free blacks, african american, georgia

Books reveal vital details of African-American history

We are pleased to share that two of our new releases were reviewed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on November 14, 2015. Georgia Free Persons of Color, Volume I and Georgia Free Persons of Color, Volume II, by Michael A. Ports. Both of these volumes provide crucial information which will help researchers trying to trace their own African-American history.

An 1818 statute of the Georgia legislature required all free persons of color to register with the inferior court of their county of residence. According to the statute, county clerks were required to inscribe each freed man or woman by name, age, place of birth, residence, year arrived in Georgia, and occupation. While not all clerks performed their duties to the letter of the law, these source records contain vital identifying information for African-American Georgians long before the Civil War or the watershed 1870 U.S. census. The ensuing registers, varying in their completeness, survive for twenty-one Georgia counties. (Incidentally, the only way to emancipate a slave in Georgia was by an act of the legislature. Antebellum manumissions, though rare, were granted for unusual acts, such as defending an owner’s property during a British incursion during the War of 1812, extinguishing a fire at the state capital, and other faithful service.)

Please see the review by Kenneth H. Thomas Jr. excerpted below. You can read the entirety of the review at my ajc.com:

Two new books compiled and edited by Michael A. Ports of Jacksonville contain copies of the Georgia laws from 1818 to 1834 relating to “free persons of color.”

“Georgia Free Persons of Color, Volume I” contains lists from Elbert, Hancock, Jefferson, Liberty and Warren Counties. “Volume II” contains lists from Appling, Camden, Clarke, Emanuel, Jones, Pulaski and Wilkes Counties, as well as Morgan County from an original manuscript at the Georgia Archives (though that county was omitted from the cover).

That volume includes legislative manumissions, or freeing of slaves. The author used the original county records on microfilm from the Georgia Archives, while the originals remain in the courthouses.

Each entry contains the name, age, place of nativity, residence, date the person came to Georgia, occupation and date of registration. Under occupation, some give the name of their employer, and some counties used this column to list the white person who was named guardian to the free person. (Under Georgia state law at the time, free persons of color had to have a guardian.)

These books are a very important source for African-American history, bringing to light a source that has long needed to be accessible. They also can help genealogists connected to either the free persons or their guardians find a link back to some other states, since nativity is listed.

Image credit: Card showing African American slave reaching freedom. Stephens, H. L. (Henry Louis), 1824-1882, artist, via The Library of Congress.