The Demographics and Geography of Free Blacks before the Civil War: North & South, East & West

Map of Free States and Slave States, 1861. During the Antebellum Era, the term “slave states” was synonymous with “the South,” and the term “free states” was synonymous with “the North.” In the latest (2010) US Census, all the states which had slaves before the war are listed as part of the South except Missouri and New Jersey. New Jersey, which established a plan for gradual emancipation during the war, had 18 elderly slaves when the Civil War began.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1860, right before the start of the Civil War, more free African Americans lived in “the South” than in “the North.” Does that mean anything? Does that mean, for example, that life for an un-enslaved African American was better in the South than in the North? Some people look at the raw numbers and make that leap. In this post, I will take a detailed look at population numbers for free blacks before the war, to determine if they, by themselves, show that blacks were better off in any region.

First, it is correct that of the 488,000 or so free blacks in 1860, 262,000 (53.7%) lived in the slave states (the “South”) and 226,000 (46.3%) lived in the free states and the territories (the “North”). I did some additional research and number crunching based mostly (but not only) on the 1860 Census, to see if a more detailed look at the data offers any insights. (I’ve posted the stats at the bottom of this post.) I noted the following:

(1) This is the free black population for various groups of states:

State/Area      % of the Slave Pop    % of the Freeman Pop

Free States            0.0                   46.1
DC-MD-DE               2.3                   23.5
KY-MO                  8.6                    2.9
Upper South           30.6                   19.7
Lower South           58.5                    7.5

TOTAL                100.0%                  99.7%*
Union                 10.9                   72.5
Confederacy           89.1                   27.2

Total                100.0%                  99.7%*

* Numbers off due to rounding and small number of freemen in territories.

Lower South = SC, FL, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX
Upper South = VA, AR, NC, TN

(2) While it’s true that the majority of free blacks lived in “the South,” the data is skewed by the large free black population in the Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC area. Almost one of four free blacks lived in this geographically small, contiguous area, while just 2.3% of US slaves resided in the area. That area is not representative of the South at all.

I find it much more useful to break-out the free black population by three separate regions, not two, viz.:

Free Black Population in the USA @ 1860, by Region
Northern (free) states: 46.1% of US free blacks
Border (slave) states & Washington, DC: 26.4% of US free blacks
Upper & Lower South (Confederate/slave) states: 27.2% of US free blacks

The term “Border state” was commonly used to describe Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri during the Civil War. The District of Columbia, which was created out of small portions of Maryland and Virginia, contained 11,131 free blacks and 3,185 enslaved blacks in 1860. The Virginia portions of the District were reverted back to that state in 1846.

(3) The real divide in the free black population is more about “East vs West” than “North vs South.” The majority of free people of African descent lived in the original 13 states and Washington, DC. Or put in another way, most free blacks lived on the East Coast.

In 1860, 370,000 free blacks — 75% of the nation’s free black population — lived in MA, NH, CN, RI, NJ, NY, PA, DE, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, and GA.

(4) Free African Americans living west of the 13 Original States (and especially west and south of Ohio and Indiana)  were relatively scarce, especially in the Old SouthWest. To illustrate this point, consider that:
• OH and IN (two states in the Old Northwest; we now call it the Midwest) combined had 48,101 free blacks in 1860.
• The Old Southwest ~ AL, AR, FL, KY, LA, MO, MS, TN, and TX ~ combined had only 45,077 free blacks. Louisiana had 18,647 free blacks, many of whom had family origins in the land obtained from the Louisiana Purchase. Outside of Louisiana, then, these states were a no-man’s land for free blacks, even as the Deep South states contained the majority of enslaved blacks.

(5) Of the 261,918 free blacks who lived in the slave states, 203,407 lived in just four states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina) and the District of Columbia. That is, just under 78% of slave states’ free blacks lived in the Mid-Atlantic states.

(6) Less than 2% of the population in the North was of African descent. And many of those African Americans were clustered in urban places in the northeast and Ohio. Demographically, the free states as a whole looked, from a statistical point of view, like modern day Idaho or Wyoming, which are also less than 2% African American. I would imagine that millions of whites living in the North went through entire lives and saw a real live African American just once or twice, if ever.

(7) Only 5% of the entire (free and enslaved) black population lived in the free states in 1860.

(8) In 1860, NJ had 18 persons listed as slaves, and there were 46 slaves in US territories (Nebraska had 15, Kansas had 2, and Utah had 29).

~ The following factoids refer demographics for the Union and the Confederacy, the two American Civil War antagonists ~ Continue reading