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Church records can be compared to slave census schedules to find and double check for names and families. Federal Census Records before 1850 list the heads of free black households by name, but only numbered the slaves. The 1850 Census was the first census to name all persons in free households. Some church records will show membership of slaves before the Civil War. Such records can give vital clues to the identity of slaves, who were not named on census records.
Historically, religious institutions have provided strength, stability, and support for their members, as well as a focal point for social interaction. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the African American community from the antebellum period to the present.
Histories of Congregations
The scope of congregational histories may vary from a few paragraphs in an anniversary bulletin to scholarly histories. In addition to a narrative history of a church's activities, these materials may contain membership and leadership rosters, biographical information about their pastors, names and life details of prominent members, and often photographs of pastors, groups, and significant events in the institution's past.
Free blacks in the antebellum period-those years from the formation of the Union until the Civil War were quite outspoken about the injustice of slavery. Their ability to express themselves, however, was determined by whether they lived in the North or the South. Free Southern blacks continued to live under the shadow of slavery, unable to travel or assemble as freely as those in the North. It was also more difficult for them to organize and sustain churches, schools, or fraternal orders such as the Masons.
Although their lives were circumscribed by numerous discriminatory laws even in the colonial period, freed African Americans, especially in the North, were active participants in American society. Black men enlisted as soldiers and fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Some owned land, homes, businesses, and paid taxes. In some Northern cities, for brief periods of time, black property owners voted. A very small number of free blacks owned slaves. The slaves that most free blacks purchased were relatives whom they later manumitted. A few free blacks also owned slave holding plantations in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Free African American Christians founded their own churches which became the hub of the economic, social, and intellectual lives of blacks in many areas of the fledgling nation. Blacks were also outspoken in print. Freedom's Journal, the first black-owned newspaper, appeared in 1827. This paper and other early writings by blacks fueled the attack against slavery and racist conceptions about the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.
African Americans also engaged in achieving freedom for others, which was a complex and dangerous undertaking. Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the "underground railroad." Some free blacks were active "conductors" on the underground railroad while others simply harbored runaways in their homes. Free people of color like Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Prince Hall earned national reputations for themselves by writing, speaking, organizing, and agitating on behalf of their enslaved compatriots.
Thousands of freed blacks, with the aid of interested whites, returned to Africa with the aid of the American Colonization Society and colonized what eventually became Liberia. While some African Americans chose this option, the vast majority felt themselves to be Americans and focused their efforts on achieving equality within the United States.
- For resources available for churches in Virginia go to http://www.lva.lib.va.us/WHATWEHAVE/bio/African_American_Churches.pdf
Note: Websites specific to particular states can be found by searching on the Internet for "African American Church Records [State]."
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