Shades of Freedom

In the pre-Civil War southern states, a mulatto was much more likely to be a free person than was a person of entirely African descent.

While slaves were enumerated but not listed by name in the 1860 census, free persons of color were both enumerated and listed by name. We can therefore search for free persons of color using various search delimiters. For example, we can perform these searches:

SEARCH—LIVED IN: Alabama
SEARCH—KEYWORD: Colored

SEARCH—LIVED IN: Alabama
SEARCH—KEYWORD: Mulatto

I performed the above searches for each of the states that would shortly secede from the federal union, and got the following results:

C=Colored M=Mulatto

Alabama (C) 591 (M) 2,072
Arkansas (C) 340 (M) 214
Florida (C) 288 (M) 679
Georgia (C) 1,508 (M) 1,960
Louisiana (C) 8 (M) 15,038
Mississippi (C) 1 (M) 590
North Carolina (C) 220 (M) 21,476
South Carolina (C) 2,786 (M) 6,889
Tennessee (C) 3,290 (M) 4,243
Texas (C) 0 (M) 552
Virginia (C) 92 (M) 22,596

As you can see, free mulattoes dramatically outnumbered free black persons in most states. Why? Among other likely reasons:

1. A mulatto in the American South generally had a white father, and was thus likelier to be “treated like kin” by the slaveholding family than was a slave with two enslaved parents.

2. It seems likely that enumerators did not always use the terms “colored” and “mulatto” in the correct manner. For purposes of the census, “colored” meant two non-white parents of the same race, while “mulatto” meant two parents of mixed races (generally but not always one black and one white parent).

How can researchers access the federal population census? You may use Heritage Quest Online from home with a valid SLPL library card and PIN, or at Central Library or any of our branches.

You may use Ancestry Library Edition at Central Library or any of our branches.

Here’s a list of SLPL reference databases.

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