Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Buying Their Freedom: The Roots of Black Wealth Accumulation

DiversityInc gives a snapshot of how African-American slaves bought their freedom - an ironic way of putting it, because freedom is a human right. The article also gets at provisions at the time that restricted free African-Americans from owning property or placed additional taxes on them. This would have inhibited their ability to accumulate wealth.

The history of people of African descent in the United States is much more than a history of slavery and oppression. For one thing, during the slavery era, about 10 percent of all Africans or African descendents in the United States were free.

To be sure, their freedom was constrained. In some cities and states, they had to register with courts and put up substantial bonds "for their protection" as part of "Black code" laws.

In others, the fact that they were descendents of Africans made it more challenging for them to own and maintain property or to have access to the benefits their fellow citizens had. They were sometimes taxed and there were many attempts to sell free African people into slavery. But amidst all of this, they prevailed.

In a country whose foundations are intertwined with the brutality of slavery, it is interesting to contemplate the reality of the free African American and ask, indeed, how these folks became free.

Some were manumitted as a result of war service or other heroism. Some were freed upon the deaths of their masters. Some, children of their masters, were freed and sent to the North. And some, regardless of whether they were children of their masters, bought their own freedom.

Even as I write the words "bought their own freedom," I cringe at the oxymoronic nature of the phrase. How does one purchase one's own freedom, or, to be more accurate, buy herself? How does a slave enter into an enforceable contract with a master, someone who "owns" him or her? How does a slave believe the terms of the contract will be honored? Is it faith, naiveté, fierceness or a combination of the three? What makes a slave decide to buy herself instead of running off and freeing herself another way?

There has been little study of slaves who bought their freedom. From oral histories, we know slaves were often able to hire themselves out during their free time, and that their masters took a portion of their wages, leaving the remainder for them to save or to spend.

Enslaved women frequently hired themselves out as laundresses, and men, skilled in the crafts, as welders, carpenters or common laborers. Small farmers didn't have the advantage of the free labor of slaves, but they could frequently hire slave labor from neighboring large farmers.

The Story of Free Frank

We are fortunate to have the history of Francis "Free Frank" McWorter, painstakingly documented by his great-great-granddaughter, Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker of the University of Texas.

Free Frank was born in 1777 in South Carolina to an enslaved woman, Juda, and a planter, George McWhorter. When McWhorter moved to Kentucky, he took Frank to help him manage and build his landholdings. He also leased his son, Frank, to his neighbors.

As a leased worker, Frank was able to save and also to develop his business skills. He used his savings to create a saltpeter mining and production operation, and with the money he earned from that manufacture, especially during the War of 1812, he purchased his freedom, as well as that of his wife, Lucy, and of 16 other family members. Along the way, he dropped the "H" from his last name, distinguishing himself from his master and former owner, George McWhorter.

Frank McWorter founded the town of New Philadelphia, Ill., in 1836. That interracial town was the first plotted and registered by an African American. It is likely he moved to Illinois from Kentucky because of the oppressive conditions people of African descent experienced in Kentucky.

When he moved to Illinois, he left several family members behind and returned to Kentucky over the years to purchase them. Every time he returned, he put his life in danger, as slave trackers had no scruples about capturing and selling free African Americans as well as slaves. But he returned time and again, spending a total of $15,000 to free his relatives.

Free Frank died in 1854. His descendents used the money he left to free seven more relatives.

New Philadelphia was abandoned by 1885, and the town is now farmland. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Free Frank's grave was included in the National Register in 1988. A great-great-granddaughter, Shirley McWorter-Moss, presented a life-size bronze bust of Free Frank to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in 2008. Plans are underway to restore New Philadelphia.

Photos and information are available at

The Free Frank story is a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit embraced by some enslaved people who were determined to negotiate their freedom, and that of their families, in an oppressive, capitalist system. Free Frank was exceptional, but he was not the only exception to the more common reality of enslavement for African descendents in the United States.

His resilience, like that of the women who washed clothes to amass pennies to buy their freedom, is a close cousin to the rebellion of the runaway slaves, a cousin to the everyday courage exhibited by those free men and women who posted bonds and built businesses in a country where the color of their skin meant that whether they were slave or free, their lives would be more difficult than those of their white counterparts.

Free Frank could neither read nor write. We know his story because his descendents have passionately committed to telling it. There are perhaps thousands of stories like the Free Frank story, thousands of stories of slave entrepreneurs who bought their freedom and went on to amass wealth, even in the face of oppressive capitalism.

These are stories that deserve to be told, to illustrate the diversity in African-American history, and also to pay tribute to the spirit of those people who were determined to clear the hurdles that both slavery and capitalism imposed.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women.

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