Free people of color
A free person of color in the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, is a person of full or partial African descent who was not enslaved. In the United States, such persons were referred to as "free Negroes," though many were of mixed race (in the terminology of the day, mulattos, generally of European and African descent).
Free people of color was especially a term used in New Orleans and the former Louisiana Territory, where a substantial third class of primarily mixed-race, free people developed. There were also free people of color in Caribbean and Latin American slave societies. These colonial societies classified mixed-race people in a variety of ways, generally related to appearance and to the proportion of African ancestry.
Free people of color, or gens de couleur libre, played an important role in the history of New Orleans and the southern part of the state, former Louisiana Territory. When French settlers and traders first arrived in the colony, the men took Native American women as their concubines or common-law wives; and when African slaves were imported to the colony, they took African women as wives.
As the colony grew and more white women arrived from France and Germany, some French men or ethnic French Creoles still took mixed-race women as mistresses or placées before they officially married. In the period of French and Spanish rule, the free people of color had developed formal arrangements for placées, which the young women's mothers negotiated, often to include a kind of dowry or property transfer to the young women, freedom for them and their children, and education for the children. The French Creole men often paid for education of their "natural" (illegitimate) mixed-race children from these relationships, especially if they were sons.
Free people of color developed as a separate class between the colonial French and Spanish and the enslaved black African workers. They often achieved education and some measure of wealth; they spoke French and practiced Catholicism, although there was also development of syncretic religion. At one time the center of their residential community was the French Quarter. Many were artisans who owned property and their own businesses. They formed a social category distinct from both whites and slaves.
Free people of color were also an important part of the history of the Caribbean during the period of slavery and afterward. Again as the descendants of French men and African slaves, they achieved wealth and power, particularly in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It achieved independence as Haiti in 1804. In Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French Caribbean colonies before slavery was abolished, the free people of color were known as gens de couleur libres, and affranchis. They were also an important part of the populations of British Jamaica, the Spanish Captaincy General of Santo Domingo, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Portuguese Brazil.
Many slave societies allowed masters to free their slaves. As the population of color became larger and more threatening to the white ruling class, governments put increasing restrictions on manumissions. These usually included taxes, requirements that some socially useful reason be cited for manumission, and requirements that the newly freed person show that he or she had some means of support. Masters might free their slaves for a variety of reasons, but the most common was family relationship between master and slave.
Throughout the slave societies of the Americas, some white male slaveowners took advantage of the subordinate status of their female slaves and required them to engage in sexual relations. The Southern diarist Mary Chesnut famously wrote that "like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children..." In some places, especially in Caribbean and South American slave societies, the European might acknowledge the relationship and his children. Some were common-law marriages of affection. Slaveholders were more likely to free their mixed-race children of these relationships than they were to free other slaves. They also sometimes freed the enslaved women who were their concubines.
Slaves might achieve freedom by purchasing it, whether at market or reduced value. Some masters hired out their slaves and allowed them to keep a portion of their earnings. From money saved, they could buy freedom. In other cases, relatives who were already free purchased the freedom of another. Sometimes masters, or the government, would free slaves without payment as a reward for some notable service: a slave who revealed slave conspiracies for uprisings was commonly rewarded with freedom.
Some enslaved black people, such as Charlotte Dupuy, held by a slave of Henry Clay, Secretary of State, sued for freedom in what were known as freedom suits. Slavery law included provisions for persons to sue on the basis of being illegally held in slavery, through a free maternal line, or other reasons. In the 19th century, with the abolition and prohibition of slavery in northern states, and increased travel, some slaves sued for freedom on the grounds of having been held illegally in a free state. (Most free states had provisions that slaveholders had to forfeit their "property" if they remained in the state.) These legal cases often created an ambiguous legal space, even if they did not always side in favor of the black defendants. Dupuy lost her suit because it was based on the promise of freedom from an owner before Clay. In the freedom suits, the court had to "assume" the defendant's freedom in order to acknowledge the petition, since enslaved people ordinarily had no legal standing as citizens. For a greater discussion of the liminal space of freedom created by these court cases refer to Edlie Wong's forthcoming Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel.
Many free people of color were born free. By the 19th century, there were flourishing families of free coloreds who had been free for generations. In the United States many of the "old issue" free people of color (those free before the Civil War) were descended from African Americans born free during the colonial period in Virginia. Most of those were descendants of white servant women who entered into relationships with African men, indentured servant, slave or free. Their relationships demonstrated the fluid nature of the early working class, before institutionalized slavery hardened lines between ethnic groups. Many of their descendants later migrated to the frontiers of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, and west, as well as further south.
Sometimes they formed isolated settlements in the frontier where they were relatively free of racial strictures common to the plantation areas. In many cases they were well received and respected on the frontier. Sometimes they identified as Indian or Portuguese, or their neighbors classified them that way, in an attempt to explain their physical characteristics that were different from northern Europeans.
After the American Revolutionary War, a number of slaveholders in the North and Upper South freed their slaves in the period from 1783-1810. From the language of the deeds and wills, many were inspired by the Revolution's ideals; others awarded service. In Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, Quakers and Moravians were influential in persuading slaveholders to free their slaves. The proportion of free blacks went from one percent before the Revolution to 10 percent by 1810 in the Upper South. By 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, 91 percent of blacks in Delaware were free, and 49.7 percent of blacks in Maryland.
Technically a maroon was also a free person of color. This term described slaves who had escaped and lived in areas outside settlements. Because maroons lived outside slave society, scholars regard them as quite different in character from free people of color, who made their way legally within societies.
Many people who lived as free within the slave society did not have formal liberty papers. In some cases these were runaways, who just hid in the towns among free people of color and tried to maintain a low profile. In other cases they were "living as free" with the permission of their master, sometimes in return for payment of rent or a share of money they earned by trades. The master never made their freedom official. Like the maroons, these people were always at risk of losing their freedom.
Economic impact 
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Free people of color filled an important niche in the economy of slave societies. In most places, they worked as artisans and small retail merchants in the towns. In many places, especially in British-influenced colonies such as the United States, there were restrictions on people of color owning slaves and agricultural land. Many free blacks lived in the countryside and some became major slaveholders. Many stayed on or near the plantations where they or their ancestors had been slaves, and where they had extended family. Masters often used free blacks as plantation managers or overseers, especially if one had a family relationship with the mixed-race man.
Free people of color often were hired by the government as rural police, to hunt down runaway slaves and keeping order among the slave population. From the view of the white master class in places such as Haiti or Jamaica, this was a critical function in a society in which the enslaved people on large plantations vastly outnumbered whites.
In places where law or social custom permitted it, some free people of color managed to acquire good agricultural land and slaves and become planters themselves. There were free colored-owned plantations in almost all the slave societies of the Americas. In the United States, free people of color may have owned the most property in Louisiana, which had developed a distinct creole or mixed-race class. A man who had a relationship with a woman of color sometimes also arranged for a transfer of wealth to her and their children, whether through deed of land and property to the mother and/or children under the system of plaçage, or by arranging for an apprenticeship to a trade for their mixed-race children, which provided them more of a chance to make a skilled living. In St. Domingue/Haiti by the late colonial period, gens de couleur owned about one-third of the land and about one-quarter of the slaves.
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When the end of slavery came, the distinction between former free coloreds and former slaves persisted in some societies. Because of advantages in education and experience, free people of color often provided much of the leadership for the newly freed, as in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture, the national liberator, and several of his top generals were former free coloreds.
Similarly, in the United States, many of the blacks elected as state and local officials during Reconstruction in the South had been free in the South before the Civil War. In addition, many educated blacks whose families had long been free in the North went to the South to work and help the freedmen. Some were elected to office.
Notable free people of color 
- Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution.
- Chevalier de Saint-Georges, composer and swordsman in late 18th-century France.
- Julien Raimond, leader from Saint-Domingue of the campaign in France and the colony to extend full citizenship to free men of color following the French Revolution.
- Frederick Douglass, American slave who escaped to the North, achieved education and led abolition movement in the US.
- John Sweat Rock, born free in New Jersey, 19th-century teacher, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, first black admitted to the US Supreme Court Bar.
- James Forten, born free in Philadelphia, became a wealthy businessman (sailmaker) and strong abolitionist.
- Charles Henry Langston, abolitionist and activist in Ohio and Kansas
- John Mercer Langston, abolitionist, politician and activist in Ohio, Washington, DC; and Virginia, first dean of Howard University Law Department, first president of Virginia State Univ., first black elected to US Congress from Virginia (1888)
- Robert Purvis, born free in Charleston, became active abolitionist in Philadelphia, supported the Underground Railroad and used inherited wealth to create services for African Americans.
- Marie Laveau, early 19th century
- Edmond Dédé
- Rose Nicaud
- John Chavis, born free c. 1762 in North Carolina, Chavis was a teacher and a preacher among both white and free persons on color until the mid-19th century when laws became stringent.
- Thomas Day, born free c. 1801 in Virginia. Famous furniture maker/craftsman in Caswell County, North Carolina.
- William Ellison, born a slave c. 1790, Wealthy businessman.
See also 
- "French Speaking ‘Hommes de Couleur Libre’ Left Indelible Mark on the Culture and Development of the French Quarter", FrenchQuarter.com. Retrieved 5/10/08.
- Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut and C. Vann Woodward. 1981. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press)
- Beale, Roberts. Letter. 1829, Original at National Archives, Washington, DC. Digital version found at Decatur House. "Charlotte Dupuy's Petition", 'Half Had Not Been Told to Me', African American History on Lafayette Square. Last Accessed March 15, 2009
- Book announcement listed on Rutgers University English Department Faculty profile page accessed at http://english.rutgers.edu/faculty/profiles/wong.html
- Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, accessed 15 Feb 2008
- Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1999, 7th printing, p. 82
- Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (The New Press, 1974 and 2007)
- King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, Chapter 4.
- King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, chapter 6.
- Heritage of Freedom: Free People of Color in the Americas, 1492-1900. New York: Facts on File, 2010.