "Mol" Bowden, who in 1737, was identified as mulatto, and seven years of age).

Under the laws of Colonial Virginia, a child born to a white woman, and any man who was not white, was to serve an Indenture of thirty years (if female), or twenty years (if Male). In 1737, the courts assigned Mary Bowdens's Indenture to Augustine Washington Senior. She was to serve her Indenture at Popes Creek Plantation, the birthplace of George Washington. Augustine Senior was then married to Mary Ball, and their oldest child George was five years of age.

Although George Washington, was born at Popes Creek, the family moved when George was about eight (1735). When his father died about 1743, George spent time at Popes Creek, and at the property now known as Mount Vernon. His older brothers Augustine and Lawrence became the dominant male figures in his life. His father left Augustine Washington Junior in charge of Popes Creek, a medium-sized plantation with about seventy-five slaves, European indentured servants, and small number of Mulatto Indentured Servants. The European indentured servants were in voluntary servitude, some to pay off debts and others hoping to eventually own land and slaves. Some were working off prison terms in the New Colony.

Although the law governing the treatment of mulattoes was passed to punish white women, the law was applied to the children. A white mother could get fined, jailed, and even run out of the county, but she did not lose her freedom. In many cases the law was applied outside its own scope. For instance, Mary Bowden is believed to have been the child of a native woman and a white man. The mother was free, and the laws (at that time), gave the child the status of their mother.

However, the mother was nowhere to be found, having been run out of the county. There was no one there to dispute the testimony of Augustine Washington Senior. No matter since the testimony of the mother would not have held up against a white man.

While at Popes Creek, Mary ran away several times, and each time was caught and returned. She escaped in 1754, and was found in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1758. Augustine Washington Junior took her to court, where she had more time added on, and was fined. In 1750, she had a daughter, named Patty, who was immediately bound out to Augustine Washington Junior.

Patty Bowden was raised as a model servant at Popes Creek, so much so that she became a personal servant to Elizabeth Washington. When Elizabeth married in 1770, Patty's service was passed to her as a wedding gift. She left Popes Creek, and moved to Fredericksburg with Elizabeth and her new husband, Alexander Spotswood. Patty was taught how to run a plantation and how to manage the slaves and servants under her.

While Patty was serving her indenture, she had a child named Delphia, and that child was indentured to the Spotswoods for thirty years. When Patty's indenture was completed in 1780, Alexander Spotswood gave her the indenture to her child Delphia. According to Spotswood, he gave the child to her as a reward for her faithful service. This must have been a reference to Patty's service to his wife, Elizabeth.

By 1780 Mary Bowden was living in Fredericksburg with eight other mulattoes. Besides Patty, she had a son named William Bowden, and possibly other children. In the 1810 census Mary Bowden was still living on Barton Street in Fredericksburg. There was no mention of her in the 1820 census, which implies she was deceased by then. Whenever the free black community showed significant increases, laws were passed requiring them to leave the state, and/or county. If they remained in the area, they could be sentenced to a long indenture, or enslaved. After all, being a free black went against every belief that the church and state of Virginia instituted.

The Bowdens were typical of Free Persons of Color, who were racially stereotyped by the laws of Colonial Virginia. They were made to pay for a situation which they were not responsible. Yet their legacy continues to live on through their descendants,and through documents left by the Washington family. They are now coming out of the shadows and becoming a part of the history of America.

It is a history that few historians want to research and document. However, the material is there in the courthouses, census records, and history books. It is not an insignificant bit of history. As long as it is ignored, American history will be just a tale told from a biased point of view.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Roma Stewart - 8/6/2008

Some historians and others have been not only indifferent to the presence of free people of color, but have deliberately concealed evidence of their existence. Indexes and transcriptions of records are useful in locating documents on any specific issue, as travel to repositories is time-consuming and expensive. However, many such indexes and transcriptions deliberately omit the names of free people of color. These atrocities are not often committed by historians, but apparently are relied upon by historians. It is, of course, inexcusable for an historian to rely upon someone else's description of any document, but unfortunately, many do.
Several examples of such omissions are; in census records, designating the name of a free black with a dash instead of a name, as was done one census year in Craven County, North Carolina; Omitting the names of almost all free blacks in an index to marriages of Southampton County, Virginia; omitting the names of all free blacks in transcriptions of church records. Anyone researching this area should of course be aware of the help that indexes and transcriptions can provide, but must assume that they are incomplete.

Anita L Wills - 3/26/2005

I wrote this article because of my experiences while writing and publishing my book. Finding a publisher was an impossible task, so I self-published. Once the book was ready I did my own promotions and marketing. I sent Press releases to publications all across this country. I can not mention one black historian who responded to my emails. I do not like making this a racial issue, as I am African American. It was surprising to me the lack of response or interest. Even when I go on book signing tours, most of the interest is from whites. I have also had Asians and Hispanics respond postively to my book. Individual blacks have come forth and supported my work, and given critiques. By the way, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color is available at Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com. The idea of writing a book such as this is to spark discussion, whether, pro or con. That is the purpose of writing a book of Historical Non Fiction.

The book is 292 pages, Non Fiction, African American History, with an appendix, biliography, Endnotes and Index. The chronicles are of a group labled, fpc, or Free Persons of Color in Colonial Virginia. The chronicles were meant to highlight the achievement of this group in Colonial Virginia. However, some people are offended that I would dare write about this group when others around them were enslaved. Yet, in my book I write about the Free Black Community that existed in Lancaster and Chester County Pennsylvania. They were participants in the Underground Railroad, and sent their sons to fight in the Civil War.

I received a message from a publisher who is going to use quotes and citations in their educational material. I am told that the manuel will be used for the education of gifted fifth and sixth graders. My book was meant to be objective, even though it is the true story of several of my ancestors. If it can be used in class rooms, I believe it passed that test. This is a job our Historians are failing at, putting forth objective material for Educational purposes.

I am grateful to everyone who sent a comment.

Link to Barnes & Noble.

Charles Edward Heisler - 3/2/2005

"The interplay of social and contexts with a a dramatic conflict over the nature of urban order was not only my first, but to this day most rewarding effort at historical research. Those "mere twigs and branches" as Benjamin F, Wade called them, torn off the great tree of slavery, have indeed been neglected; my sense of the literature to date is that we haven't progressed much from the old state monographs of the 1920s and 30s."

Some sentences simply sparkle--thanks for the well conceived examples above.

William . H. Leckie, Jr. - 2/24/2005

Anita Wills' article brought back memories of my first seminar paper as a grad student in 1967. I'd proposed, to great skepticism, an essay on free blacks in St. Louis in the decade before the Civil War. One question asked of me was whether sources existed to make the project worthwhile. I had to admit I wasn't sure.

Much to my delight, I discovered otherwise. To my astonishment--thanks to a diligent archivist at the Missouri Historical Society--a veritable trove of then-unorganized public documents that made possible a fairly accurate, detailed reconstruction of the enforcement of discriminatory local and state ordinances. I vividly recal the afternoon she lay on the table in front of me a large blue sheet of stiff paper, a "free negro bond," and I saw the name DFred Scott inked in. "Neat!" I said. "Are there others?" "We have hundreds of them," she replied, and indeed they did, still with black blotting sand in their creases, and in a mass of such things mixed with chits for stray livestock I found a printed police list of licensees updated by hand. Ultimately it was possible to put faces and even to some extent personalities on what otherwise would've been a small statistical aggregate.

Even richer was the high visibility of a very small population of free persons of color in public rhetoric, primarily but not restricted to the antislavery controversy. The project very quickly grew in scope from a matter of "recovery" to struggling to reconceptualize urban race relations in a border slave state.

Its outcomes, when traced in fine resolution, struck me at the time as counter-intuitive and opened up other lines of inquiry. The interplay of social and contexts with a a dramatic conflict over the nature of urban order was not only my first, but to this day most rewarding effort at historical research. Those "mere twigs and branches" as Benjamin F, Wade called them, torn off the great tree of slavery, have indeed been neglected; my sense of the literature to date is that we haven't progressed much from the old state monographs of the 1920s and 30s.

Kenneth R Gregg - 2/22/2005

One of the recent works which does discuss the social and political relationships of the free people of color is the fascinating, although somewhat quirky, work by Rediker and Linebaugh, "The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic." It takes a lot of interesting turns on the subject, and a good read will be quite fruitful for you.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Ellen Pandolfo - 2/22/2005

I appreciate Anita Wills's intriguing piece on the under-representation of free blacks in American historical scholarship. However, as a graduate student of American history, I do not believe that most historians are "indifferent to" or intentionally "ignoring" pre-Civil War free blacks. Rather, this is an under-explored subject area. Historians, especially of the past generation, have been working fiercely to write histories that can best reconcile the abysmal lack of authentic, realistic, and honest African-American history. Demystifying slavery has unarguably and necessarily been a huge part of that effort. Furthermore, minority persons have increasingly become a part of the academies producing the bodies of literature that illustrate Black American History. As Wills implied, traditional American history has indeed largely been written from the perspective of white Anglo-Saxon male supremacy. Although not overwhelmingly, the writers are certainly changing and, in turn, the history is changing. I am thankful for Wills's article as it is an eye-opener.