The Complications of Liberty: Free People of Color in North Carolina from the Colonial Period through Reconstruction Public Deposited

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  • October 28, 2021
  • Milteer, Warren
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • From the colonial period through the Civil War free people of color in North Carolina held a sociopolitical status that firmly placed them legally above slaves and below whites. While the degree to which free people of color were the legal superiors of slaves and inferiors of whites varied across time, this dissertation argues that the legal position of free people of color generally remained closer to that of whites than slaves. In contrast to images of a segregated South strictly bifurcated by racial categorization, this dissertation reveals that North Carolinians' beliefs and understandings about hierarchies of gender, class, reputation, and occupation worked in tandem with racial categorization and freedom status to shape the experiences of individual free people of color. Both competition among the ideas that supported these hierarchical structures and the situational use of specific hierarchies allowed for a wide variety of life experiences within the legal middle ground occupied by free people of color. Although free people of color were not the most privileged group in the state, a position held by a minority of slaveholding, propertied white men, they still carved out spaces to raise their families, make a living, and sometimes enjoy life's luxuries. This dissertation also demonstrates that free people of color was simply a label of status that denoted a middling position in the sociopolitical hierarchy that ranked the free over the enslaved and the white over the non-white. By the early nineteenth century, North Carolinians lumped within the category of free people of color: free people of African descent, free people of Native ancestry whom the state did not recognize as politically autonomous, and a variety of individuals with mixed ancestry.
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  • In Copyright
  • DuVal, Kathleen
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2014

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