Ira Berlin

In SLAVES WITHOUT MASTERS, Berlin admits that at least 70-75 percent of the “free colored” were “mulatto” or mixed-race rather than “black.” Paul Heinegg calls these people “African Americans” even though they had no “African” culture and many had only a fraction of African ancestry. A better case could be made for calling them mixed-race European Americans (an ethnic identity as distinguished from a government-imposed caste identity as “colored” or “Negroes.”

FREE NEGROES, 1619-1860

In 1860, roughly half a million free people of African descent resided in the United States. Known alternately as free Negroes, free blacks, free people of color, or simply free people (to distinguish them from post-Civil War freedpeople), they composed less than 2 percent of the nation’s population and about 9 percent of all blacks. Although the free black population was increasing during the antebellum years, it was growing far more slowly than either the white or the slave population, so that it was a shrinking proportion of American society.

But free Negroes were important far beyond their numbers. They played a pivotal role in society during slave times and set precedents for both race relations and relations among black people when slavery ended. Their status and treatment were harbingers of the postemancipation world. Often the laws, attitudes, and institutions that victimized free blacks during the slave yearspolitical proscription, segregation, and various forms of debt peonagebecame the dominant modes of racial oppression once slavery ended. Similarly, their years of liberty profoundly influenced the pattern of postemancipation black life. They moved in disproportionate numbers into positions of leadership in black society when slavery ended. For example, nearly half of the twenty-two black men who served in Congress between 1869 and 1900 had been free before the Civil War.

One comment

  1. Why should they be called “mixed-raced Europeans” instead of “mixed-raced African”? Doesn’t that show a bias for European being better than African? As for not having an African American culture, how do you know that? African American culture, as I understand it, has less to do with African culture than the of culture of African descendents in the USA.
    Also, considering that most African Americans or blacks are of mixed ancestry, aren’t they all mulattos in terms of their genotype? For instance, would you consider Frederick Douglass “black” or “mixed-race European”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *