“To Live and Die in the Land of their Nativity”: African American Residency Petitions in the Antebellum U.S. South

In December 1823, Elvira Jones submitted a petition on behalf of her and her two children to Virginia’s General Assembly “to reside and remain in the Commonwealth.” Earlier that year, Jones had finally paid all installments to purchase her own and her family’s freedom. With the support of her former enslaver, Jones had also bought a home in the suburbs of Richmond to enjoy the remainder of her life with her children in freedom. Nevertheless, her ability to legally reside as a free woman in the state was complicated by Virginia’s 1806 removal law, which forced her and other recently manumitted persons to leave the state within one year or face re-enslavement. Jones explained in her petition that she now experienced “a barrier more insurmountable for then any which property or even bondage could interpose,” and requested the state permission for her family “to live and die in the Land of their nativity.” The 1806 law put a price on the freedom of recently freed African Americans such as Elvira Jones in Virginia; to be free meant to be forced to leave one’s family and community and migrate elsewhere.

Virginia’s 1806 law was one of many laws passed in the southern states during the early antebellum period that circumscribed the liberty of free African Americans. The passage of these restrictive measures was a direct response to the effects of the liberal emancipation policies of the 1780s, which allowed thousands of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom through self-purchase or manumission by slaveholders. White anxieties about the growing free Black population and their unrestrained movements prompted state lawmakers to pass regulations on the residency and mobility of free African Americans.  In 1793, Virginia enacted legislation that forced free persons to register in their localities and to wear certificates proving their freedom, as well as prohibited the migration of free people of African descent into Virginia. In 1806, the state went a step further by mandating the expulsion of emancipated persons. Following the passage of Virginia’s removal law, legislators across the Upper South region responded with migration restrictions targeting free African Americans. Anticipating a surge of free Black migrants from Virginia, states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Ohio attempted to discourage their migration with threats of forced removal or re-enslavement.

Efforts to expel and exclude free African Americans were not left unchallenged, however. During the early antebellum period, hundreds of free people of African descent defended their right to residency in the Upper South states by appealing to the state authorities and local courts through petitions. By that time, the right to petition was already a well-established practice in the United States that allowed individuals to engage with their representative government. Through written documents, the petitioner or group of petitioners voiced their grievances and requested the government to intervene on their behalf. Most importantly, petitioning was an instrument available to disenfranchised groups: women, free and enslaved people of color, Native Americans, immigrants, and even children. As historian Emily West has pointed out, petitioning offered free African Americans access to the legal system at a time when southern lawmakers were actively working to limit their role in civil society.  A large number of petitions submitted by free people of African descent between 1775 and 1867 to southern legislatures and county courts have been collected by researchers of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and can be found in the digital collections of the RIAS.

The petition testimonies of free African Americans reveal the ways people and their communities were impacted by processes of expulsion and exclusion, and therefore offer valuable insight into the lives of free people of African descent in the slaveholding U.S. South. Even though the removal law was not strictly enforced – mainly because of the limits of nineteenth-century law enforcement – the number of residency petitions submitted from the early nineteenth century through the Civil War years indicates that removal remained a major concern for free Black  African Americans throughout the antebellum period. In Virginia, the threat of removal exposed recently manumitted African Americans to separation from their family and displacement, just like in slavery. In a petition to the state legislature in 1812, Elly (alias Nelly) explained that her enslaved husband Nelson refused to accept his promised freedom as it meant the “eternal separation from his family,” part of which was still in bondage. Petitioner Tobias, moreover, claimed the anticipated separation from his enslaved wife subjected him to a fate “worse to him than slavery itself.” By prioritizing their affective ties to their families and communities, newly freed African Americans promoted an understanding of freedom that not only included a right to self-determination and independence but also a right to belong in early America.

In their protests against forced migration and exclusion, free people of African descent further advanced their right to belong by highlighting their talents and value to the community. For example, Starke explained that he was an  “honest and good man” and “by his conduct and industry in his trade of chair maker…renders himself useful to society instead of being obnoxious to the laws or policy of Virginia.” Historian Samantha Seeley has explained that in order to justify their presence in the southern states,  “petitioners appealed to the prejudices of the [1806] law, exposing its logic in their attempt to avoid its consequences.” Betty Dean and others, for instance, claimed in their petition that they had the right to remain in Virginia because of their “peaceable disposition” and “industrious habits.”

These petitions also reveal the social capital of free African Americans. Free Black petitioners often obtained the support of local White residents, who signed the petitions and in some instances offered character references. The residency petition of Thomas Brewster was signed by “a number of the most respectable inhabitants of the city of Richmond,” who attested he was “a man of good behavior, and industrious habits.” To gather enough support for his petition, Brewster had placed an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Virginia Patriot, several months earlier to notify citizens of his intention to submit an official request “for leave to reside in Virginia.” The importance of local ties to free Black petitioners is highlighted in the success of residency petitions filed with county courts, which were authorized to determine the petitions of free African Americans from 1816 onwards and almost always granted residency requests.

In the early antebellum period, southern states attempted to limit and regulate the presence of free African Americans within their borders through the passage of expulsion and exclusion laws. In response, free people of African descent defended their right to residency by emphasizing their ties and value to their local communities through the platform of petitions. In doing so, they promoted their own understandings of freedom and belonging in the nineteenth century US South.


This piece was written using the following primary sources available at the RIAS:

Race and Slavery Petitions from the Proquest Slavery and the Law (1775-1867) digital collection.

And the additional aid of this secondary source literature available at the RIAS:

Emily West, Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012).

Samantha Seeley, Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain: Migration and the Making of the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021); quote from page 261.