Not all blacks who lived in Missouri prior to the Civil War were slaves. In 1860, there were 3,572 free Negroes in the State of Missouri compared to 114,931 slaves.
Free Negroes tended to live in the cities because of the greater opportunities there. For this reason almost one half of Missouri's 3,572 free blacks were located in St. Louis.
The number of free blacks in Missouri was small compared to some other states. In 1860, Maryland, for example, had 83,900 free Negroes and 87,189 slaves; Virginia had 50,000 free Negroes and 490,865 slaves; but in Mississippi, free blacks formed a tiny island of 773, engulfed by 413,390 slaves.
The real significance of the free black; question lies not so much in numbers as in the reaction of white society to it and the ability of a number of freedmen to overcome the obstacles created by an oppressive society.
To slave owners, a large group of free Negroes was anything but desirable in a slave state such as Missouri. The presence of free blacks in a slave society tended to undermine the very foundation upon which slavery was built.
The perpetuation of the slave system was based on the assumption whites would exercise indisputable control over blacks. Free blacks, regardless of their quasi-freedom, could not be allowed to subvert that system. It became necessary, therefore, for Missouri and other slave states to carry on a campaign of suppression against free Negroes in order to "keep them in their place."
Thus there developed in Missouri a widespread paranoia with regard to blacks in general and free blacks in particular. As early as 1817, fear of insurrection was so great Missouri's territorial government passed an act which made assembling even for the purpose of education, illegal for blacks.
The Legislature then took it upon itself to declare that a free Negro, in order to reside in a Missouri county, had to obtain a license from the county court. The enforcement of laws relating to licenses was left largely to the discretion of the court. Legally, the license was good only in the county in which it was administered. If a free black moved from one county to another in Missouri, he had to submit proof of his freedom to the county clerk upon request.
In order to obtain a license, the free black had to first post a bond which would be sacrificed if the court decided the black had become a menace to society.
The license granted to Celia James of Cole County in 1847, was a typical one. The Court ordered that Celia James "be and she is hereby licensed to remain in the State of Missouri during good behavior, and thereupon she enters into bond in the sum of three hundred dollars with John D. Curry as security which is approved and ordered to be filed." In other cases, the court demanded a bond of $500 or more.
The burden of proof always rested upon the black because "color raised the presumption of slavery." Whenever a free black was brought before any justice of the peace, court or magistrate, such court had to be satisfied the black in question was free. If not, the court could commit him as a runaway slave or "according to the circumstances of the case, deal with him according to the law." That meant the judge could decide the case almost any way he chose and still be within the law.
Another institution, which reflected the paranoia of white society with regard to free Negroes, was the slave patrol. The object of the patrol was to prevent "riots, routs and unlawful assemblies by the slaves."
Despite its name, free blacks were deemed under its control also. Often, the patrol was simply charged with the responsibility of policing the Negro section of a town and arresting any "strange Negroes." In reality it amounted to little more than a vigilante committee that terrorized Negroes.
During the height of the anti-slavery controversy in 1856, even more stringent ordinances came into effect throughout the State. City ordinances were passed in Jefferson City requiring all Negroes out of their quarters past nine o'clock to carry a pass.
Considering the hostile treatment free Negroes received it is ironic Missourians continued to free their slaves during the ante-bellum period. There were, generally speaking, two motives which entered into the act of liberating a slave--financial consideration and sentiment.
No sacrifice was too great for some slaves to gain their freedom. Some worked extra hours as hired hands and saved their meager earnings to buy themselves.
Freedom payments depended upon several variables, among them sex, age, health, skills possessed by the slave and the availability of a ready market for slaves.
Sometimes a slave might buy himself for trifling amounts. In 1839, Jonathan Ramsey freed his slave girl, Chaney, for $200. Ramsey, however, indicated money was not his only motive, that he was also prompted by "benevolence and humanity."
At times, however, the price of freedom was dear. In 1857, 40 year old John Lane paid $1,200 for his freedom. Mr. Lane was later to become a prominent figure in the establishment of Lincoln University.
Free blacks also purchased the freedom of their loved ones still held in bondage. Violet Ramsey first bought her own freedom by taking in washing and ironing. She then began to save money for buying her enslaved husband. Both of them pooled their resources and were able to purchase the freedom of their son, Elijah Jr.
At times it appears masters manumitted, or freed, slaves for no consideration other than benevolence. Good will and affection seemed to be the motivating force for Joseph Inglish when he freed his slave, Cato, who had formerly been owned by Mr. Inglish's father, John. Perhaps Cato's advanced age increased Joseph Inglish's "benevolence."
The large number of mulattoes among the slaves freed in Missouri suggests the master's benevolence was a genuinely warm feeling he had for persons he knew to be his blood relations. By 1860, the presence of 1,662 mulattoes in the total free Negro group of 3,572 in Missouri, indicates considerable race-mixing.
In Missouri, running away was also a popular means for slaves to gain freedom. The "underground railroad" ran around the borders of Missouri through the three free states of Kansas, Iowa and Illinois, and slaves took every advantage to break their fetters in this manner.
William Wells Brown was a famous runaway who returned after escaping in 1834. As a steward on a Missouri River steamboat, he aided many slaves to freedom in Kansas. Brown received his education in St. Louis while working for the abolitionist newspaper of Elijah P. Lovejoy, later a martyr to the abolitionist cause. Brown also won fame as a novelist.
In 1846, the Reverend Moses Dickson met with eleven other black men in St. Louis and founded the Twelve Knights of Tabor. They were the organizers of a secret revolutionary group, the Knights of Liberty, which became a secret army to free their black brothers in bondage. That organization used St. Louis as its headquarters and aided hundreds of slaves to freedom.
Despite the general animosity toward them, some free blacks were able to overcome many of the obstacles.
One of the most famous was the Reverend John Berry Meachum, for whom Meachum Park in St. Louis is named. He was the owner of two steamboats on the Mississippi.
One of his boats was anchored on a sandbar and was used as a school to teach slaves the rudiments of reading and writing. Meachum also owed a barrel factory where about 20 slaves were employed. He would buy their freedom and then let them pay him out of their wages. Thus Meachum was able to use the system to make money and at the same time strike a blow for freedom.
A number of free blacks gained fame in Missouri as fur traders and explorers during Missouri's developing years.
- The mulatto founder of Chicago, John Baptiste Pointe DuSable, died in St. Charles, Missouri, in 1818, after a life of fur trading and exploring.
Another famous mulatto explorer was James P. Beckwourth, who called himself "Chief of the Crow Nation," in his autobiography written in 1858. Beckwourth also discovered the pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains which bears his name.
Another Negro, George Bush, is partly responsible for the claims of the United States to the Oregon Territory. He was one of the first founders of what is now the State of Washington.
There were other tasks less exciting perhaps, but equally demanding, in which free blacks found themselves in the ante-bellum period. Among other things, they served as farmers, cooks, carpenters, blacksmiths, painters, ministers, stonehands, stablekeepers, store owners and tinners.
Many free Negroes refuted the stereotype the black man could not exist as a freeman in a predominantly white society. Some proved they could not only survive but also achieve great material success. Many free blacks in St. Louis possessed estates ranking from Mrs. Pilagie Nash's $5,000 to the $300,000 owned by Antoine Labadie.