Professor Haller Explores Race and Black Freedom in North Carolina

September 8, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

In a primary campaign season rife with discussions of race and gender, Charlotte Haller (History) is examining those issues, albeit from a different historical vantage point. She is revisiting the paradox of slavery among women in North Carolina.

Haller’s doctoral work at University of Wisconsin-Madison was in social history and women’s history. She looked at the daily life of black and white Southerners for her dissertation. Her 2007-08 mini-grant, Taking Liberties: Household, Race and Black Freedom in Revolutionary North Carolina, has allowed her to transform her dissertation, completed in 2000, into a book.

Its also enabled her to buy books on the topic to get back into the academic conversation. There’s been a really wonderful flowering of scholarship around this topic, she said.

States handled the freeing of slaves in different ways. In Virginia, after the Revolution, for example, if a master wanted to free a slave, he could just do it, Haller said.

North Carolina was interesting in this regard, she said. It had greater numbers of slaves in the 1780s and 90s as well as an increase in free blacks in the early 1800s. In 1790, five percent of the black population in North Carolina was free.

North Carolina never liberalized its laws to let masters free their slaves, she said. In order to free a slave, a master had to petition the county court and make the case for the deserving slave.  Such slaves were often freed for meritorious service.

In fact, many of these masters were interested in freeing the mothers of their children. Slavery was inheritable through the mother. If a mother was a slave, her children were slaves.

Lots of people just ignored this law, Haller said. The freed slaves don’t come into the public records because they were merely set free.

The role of religion in slavery adds another dimension to her study. Methodists had circuit riders, who went from church to church, and, at times, offered  not only spiritual freedom but physical freedom.

They played a concrete role in helping people gain their freedom, Haller said. For a few critical years, Methodists preached that one couldn’t be a slaveholder and be a Methodist.

Baptists, on the other hand, allowed each individual church to set its own policies on slavery.  These churches convened discussions of such topics as How can slavery be a moral institution in North Carolina?

During this era, North Carolina had the second largest population of Quakers, who, after 1781, no longer owned slaves. Activists when it came to emancipation, when they found that their freed slaves were rounded up and sold, they went to court to complain. They established schools for freed slaves, sheltered runaways and spoke out against slavery.

The Quakers also formed the Society for the Protection of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and would sometimes help women who were seeking freedom for their children.

These slave women, once they knew that their children would be taken away from them and sold, brought freedom suits in which they would hire a lawyer to try to prove that their children were entitled to freedom.

Haller, who has been teaching at Worcester State since January 2005, envisions refreshing her U.S. History online survey course with the material she’s been examining for this book. I’ve been wanting to shake up how I teach it, she said.

She also has plans for a book for such a college history course, a collection of articles on women and the Civil War.  Such a collection will undoubtedly add to our contemporary understanding of race and gender.

Written by  Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

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