Most people know that during the years leading up to the Civil War, black people in the American South had it tremendously bad. Slavery was a social norm, and with the slave trade being a powerful economic institution, black people in the South were subjected to harsh treatment and the horrors of chattel slavery. The situation was quite obviously better in the North, but things were far from perfect. Even though slavery was abolished in the North and free blacks were free, they were not equal because of economic, social, and political inequality.
True freedom means political equality and the ability to participate in society as a fully engaged member. In many parts of the North, free black men were not allowed various political rights. Some of the most basic political rights that one might associate with free America were denied to free black men during this time. For instance, Massachusetts was the only state that allowed black men to serve on juries. Likewise, many cities and states either had formal legislation disallowing black people from voting or informal safeguards ensuring that black people could not take advantage of the voting process (Finkleman, 2006). Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts were the only states where black people did not lose their right to vote. In New York, property voting restrictions made voting a non-reality for free blacks, while Pennsylvania in 1838 outright banned black voting (Price, 1976).

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True freedom also requires one to have the ability to participate in the social institutions of society. In the North, black people were technically free, but society did not reward that freedom with a form of social equality befitting a free man. Segregation was rampant and became a Northern social norm. Philadelphia was a city that was emblematic of the overall problem (Smith, 1998). There, black people were not allowed to share concert halls with white people (Angel et al, 1987). They were similarly banned from public education, schools, some churches, and various other places that might have been for public consumption. Throughout the North, free black people, while not enslaved, were not given the right to fully take part in all that society had to offer. They experienced effective apartheid.

Freedom is defined in the founding documents of the United States in terms of the ability of a person to seek his or her own economic outcomes. Black people living under slavery were obviously not free to do so, but black people in the North also did not enjoy economic freedom. Racial discrimination ran rampant in many parts of the North (Wilson, 2011). This was especially true in the industries that brought about more respect and a higher salary (Kluger, 2011). Skilled fields foreclosed apprenticeship opportunities to black people, and the access to education needed to enter fields like law or medicine was often withheld in these places. Some states made discrimination legal, while others featured laws that were scarcely enforced, giving white people in those states the ability to create a sub-class where black people were forced to reside. It was second-class citizenship in every sense, with the inability to earn a living keeping black people from enjoying the types of lives enjoyed by white people.

It would be foolish to argue that there is no distinction between the slavery practiced in the American South and the discrimination practiced in the North. Slavery was a brutal practice that took racial degradation to its extremes. Even though black people were not subjected to that treatment in the South, though, does not mean that they enjoyed the benefits of full citizenship. Being denied political, social, and economic equality, they were relegated to purgatory where they were not quite slaves and not quite free.

  • Angel, J. L., Kelley, J. O., Parrington, M., & Pinter, S. (1987). Life stresses of the free black community as represented by the First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia, 1823–1841. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 74(2), 213-229.
  • Finkelman, P. (2006). Dred Scott v. Sandford. THE PUBLIC DEBATE OVER CONTROVERSIAL SUPREME COURT DECISIONS, Melvin I. Urofsky, ed, 24-33.
  • Kluger, R. (2011). Simple justice: The history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality. Random House LLC.
  • Price, E. (1976). The Black Voting Rights Issue in Pennsylvania, 1780-1900. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 356-373.
  • Smith, E. L. (1998). The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838. Pennsylvania History, 279- 299.