Kidnapping of Free People of Color

While students may know about the Underground Railroad, which moved enslaved persons north to freedom, they may know less about the reverse movement of free African Americans in the north who were moved south and forced into slavery. Last week we shared The Documents Behind Twelve Years a Slave, the story of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping into slavery. The newly released movie Twelve Years a Slave is based on Northup’s autobiography. Northup’s story may be the most well known, but he was by no means the only one who endured this calamity.

The nature of this crime makes it impossible to know how many free African Americans were kidnapped and enslaved. Many of the kidnapped African Americans were sold “down the river” and, unlike Solomon Northup, no one heard from them again. Today we share a document from the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives that illustrates the devastating problem of pre-Civil War kidnapping of free African Americans.

Letter from Elisha Tyson regarding kidnapped free blacks, December 5, 1811, page 1.
Letter from Quaker Elisha Tyson to Rep. McKim regarding the kidnapping of free people of color, December 5, 1811; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Click on each page to enlarge it.)

The number of free African Americans in the north increased after the American Revolution, due to emancipation laws in northern states, private manumissions, and the ability of some slaves to buy their own freedom. These free African Americans were easy prey for kidnappers, who, under the guise of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, kidnapped and sold them into slavery. Some slave catchers did not take the time to ensure that the identity of the person they captured matched the one they were legally allowed to seize.

Letter from Elisha Tyson regarding kidnapped free blacks, December 5, 1811, page 2.

Once kidnapped, it was nearly impossible for a person to regain his freedom. Kidnappers often destroyed freedom papers. In the rare instance that a case made it to court with papers intact, judges could dismiss them as forged. Also, the kidnapped person’s family or friends could rarely testify on their behalf, as most courts did not allow the testimony of African Americans and white witnesses would refuse to testify altogether to avoid retribution from their neighbors. In fact, many whites did not pay much attention to the problem at all because although they would never own slaves themselves, they still carried racist attitudes toward people of color.

Letter from Elisha Tyson regarding kidnapped free blacks, December 5, 1811, page 3.

White abolitionists witnessed the problem and worked to address it. In 1811, Elisha Tyson met with Representative Alexander McKim (R-MD), to explain the kidnapping problem. Tyson was a Quaker from Maryland who was well known in Baltimore for his efforts to protect free African Americans and to end slavery. Tyson followed up with this letter, which provides the details on several kidnapping cases that were known to Tyson. He hoped to convince McKim that federal legislation was necessary to address the problem. Congress did not act and kidnappings, like that of Solomon Northup, continued.

Letter from Elisha Tyson regarding kidnapped free blacks, December 5, 1811, page 4.

As your students read the letter (or the transcript), ask them to gather information about the facts of these cases and the scope of the problem. How were these people abducted? Is there a pattern? How were they able to regain their freedom? What factors make it difficult to trace kidnapped people?

The letter does not explain who the writer is, or who he was writing to. Ask your students to identify information that can help them create a hypothesis about the purpose of the letter. Before your students watch Twelve Years a Slave, ask them to watch for anything in the movie that aligns with or contradicts Tyson’s illustrations of kidnapping.

Understanding the historical context of kidnappings of free African Americans before the Civil War will help your students better understand the movie, and will make Solomon Northup a character to remember.

3 thoughts on “Kidnapping of Free People of Color

  1. Thank you for an excellent post! I will add a good book published on the subject a few years back: Freedom-Risk-The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America-1780-1865 by Carol Wilson (University of Kentucky Press, 1994).

  2. Pingback: The Financial Advantages of Being White

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