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“My children are Just Tied Down Here”: Washington Spradling Discusses the Condition of Free Blacks in the South, 1863

While white southerners briefly considered the idea of emancipating slaves in the years following the American Revolution, by the early-nineteenth century that sentiment had been replaced by a systematic campaign to restrict possibilities for emancipation. After the Nat Turner rebellion of 1832, whites viewed the presence of free blacks among the slave population as dangerous and began to limit their rights. The growth of the southern free black population slowed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and became concentrated in urban areas where they worked as manual laborers, domestics, and artisans. In this 1863 interview, Washington Spradling, 63, the son of an overseer, described how he purchased his family’s freedom yet still faced growing restrictions under Kentucky laws that severely hampered free blacks’ movements and efforts to achieve justice. Samuel Gridley Howe, an abolitionist and educator of the blind, interviewed Spradling for the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, a body created to make recommendations about the plight of freedmen after the war.

Interviewed 1863, Kentucky
b. Kentucky Enslaved: Kentucky

I was born a slave. My father bought me, and I bought my own children five in number, paying from $275 to $700 apiece for them. I have bought thirty-three other slaves, a good many of whom have repaid me, and a good many have not. There is now $3337.50 due me from slaves that I have purchased.

There is no provision made here for the care of poor and sick colored persons, except in case of small pox. A pony purse is made up among the colored people to bury the dead who leave no property. Our principal difficulty here grows out of the police laws, which are very stringent. For instance, a police officer may go [to] a house at night, without any search warrant, and, if the door is not opened when he knocks, force it in, and ransack the house, and the colored man has no redress. At other times, they come and say they are hunting for stolen goods or for runaway slaves, and, some of them being great scoundrels, if they see a piece of goods, which may have been purchased, they will take it and carry it off. If I go out of the state, I cannot come back to it again. The penalty is imprisonment in the penitentiary. Such cases have been tried very often, but I have heard of but one conviction under the law. It is not a common thing to have such trials here in the city, where the colored people are mixed up, and it is hard to find a person; but here is one case I knew of. The mother of a young man who lives here moved across the river, and, being very sick and about to die, sent for him; but he could not go, and did not attend the funeral. He had married here, & his wife preferred remaining here. Another difficulty is this. If a freeman comes here, (perhaps he may have been born free) he cannot get free papers, and if the police find out he has got no free papers, they snap him up, and put him in jail. Sometimes they remain in jail three, four and five months before they are brought to trial. My children are just tied down here. If they go to Louisiana, there is no chance for them, unless I can get some white to go to New Orleans and swear they belong to him, and claim them as his slaves. As I understand it, a freeman cannot get permission to go to the state and come back. There are many cases of assault and battery which we can have no redress. I have known a case here in which a bought himself three times. The last time, he was chained on board boat, to be sent South, when a gentleman who now lives in New York saw him, and bought him, and gave him his free papers. I have to pay taxes to the amount of sixty dollars a year for schools. There is no colored school in any other part of the state except in this city. Colored children in Lexington, Frankfort, and other places, have to come here, if they go to school at all. Slave women generally work round in the fields in this state It frequently happens, that if a slave is lame and really unable to work and take care of himself, his neighbors try to persuade him to go home to his master and let him take care of him; but in such cases, they often prefer to purchase themselves. A father or mother, if free, may buy their children or a free husband may buy his wife, or a free wife her husband and they can have their free papers. A brother cannot buy his sister, and give her free papers.

Source: American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission Interviews, Samuel G Howe, in John W. Blassingame, Slave Testimony (Baton Rouge, LA., 1977), 385–86.