The African American Experience
Tobacco-producing areas, such as Halifax County, had large slave holding populations. However, the tobacco market in North Carolina was often volatile, which had the effect of discouraging large slave holdings to a certain extent. Due to the meager diet allotted to enslaved persons by their masters, they were encouraged to hunt, fish, and keep garden plots and orchards to supplement their nutritional imbalances. Enslaved people were sometimes allowed to sell any surplus items that they grew or caught themselves, which allowed them to purchase personal goods not allotted by their masters, such as additional clothing and items for children. However, this practice ceased somewhat when the North Carolina General Assembly prohibited slaves from growing tobacco for their “own benefit” in a number of counties, including Halifax. There are no records that explicitly indicate this practice occurred among enslaved persons in Halifax, but considering the general practice and subsequent legislation, it is safe to assume that it did.
The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 made no distinction between the races when it came to suffrage. This meant that free black men were legally allowed to vote in North Carolina until their disenfranchisement in 1835. Many of these men took advantage of this opportunity – at one time, there were 300 African Americans registered to vote in Halifax County.
Little is known of the religious experiences of free and enslaved African Americans. Large numbers of them were instructed and baptized by Anglican preaches during the colonial period and by white Baptist churches in the 1790s. There are also records of Catholic baptisms in the 1800s.
The town of Halifax and, more importantly, the nearby Roanoke River played a vital role in the Maritime Underground Railroad in North Carolina. Taverns, print shops, and docks served as major sources of information that could be crucial to the success or failure of a runaway. Free blacks and sympathetic whites also provided them with the latest news and acted as a means of communication for secret activities. They also helped conceal the identities and hiding places of fugitive slaves. For example, a community of anti-slavery Quakers lived across the Roanoke River from Halifax. An 1830 newspaper article reported that they removed more than 600 persons of color from North Carolina. Enslaved persons in the Roanoke River Valley used their knowledge of the river to assist in their escape. The river also played a major role in communications between free and enslaved African American communities, as black boatmen plied the waters, spreading information to people along its banks. The river also provided protection from “pattyrollers” or slave patrols and helped speed the fugitive’s escape to urban areas, swamps, the sounds, open seas, and, eventually, points northward to freedom.
By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Halifax and Pasquotank Counties had the highest population of free blacks in North Carolina. Of the 2452 free blacks in Halifax County that year, 192 of them lived within the Halifax town limits.