Freedmen’s Colony, Where Enslaved Africans In North Carolina Demonstrated Their Ability To Manage Their Own Affairs

Freedmen’s Colony/Photo credit: National Park Service


The Freedmen’s Colony was established in May 1863 after the federal government decided that with hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans making their way to Roanoke Island for freedom, they should be given the opportunity to consolidate their liberty.

The federal government tasked Union Army Chaplain Reverend Horace James with ensuring that enslaved Africans were physically and educationally prepared to run their own affairs as they transitioned to freedom. According to the Roanoke Island website, this is how Roanoke Island provided a safe haven for freed slaves and those who had fled their slaveholders after the Civil War.

According to historical accounts, the experiment of freed slaves managing their own affairs was an instant success, with significant evidence of infrastructure and investment in education to back it up.

The Freedmen’s Colony was established by the federal government after Union troops won the Battle of Roanoke Island in 1862. The land was given to them as a token of appreciation for the enslaved Africans’ contributions to the war, and it was used to fortify the confederate army’s defenses on the island. It attracted a large number of runaway slaves from surrounding areas, particularly those who were brave enough to travel to the Freedmen’s Colony.

No slave ever retained his status as a captive the moment he stepped foot on the island and set out for freedom. The inhabitants were offshoots of the Union army’s war, and they contributed in various ways to ensure the war was won in 1862.

Some of the freedmen aided Union troops in their military campaign, while others offered their trade skills by rebuilding forts on the Hatteras Islands, New Bern, and Roanoke Island, among other military bases in North Carolina. The women assisted the Union leaders with domestic tasks.

The Freedmen’s Colony grew in power and population exponentially. Rev. James stated in his Annual Report of the Superintendent of Negro Affairs in North Carolina in 1864 that the enslaved Africans had made significant progress in infrastructure and education, despite a few bottlenecks.

This success was short-lived, as Civil War casualties began to rise once more. The Union army required men to help them re-stamp their authority. They called on ex-soldiers from Roanoke Island, and 150 of the estimated 4,000 recruits from North Carolina were from Roanoke Island.

Because many colonists were recruited into the army, the island was left with only a few tradesmen. To survive, the colony’s residents had to rely on government assistance. The government, on the other hand, broke its promise to provide them with enough food to survive.

Another devastating blow was dealt to the Freedmen’s Colony when the government demanded that lands taken by force by Union troops be returned to the original owners. Despite their investment on the island, the enslaved Africans’ protection and rights were withdrawn.

With the passage of time, the island became extinct and no longer served as a safe haven for enslaved Africans. From 1865 to 1866, more than half of the colony’s population migrated to other parts of the country in search of greener pastures. In 1867, the colony was formally disbanded.

A few descendants of the Freedmen’s Colony still live in the area, upholding the values of hard work, education, and the entrepreneurial spirit instilled in them by their forefathers.

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