Friday, March 25, 2011

Correction on a 1861 law I posted about before

Hi all! This past week I was contacted by a student who is doing research on free blacks who petitioned to become slaves in the late 1850s and early 1860s. I wanted to let you know I made an error on something that was actually never a law. I had stated in an earlier post that there was a law passed in 1861 that allowed free blacks to petition the court to become slaves and choose their masters. When I was a graduate student, I was taking a legal history course back in 2004, which is when I did all the research. At the time, I did not know all the details about how a bill became law in North Carolina, but after I was contacted by the student, I wanted to refresh my memory about this supposed law and with my better understanding of the legislative process as well as contacts at the legislative library onf North Carolina, I discovered this was never a law in the first place. Let me tell you about about this Senate Bill No. 8, 1860-1861.

First off, there were many free blacks in North Carolina who petitioned to become slaves during the late 1850s and early 1860s. It appears there was some sort of law regarding this, due to the wording of the petitions I have copies of at home, but I have not found one. As Dr. Franklin says in his book Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, the courts were not always following the wishes of those who petitioned to becomes slaves. In 1860, a "Mr. Humphrey" of Onslow County introduced a bill - Senate Bill 8, Session 1860-'61 - that would have allowed and guaranteed that free blacks could petition the courts to enter slavery and choose their own master. I read this bill online at UNC-CH Docsouth website ( I also read the Senate Journal 1860-1861 at the State Library of North Carolina, which states that "Mr. Humphrey" read a bill concerning "free negroes" which was passed. Back in 2004, I thought this meant that the bill has passed and became law. Turns out I was wrong. I found out from my contact at the legislative library that the bill, which Dr. Franklin referred to as the "Humphrey Bill", died in the senate after the first reading and passage. In order to become law, a bill must be read and passed 3 times in both the house and senate, but the Humphrey Bill was only read and passed once and there is no evidence that it was ever read again. Also, if the bill had passed, it would have appeared in the Public Laws of North Carolina for the year it passed, but I cannot find any reference to the bill becoming law.

By the way, the State Library of North Carolina is working on digitizing and making the Public Laws of North Carolina available online. This is a continual work in progress and currently only those laws of the late 1850s-early 1870s are online.

Hopefully soon I will be transcribing and putting online 2 petitions I have found back in 2004 for a Jenette Wright and John Phillips from Guilford County in 1861. They both petitioned the court to become slaves and both petitions were granted.