Thursday, February 18, 2016

He Says He is Free

When I happened across the above advertisement in the March 9, 1860 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, it immediately brought to mind an advertisement I found when I lived in Kentucky. In the Bluegrass State notice, it announced the capture of a man of color who claimed to be free and even offered a named alibi to boot. Regardless, the incarcerated man continued to be advertised for the required amount of time, then eventually offered for sale at the county courthouse. It opened my eyes to the potentially powerlessness that free people of color experienced in the slave states.

Similarly, this man, Richard James Branch, or aka "Cross," claimed to be free and even offered his free papers as evidence. But because he was able to read and write the jailer presumed that Branch had forged them. This advertisement helps clarify a couple of mid-nineteenth century points on race. First, at the time, all people of color were first presumed to be enslaved. When African Americans were out and about or in places not usually visited by slaves, it piqued suspicions of whites, who due to racially defined obligations, could demand blacks to provide proof of their freedom. Secondly, when people of color did indeed provide their papers, that ability did not always relieve white suspicions. It was as if they were guilty until proven innocent, and then guilty still.  

The advertisement ends with an interesting turn of phrase: "If said Negro is a runaway. . . ." It is as if the jailer himself was not convinced that Branch was a slave.  However, we are only left to wonder what happened to Branch. Were his papers forged? And, if so, did his master read the notice and make his recovery? If Branch was free, how long did he linger in jail? Did he end up being sold since he could not prove his freedom beyond an unreasonable doubt like the Kentucky slave mentioned earlier?

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