REGISTER OF FREE BLACKS 1822 - 1861


1835 BOOK 3
Register No. 449

I, Alfred Moss, Clerk of the County Court of Fairfax County, in the state aforesaid, do hereby certify that the bearer hereof George Lamb, a bright mulatto, about twenty one years of age, five feet eight inches high, bushy hair, black eyes, full face, no perceivable marks or scars, is the son of Harriet Lamb, a free negro and born free in Fairfax County Virginia as appears to the Court by satisfactory evidence.

Whereupon at the request of said George Lamb and by order of the said Court, I have registered him in my office as a free negro according to law.

Given under my hand this 15th day of January 1855.

Alfred Moss, Clerk



ABOUT THE REGISTER OF FREE BLACKS
(Webmaster notes in Italics)

In 1793, the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation "to restrain the practice of negroes going at large." The preamble to this legislation stated that "great inconveniences have arisen . . . within this commonwealth, from the practice of hiring negroes and mulattoes, who pretend to be free, but are in fact slaves." To correct this problem, the statute required that "every free negro or mulatto" was required to register with the clerk of the court in the city or county where he or she resided. Reregistration was required yearly in the cities, and every three years in the counties.

The registration was required to "specify his or her age, name, colour and stature, by whom and in what court the said negro or mulatto was emancipated; or that such negro or mulatto was born free." A copy of this registration was to be given to the free Negro so registered, to certify that he or she was indeed free, could travel about (within that county), and could accept work.

The Fairfax registers are not unique. For the Northern Virginia area, the three volumes for what was formerly Alexandria County, now Arlington, are kept in the Arlington County Courthouse. Two volumes for the City of Alexandria are listed in a WPA inventory and were seen as recently as ten years ago (1967). Where they are now, or even if they still exist, is not known. The two books of registrations found in the Fairfax County Courthouse are Volume II,1822-1835, and Volume III,1835-1861. There was undoubtedly a Volume I bearing the registrations from sometime in the 1790s (the Arlington registers begin in 1797) until 1822. This has not been found. The last entry in Volume III is 15 April 1861‹two days later, Virginia seceded from the Union.

Every registration includes a physical description (age, height, marks, and scars) of the registrant. Most registrations also include the name of the mother if the registrant was freeborn, or the name of the emancipator if the registrant was personally freed. Sometimes a registrant's mother's emancipator is named as well as the mother herself.

This information makes it possible to reconstruct a family a short way. For example, West Ford, a prominent Fairfax County free black, is registered in Volume II, number 121. His registration includes the information that he was freed by the "last Will and Testament of Hannah Washington." In the same registration is West's wife, Priscilla Ford "manumitted by Isaac McPhearson." Two of Ford's children are included in (the) registration. The subsequent two registrations, l22 and 123, are for Ford's other two children, William and Jane. Thus someone looking up West Ford would find out how he came to be free, his wife's name and her claim to freedom, as well as his children's names. Checking the children's names in thc index, one finds West's daughter, Jane, listed as the mother in two much later registrations. A check of these entries reveals Jane's two children, Priscilla and Mary Ellen, a further extension of Ford's family.

Many of the registrations for women and their children give no indication of the identity of the father. In other cases, a woman will be registered under her maiden name, with her married name given as an alias, or vice versa. This makes it possible to obtain some information about a married woman's parents, and to further extend family reconstruction. Sibling relationships may be determined in the same manner. By checking all the indexed references to a mother's name, brothers and sisters with different surnames may emerge. This is a complicated process, however, for the name of the mother may not be recorded the same in all registrations. Much cross-checking is required to arrive at an accurate conclusion.

In other cases, a family may be reconstructed from circumstantial evidence. In 1858, Sarah Jasper, age 35, registered, claiming her freedom from the will of William H. Foote in 1846. The following two entries are for her daughter Susan, aged 18, and daughter Eliza, aged 16. The next entry is for William Jasper, age 45, freed by the will of William H. Foote. The names, ages, and common emancipator clearly mark this as a family group. Further, the fact that they were emancipated only twelve years earlier, in 1846, and that the girls are over age 12, indicate that they were in fact living as a family group in slavery.

It is important to remember that these are registers of free Negroes, and do not include slaves. Indeed, most of the blacks registered here were never slaves. They claimed their freedom by birth from free black or white mothers. (The status of blacks at birth was determined by the status of the mother, not the father.) Over 58 percent of the registered Fairfax free blacks were freeborn, including five who claimed their freedom from white mothers. Until recently, the number of free blacks descended from white mothers has been largely overlooked. It has been assumed that all "mulattoes" or light-skinned blacks had a white father and a black mother. This is not true, and perhaps more than five of the free blacks who registered in Fairfax had white mothers. It is somewhat surprising that the information regarding the white mothers was entered in the registers at all, as this was not required by law; many of the free blacks were registered simply as "free born."

Beyond the genealogical benefits to blacks tracing their family histories, the registers provide a unique insight into the origins of the free Negroes as a group. The registers record, albeit unintentionally, the degree of compliance by free blacks with some of the white man's laws. They serve as an indication of the social acceptance of the free blacks in the society at large. If the laws were strictly enforced, the level of tension between the whites and blacks may be assumed to have been substantial. On the other hand, laxity in enforcement would indicate a relative acceptance by both races of the existing social structure.

A comprehensive answer to these questions has not been attempted here. The preliminary analysis of the data does, however, provide some interesting information. Volume II,1822-1835, contains 284 registrations listing some 300 individuals. Thc sex ratio is almost even at 50.3 percent males and 49.7 percent females. For Volume III,1835-1861, which contains 563 registrations and about 612 individuals, the sex ratio is heavily biased with 58.6 percent males and only 41.3 percent females. This discrepancy has not been accounted for, although an analysis by decade reveals a steady increase in the percentage of males from 46 percent during the period 1822-1832 to 63 percent from 1853-1861. There was a corresponding decrease, of course, in number and percentage of females. (An interesting contrast can be made with the sex ratio for Fairfax free Negroes as recorded in the 1860 U.S. census where only 52.7 percent were male and 47.3 percent were female.) There was also a steady decrease in the total number of registrations for each decade, from 256 in the 1822-1832 period, to 153 from 1853 to 1861. This is somewhat surprising as the laws respecting registration appear to have been more stringently enforced in the last decade before the Civil War. As one would expect the actual number of free blacks to increase due to natural reproduction, and to be further augmented by newly freed slaves, the number of registrations should have increased, not decreased as time progressed.

The registers also throw new light on how the Fairfax free blacks claimed their freedom. A substantial majority at all times was free by birth. The actual number of Negroes claiming freedom by birth from 1822 to 1835 was 153. This was about 58 percent of the total number of 284 registrations. However, only 235 of these 284 registrations state specifically how freedom was claimed. Of this 235, the 153 specifed as free birth is 65 percent. For the period 1835-1861, the percentage of freeborn was 55.8 percent, and for the entire period covered by the registers, 58 percent. Clearly free birth accounted for the majority of Fairfax free blacks.

Those free blacks who were not freeborn were freed slaves. The majority of these was freed by last will and testament. George Washington freed his slaves in this manner. When a number of former slaves of John West registered, the clerk copied into the record the provision of West's will freeing his slaves, "My will and desire is that all my negroes be free, l say free they and all their increase for ever and for ever." A full 34 percent of those registered had been freed by will, although the percentage increased from 25.5 percent during the period 1822-1835 to 38 percent during the period 1835-1861. It is unclear why slaves freed by will were not freed during the lifetime of the owner. The two most probable reasons are concern about the reaction such emancipation would cause among slaveholding friends and neighbors, and economics. Slaves were, after all, worth a great deal of money, and may have provided many men with their only means of livelihood. Considerations of the purse have modified many a man's noble sentiments.

The third way of achieving freedom was by a deed filed in the county court. These deeds simply freed a man, or a woman and her offspring, for all future time. Frequently a token payment, such as "one dollar to me in hand paid" was cited in the deed. Some slaves were freed for no payment, and others actually purchased their freedom at the going rate. The deed, in effect, gave the black man or woman property in his or her own person. The deeds are recorded in the land books, a reminder of the property status of slaves under law.

Preliminary analysis of the registers indicates that the laws requiring registration and reregistration of free blacks were enforced with some degree of laxity. The law requiring all slaves freed after 1806 to Ieave Virginia also went largely unenforced. Large numbers of George Washington's former slaves, freed in 1801, were apparently registering for the first time in the 1820s and 1830s. In the case of Washington's former slaves, this determination is difficult, as the first registry book, up to 1822, is missing.

Each registration, however, required the court clerk to specify how the registrant claimed his or her freedom. This was, after all, the whole purpose of the registrations‹to establish that a black man or woman was indeed free and not a slave. Many of the registrations make reference to an "original registration this day surrendered," meaning that the pcrson registering had previously registered and was using that certificate to establish his or her freedom. Normally only a person not having such a prior registration would claim freedom from the will of, for example, George Washington. When taken with other evidence that the registration requirements were laxly enforced, the incidence of Washington's former slaves claiming their freedom by his will twenty years and more after they became free suggests that large numbers of free blacks did live in Fairfax County for years without registering at all. This, of course, means that every black man or woman on the roads, or not visibly under a white's supervision, was not stopped and interrogated by some sort of slave patrol. It means that the white community lived to a large degree in peace with the free blacks, apparently free from the paranoia that the free blacks were going to foment slave rebellion.

The law also required that a free black reregister every three years, and this was almost totally ignored in Fairfax County. Of a total of 760 registrations in the period 1822-1861,only 131,or a mere 17 percent, were reregistrations. The remaining 629 appear to be new registrations, although some of these may have been reregistrations of previously registered blacks who had lost their original certificates. This would mean that if the three-year reregistration requirement were complied with, the majority of the 629 free blacks who did not reregister either died or moved from Fairfax in this 39-year period. As this number constitutes 83 percent of the registered free blacks, it seems most unlikely. Much better evidence exists that the reregistration requirement was simply disregarded.

In October and November 1831, there were 117 registrations, more than seventy of which were on two days in October. This 117 is a full 40 percent of the total registrations between 1822 and 1835. What could cause such an enormous increase in the number of registrations? On 21 August 1831, Nat Turner, a slave in Southampton County, Virginia, led the only major slave uprising in the antebellum south. More than fifty whites were killed before it was brought under control. Whites all over the south were alarmed and reacted with tighter security over blacks, free and slave. The proximity in time of the increase in Fairfax registrations to the Turner rebellion is too close to be coincidental. Exactly what caused the Fairfax free blacks to register in such numbers is not known. Neither the Alexandria Gazette nor the Fairfax court records gives any clues. It was, however, doubtlessly a reaction to the Turner revolt. Under the law, all 131 free blacks who registered in 1831 should have reregistered three years later in 1834. However, in 1834 there were only twenty-two registrations and only eight of these were reregistrations. For 1833, there were nine registrations. no rercgistrations; and for 1835, twenty-nine registrations and only five reregistrations. Clearly, even a slave revolt was insufficient to cause the laws respecting the free blacks to be enforced for more than a very short time.

The 1806 law requiring all slaves freed after this date to leave Virginia was intended to restrict the growth of free Negroes as a group. Such growth apparently did not overly concern Fairfax whites, however, for large numbers of former slaves freed in Fairfax County after 1806 remained in Fairfax and registered as free blacks. This was a continuing pattern. For example, the Jaspers were freed in 1846 and as late as 1850 more than sixty former slaves of William Fitzhugh, who owned the enormous Ravensworth plantation and freed by the terms of Fitzhugh's will, were registered as free blacks.

Later, in the 1850s, the Fairfax court began ruling in individual cases on whether a free black could remain in Virginia. The first significant number of these was in 1853. From that time until 1861, there were 144 registrations. Of these 144, sixty were not given permission to remain in Virginia, ten were given permission, and seventy-four registrations did not specify whether the registrant might remain in the state. This suggests a high degree of inconsistency in enforcement of the law.

When the Jaspers registered in 1858, William, his wife Sarah, and their youngest daughter, Eliza, age 16, were given permission to remain in Virginia. The elder daughter, Susan, age 18, was not given this permission. Ironically, the Jaspers who had remained together as a family group in slavery now saw their family dismembered by the white man's laws after achieving freedom.

Whatever may be said about reasons for giving or denying permission to individual free blacks, the fact that the seventy-four registrations which contain no comment constitute more than 51 percent of the total of 144 indicates that the court was generally apathetic as to whether the free blacks remained in or left Virginia.

The most important evidence, however, that the laws governing free blacks were ignored emerges when comparisons are made between the number of registrations of free blacks and the number of free blacks actually living in Fairfax County. The United States census for 1820 records 507 free blacks in Fairfax County; for 1830 the figure is 311. Yet for the eight years of this decade for which registrations are available, only ninety-five free blacks registered with the clerk. By 1840 the census recorded 448 free blacks in Fairfax; 292 registered with the clerk. And this figure includes the extraordinarily large registration of 117 in 1831 after the Nat Turner rebellion. By 1850 the census records 547 free blacks in Fairfax, with only 198 registered. The 1860 census recorded 672 free blacks in Fairfax; only 251, slightly more than a third, were registered. Only during the decade 1830-1840 did the number of registrations equal even half the number of free blacks recorded in the census. Clearly, the majority of free blacks in Fairfax never registered at all.

In other cases, the records themselves testify to lack of concern about the registrations, even by the clerk who was charged with keeping the registers. Many of the entries are not dated; e.g., book II, entries 162-179 record "Given under my hand this [blank] day of [blank] ." In other cases, the certifications of the registrations by the court are not dated; e.g., book II, 37-41, "At a Court Continued and held for the County of Fairfax the [blank] day of [blank] 182[blank]."

The lack of dates in the record would make it difficult to enforce the reregistration provision, if it were desired to do so, and may even call into question the legality of such undated registrations. Apparently no one cared; in which case, the question may be asked, "Why keep the registers at all?" The answer is not apparent. Perhaps simply knowing they could control the free blacks by law served a psychological need for the white society.

That the free blacks were not required to conform to the law is not overly surprising, although it is useful to have conclusive evidence for what could previously have been only an assumption. Much remains to be done before a complete picture can be constructed of what it was like to be black and free in Northern Virginia before the Civil War. The registers of Fairfax, Arlington, and Loudoun Counties and Alexandria City need to be considered, where they still exist, as a unit. Both similarities and differences respecting attitudes toward and treatment of free blacks in the overall area will surely emerge. This research can be integrated into other research from court, census, land, and tax records to try to determine how the free blacks lived.

Understanding the free black community before the Civil War may provide important insights into the black community after the war‹when all blacks were free.

Ira Berlin maintains that antebellum free blacks were tied to the newly emancipated slaves "by blood, marriage, religious affiliation and work habits," and that even into the twentieth century "free Negroes and their descendants served as spokesmen for blacks."(1) When taken with Berlin's further assertions that the whites first Iearned to pattern their social and economic relationship to free blacks before the war, and then transferred this to the mass of freedmen after the general emancipation, the antebellum free blacks may be seen as a key factor in understanding nineteenth and early twentieth century southern social and racial relations. One would expect the newly freed blacks after the war to look to the antebellum free blacks for leadership and for guidance in living in what was still a white man's world. Any answer to this question will depend on an accurate understanding of the free black community before the war.

The registers may also permit a beginning to be made on reconstructing the structure of the free. black family before the Civil War. Herbert Gutman has presented intriguing evidence(2) that slaves had an extensive family and kinship relationship, and that almost all slaves had a second name unknown to their white masters. These surnames, Gutman says, were generally different than the names of the owners of those slaves. He points out that most slaves did not take the last name of their owner when freed, but instead used the surname they had always used, but kept hidden from their master. This pattern seems to be borne out by the registers for the Fairfax free black community. For example, none of George Washington's slaves was named Washington. Over thirty former slaves or children of slaves formerly owned by Robert Carter of Nomini Hall are registered in Fairfax; none of these is named Carter. The twenty-five free blacks named Carter in the register were freed by other men. On the other hand, eleven of Carter's former slaves, or their children, are named Harris. None of the over sixty former Fitzhugh slaves is named Fitzhugh. The pattern seems too pervasive to be coincidental, especially in light of Gutman's revelations.

Gutman also points out that white society would not allow or recognize a black having a first and last name. When George Washington freed his personal body servant, he referred to him as "William, (calling himself William Lee)." The full name became the alias. There are many examples of this in the registers; e.g., "Joseph (calling himself Joseph Richardson)"; "Becky (calling herself Becky Richardson)"; "James (calling himself James Musgow)"; "Amos alias Amos Nickens"; and "Patty alias (Patty Clegett)." Whatever this practice may indicate about the free black family structure, it seems to show that even in Fairfax, where the free blacks were apparently more than tolerated, the white society was reluctant to allow blacks, slave or free, the dignity of a first and last name. This last observation is, admittedly, Iess than conclusive, for the majority of free blacks registered using first and last names, which were recorded as such in the books. Much research remains to be done.

Donald Sweig,
Research Historian
Office of Comprehensive Planning

Prepared for Publication and Published by the History Section, Office of Comprehensive Planning, Fairfax County, Virginia
Under the Direction of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in Cooperation with the Fairfax County History Commission
Fairfax, Virginia July 1977
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(1) Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974).

(2) Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery & Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976); "The Slave Family: What Sustained it?"-a lecture given 2 May 1977, National Archives, Washington, D.C.