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Warren E. Milteer Jr.

Jan 5, 2022

North Carolina's Free People of Color, 1715-1885

Louisiana State University Press 2020

In this episode, Siobhan talks with Warren Eugene Milteer, Jr. about his book North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020). He is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His publications include two academic books, Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South (UNC Press, 2021) and North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020), the independently published Hertford County, North Carolina’s Free People of Color and Their Descendants (2016), as well as articles in the Journal of Social History and the North Carolina Historical Review. Milteer was the recipient of the Historical Society of North Carolina’s R. D. W. Connor Award in 2014 and 2016 for the best journal article in the North Carolina Historical Review.

In North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715–1885, Warren Eugene Milteer Jr. examines the lives of free persons categorized by their communities as “negroes,” “mulattoes,” “mustees,” “Indians,” “mixed-­bloods,” or simply “free people of color.” From the colonial period through Reconstruction, lawmakers passed legislation that curbed the rights and privileges of these non-enslaved residents, from prohibiting their testimony against whites to barring them from the ballot box. While such laws suggest that most white North Carolinians desired to limit the freedoms and civil liberties enjoyed by free people of color, Milteer reveals that the two groups often interacted—praying together, working the same land, and occasionally sharing households and starting families. Some free people of color also rose to prominence in their communities, becoming successful business people and winning the respect of their white neighbors.

Milteer’s innovative study moves beyond depictions of the American South as a region controlled by a strict racial hierarchy. He contends that although North Carolinians frequently sorted themselves into races imbued with legal and social entitlements—with whites placing themselves above persons of color—those efforts regularly clashed with their concurrent recognition of class, gender, kinship, and occupational distinctions. Whites often determined the position of free nonwhites by designating them as either valuable or expendable members of society. In early North Carolina, free people of color of certain statuses enjoyed access to institutions unavailable even to some whites. Prior to 1835, for instance, some free men of color possessed the right to vote while the law disenfranchised all women, white and nonwhite included.

North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715–1885 demonstrates that conceptions of race were complex and fluid, defying easy characterization. Despite the reductive labels often assigned to them by whites, free people of color in the state emerged from an array of backgrounds, lived widely varied lives, and created distinct cultures—all of which, Milteer suggests, allowed them to adjust to and counter ever­-evolving forms of racial discrimination.

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