The Kidnapping of Free African Americans in the Antebellum South

Carol Wilson’s Freedom at Risk explores in great detail “a topic frequently noted by scholars but not examined in any detail” (page 1):  the kidnapping and illegal enslavement of free African Americans in the Antebellum United States. Wilson argues that free blacks were at high risk for being kidnapped in all areas of the country because whites failed to enforce anti-kidnapping laws, and they accepted legal loopholes that permitted the enslavement of free African Americans. Nonetheless, Wilson also identifies various forms of black and white resistance to incidents of kidnapping and enslavement. She argues that, black abolitionists were ultimately more impassioned and dedicated to the cause because they did not have the luxury –as did  whites– to ignore the issue of kidnapping when other causes seemed more pressing. They were driven by a real and present danger and understood the need to protect themselves and their neighbors.

First, WIlson outlines illegal kidnapping and enslavement of free African Americans. She describes how slave-catchers –most often white, but occasionally black– motivated by profit accomplished the task of subduing and selling free people. She looks at the geography of kidnapping, determining that it most often occurred in Border States (i.e. Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland). She also delineates common methods of kidnapping, which usually involved direct violence or deceit. Wilson contends that kidnappers often got away with their illegal activities because their actions were implicitly protected by racial prejudice and explicitly protected by “black codes,” laws that applied only to the status of black people.

Next, Wilson examines legal means for enslaving free blacks. The most frequent victims were former slaves whose masters had emancipated them. It was not difficult for the heirs of a slave-owner’s estate to contest manumissions in court, thereby setting off a legal effort to track and re-enslave people. Other freed slaves were arrested because they remained in the south. Black codes required freed people to move north or risk reenslavement. Sometimes, free black northerners working on ships could be arrested if they went ashore in a slave state. If none of their white fellows bailed them out of jail, they could be sold into slavery. In short, Wilson demonstrates that state anti-kidnapping laws were weak at best, and offered few protections for free black people.

Wilson identifies rare and notable instances in which northern governors attempted to assist free blacks who had been kidnapped. A few governors enacted strong anti-kidnapping laws to combat the lack of federal anti-kidnapping laws. Some politicians worked to free illegally enslaved people whenever kidnapping cases came to their attention. Their efforts were typically unsuccessful. It was not possible to apply state laws over state lines, and federal laws tended to protect slave owners.

Wilson highlights the work of  abolitionist groups, the members of which lobbied state legislatures, worked to prevent the kidnapping of free black people, and undertook to rescue of those illegally held in bondage. Abolitionists groups were successful in manumitting the illegally enslaved during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but many white abolitionist organizations abandoned their anti-kidnapping crusade around 1830 in order to focus on the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately, racism was rampant in the North, even in abolitionist circles. As a result, black people who were already free did not much interest anti-slavery groups by the mid-1800s.

Finally, Wilson draws attention to the critical role that free black people played in the long fight against kidnapping. Although they had limited resources with which to fight reenslavement, kidnapping was a direct threat to the members of their community. Like their white counterparts, free black abolitionists petitioned state legislatures for stricter anti-kidnapping laws and sought relief for individual victims. Additionally, they were prepared to act as vigilantes in defense of their communities. They kept watch for suspicious-looking individuals and armed themselves. In spite of their vulnerability, they did not, to quote Wilson, “suffer in silence. They battled the crime of kidnapping at all levels of government, consistently reminding white officials of their humanity and their rights” (116). Ultimately, it was not a lack of black effort that hampered the fight against kidnapping but, as Wilson contends, pervasive anti-black racism on the part of whites in all areas of the country that led even non-slaveholding whites to tolerate illegal enslavement.

Wilson’s book gives us an important starting point to examine kidnapping as central to the experience of slavery and freedom in Maryland. For example, Wilson identifies an interstate kidnapping gang, the Cannon-Johnsons, and identifies several instances in which abolitionist groups in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland rescued some of their victims. One of the member of this gang, Jesse Cannon, lived in Fork Bridge, Maryland. In 1819, he purchased a group of  kidnapped free black people, including Sarah Hagerman. Anthony Wheately, a member of the Maryland abolition society, joined forces with Pennsylvania abolitionist John H. Willits to attempt her rescue. Though they were unsuccessful in recovering Hagerman, Wheatley and Willits discovered numerous free black captives at Jesse Cannon’s house (19-20). Throughout the book, Wilson mentions other free black victims, either kidnapped in Maryland or illegally sold into Maryland. These include Adam Gibson, who was sent into slavery by Philadelphia Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham (55), and Margaret Morgan, who was legally born a slave in Maryland but had lived free all of her life. She married a free black man in 1832 and moved to Pennsylvania. In 1837, her mistress’ heiress had Morgan and her children, “at least one of whom had been born in Pennsylvania and was therefore free,” brought back to Maryland by a kidnapper named Edward Prigg (71-72). The Pennsylvania Court found Prigg guilty of kidnapping, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed their ruling (72). Wilson also offers useful information about the Maryland Abolition Society and the efforts of the Maryland Quakers to stop kidnapping in the state. If we look at the cases that they handled, we can find kidnapping narratives and determine how involved Maryland abolitionists were with the issue of kidnapping. Additionally, Wilson’s bibliography offers up numerous primary sources, including a long list of slave narratives that can help us find sources to further explore the issue of kidnapping in Maryland.

Adapted from Carol Wilson’s Work on the Kidnapping of Free African Americans in the Antebellum South by Allyson Schuele

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