Free papers are an important source in tracing free people of color. Obtaining proof of one’s freedom was sometimes necessary for nonwhites. In Mobile, Grace Shop filed her free papers which listed the names and ages of her children. Nine members of the community where she lived certified that they had been acquainted with her for many years and that she had been considered a free person. Adam Ray was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and filed his papers in Mobile. He was about 22 years old, about 5 feet 8 inches, and had a scar on his left arm.
Other records useful in finding free nonwhites include legislative acts and petitions. Searching records page by page may yield relevant information. The Alabama legislature passed various acts dealing with people of color, such as the act authorizing Nicholas Pope to emancipate a slave named Willis. The Alabama legislature emancipated Margaret, slave of James Johnston of Mobile County, as well as Cyrus, son and slave of China Evans, a free woman of color of Baldwin County, Alabama. The same legislature authorized Fermin Trenier, a free man of color, to manumit his slave Marie Francoise, and it authorized John Robinson, a free man of color of Madison County, to emancipate his wife, a female slave named Ann and her two children, Lilia Ann and La Fayette.
Researchers should also examine court cases. In Alabama, for instance, free people of color had the right to enter suit against whites and others of their race. Some of these cases contain valuable genealogical information. Let’s take a look at a couple of Alabama state supreme court cases. In one case the defendant offered three witnesses, who appeared to be white, and were the children of a woman named Clara. Testimony revealed that Clara’s children were fathered by a white man, that her father was a white man named Simon Chastang, that her grandmother was Jean Simon or Seymour, and that her mother was named Anastasia. (Other records show that this was the Andry family, named after Simon Andry, a white man who had a relationship with his slave Jean/Jane.) In a case decided after the Civil War William Pitcher, a man of color, formerly a slave whose master allowed him to live as free, left Alabama and settled in Ohio for three years, returned to Alabama, then back to Ohio where he died in 1859. His wife Pherady, a slave born in North Carolina, was purchased by her father, a free man of color.
Other records should not be overlooked. These include voting rolls, jury lists, tax records, newspapers, deeds, church records, and records from claims commissions, especially the Southern Claims Commission. I found references to free people of color in Mobile’s Protestant and Catholic church records. Thus, a wide variety of records are available to trace people of color.
For further information see Gary B. Mills, “Tracing Free People of Color in the Antebellum South: Methods, Sources, and Perspectives,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 78 (December 1990): 262-278.