Skip to main content
Enslaved People in the Southeast

Movement of African Americans during Slavery

The important government function of enumerating the population and assessing economic activity reinforced conditions of servitude. Census takers erased the identities of individuals and families by counting enslaved people human capital related to slave owners. Increasing restrictions on land ownership and legal status for African Americans reduced economic opportunities for free blacks, who began migrating to other locations where fewer legal disadvantages existed. Pro-slavery jurisdictions increased the difficulty of freeing or manumitting slaves, adding stipulations such as requiring newly-freed persons to move out of the state. State and national organizations also promoted schemes for freeing enslaved blacks -- on the condition that they be resettled in Africa rather than remaining in the United States. 

These mechanisms stymied the autonomy of black Americans and constructed large swaths of the United States where "free" and "African American" identities did not overlap. By mid-century, the Fugitive Slave Act even more severely implicated the national government in supporting slavery as an institution and reinforcing unequal legal protections for blacks, even in states banning slavery. With the international slave trade ended, generational slavery continued in the United States through new mechanisms enforcing and extending inequality.