Free People of Color in North Carolina: Am I Related to Them?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader seeks to connect the dots between her recent ancestors and a well-documented family who sued for their freedom.

Dear Professor Gates:

On the 1850 and 1860 censuses in Cypress Creek, Jones County, N.C., my ancestor William Dove/Duff appears in the household of the Brocks, who were wealthy slave owners before the Civil War. In 1850 he was about 20-25; in 1860 he was 30-35 years of age. He shows up on the census in 1870 with his wife and several children.

The Dove family is believed to be of East Indian descent. They are mentioned in Paul Heinegg’s history Free African Americans as pre-Britain or East India. They originated from Anne Arundel County, Md., and were relocated to Craven County, N.C. I’ve been trying to locate and link my William Dove to the free Dove family in neighboring Craven County. Please help! —Alexis

It turns out the condition of the free Dove family was not an anomaly in their region of North Carolina. 

Free People of Color in North Carolina

We checked the University of Virginia Library Historical Census Browser to find that the 1860 census recorded 992,622 people in North Carolina, of which 331,059 were enslaved and 30,463 in the state were free people of color (making up 8 percent of African-descended people). By comparison, Craven County had 6,189 enslaved and 1,332 free people of color, making the latter population close to 18 percent of African-descended people.


In an excerpt from “The Free Colored People of North Carolina,” in The Southern Workman, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1902) by the renowned writer Charles W. Chesnutt, he theorized that the relatively high proportion of free people of color along the state’s Eastern Seaboard was due to “a somewhat mild character” of 18th-century slavery in the state, which typically involved small farms where slaves worked side by side with their masters. As well, he said, the “Scotch-Irish Presbyterian strain in the white people of North Carolina brought with it a fierce love of liberty. … and while this love of liberty was reconciled with slavery, the mere prejudice against race had not yet excluded all persons of Negro blood from its benign influence.” He also described “a considerable Quaker element in the population, whose influence was cast against slavery, not in any fierce polemical spirit, but in such a way as to soften its rigors and promote gradual emancipation.”

As a result, he said, “The mildness of slavery, which fostered kindly feelings between master and slave, often led to voluntary manumission.” Blood ties with whites may have contributed to this, he suggested, noting that “many of them, perhaps most of them, were as we have seen, persons of mixed blood, and received, with their dower of white blood, an intellectual and physical heritage of which social prejudice could not entirely rob them, and which helped them to prosperity in certain walks of life.”

Chestnutt’s perspective was undoubtedly influenced by his own origins as the successful son of free people of color from North Carolina, and the notion of “mild” slavery may sound naive by today’s standards.

For a somewhat more recent account of the topic, we suggest that you pick up the historian John Hope Franklin’s classic 1943 text, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. It describes the very real limits placed by the state on free people of color, and the difficulties they had maintaining their freedom. As we see below, the free Dove family had struggles of their own.

Source: TheRoot


Written by PH

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