In the history of slavery in the Americas, a free person of color was a person of full or partial African descent who was not enslaved. In the United States, such persons were referred to as "free Negroes," though many were of mixed race (in the terminology of the day, mulattos). In Caribbean and Latin American slave societies, specific terms were used to refer to such mixed-race groups, usually with an attempt at classification by appearance or ancestry.
Free people of color, or hommes de couleur libré, played an important role in the history of the New Orleans, Louisiana and the southern part of the state. At one time the center of their residential community was the French Quarter. Many were educated, and owned property and their own businesses. They formed a third class in the slave society.
Free people of color were an important part of the history of the Caribbean during the slave period. They achieved wealth and power particularly in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which became independent as Haiti in 1804. In Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French Caribbean colonies before slavery was abolished, they were known as gens de couleur, and affranchis. They were also an important part of the populations of British Jamaica, Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Portuguese Brazil.
There were many ways that a slave could become a free person of color. All slave societies allowed masters to free their slaves, although as the population of color became larger and more threatening to the white ruling class, governments put increasing restrictions on manumissions. These usually included taxes, requirements that some socially useful reason be cited for manumission, and requirements that the newly freed person show that he or she had some means of support. Masters might free their slaves for a variety of reasons, but the most common was family relationship between master and slave.
Throughout the slave societies of the Americas, some white male slaveowners took advantage of the subordinate status of their female slaves and required them to engage in sexual relations. In some places, especially in Caribbean and South American slave societies where there were few white women, these relationships might be acknowledged by the white man and some were common-law marriages of affection. In any case, slaveholders were more likely to free the children of these relationships than they were to free other slaves. Enslaved women who participated in these relationships also were sometimes freed.
Another common means of manumission was the payment of ransom, either by the slave, if the person had managed to obtain some resources, or by already free relatives. Sometimes masters, or the government, would free slaves without payment as a reward for some notable service: a slave who revealed slave conspiracies for uprisings was commonly rewarded with freedom.
Of course, many free people of color were born free and by the nineteenth century, there were flourishing families of free coloreds who had been free for generations. In the United States many of the "old issue" free people of color (those free before the Civil War) were descended from African Americans born free during the colonial period in Virginia. Most were descendants of white servant women who entered into relationships with African men, indentured servant, slave or free. Their relationships demonstrated the fluid nature of the early working class, before institutionalized slavery hardened lines between ethnic groups. Many of their descendants later migrated to the frontiers of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, and west, as well as further south. Sometimes they formed isolated settlements in the frontier where they were relatively free of racial strictures common to the plantation areas. In many cases they were well received and respected on the frontier. Sometimes they identified as Indian or Portuguese, or their neighbors classified them that way, in an attempt to explain their physical characteristics that were different from northern Europeans.
After the American Revolutionary War, a number of slaveholders in the North and Upper South freed their slaves in the period from 1783-1810. From the language of the deeds and wills, some were inspired by the Revolution's ideals; others awarded service. In Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, Quakers and Moravians were influential in persuading slaveholders to free their slaves. The proportion of free blacks went from one percent before the Revolution to 10 percent by 1810 in the Upper South. By 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, 91 percent of blacks in Delaware were free, and 49.7 percent of blacks in Maryland.
Technically a maroon was also a free person of color. This term described slaves who had escaped and lived in areas outside settlements. Because maroons lived outside slave society, scholars regard them as quite different in character from free people of color, who made their way within societies.
Many people who lived as free within the slave society did not have formal liberty papers. In some cases these were runaways, who just hid in the towns among free people of color and tried to maintain a low profile. In other cases they were "living as free" with the permission of their master, sometimes in return for payment of rent or a share of money they earned by trades, but the master had never officially registered their liberty. Like maroons, these people were always at risk of losing their freedom.
Free people of color filled an important niche in the economy of slave societies. In most places, they worked as artisans and small retail merchants in the towns. In many places, especially in British-influenced colonies like the United States, there were restrictions on people of color owning slaves and agricultural land. Nonetheless, many free coloreds lived in the countryside and some became major slaveholders. Many lived on or near the plantations where they or their ancestors had been slaves, and where they had extended family. Masters often used free coloreds for plantation managers, especially if there was a family relationship.
Free coloreds also often served the government as rural police, hunting down runaway slaves and keeping order among the slave population. From the view of the white master class, this was their most important function and a critical one in places like Haiti or Jamaica where enslaved people on large plantations vastly outnumbered whites.
In places where law or social custom permitted it, some free coloreds managed to acquire good agricultural land and slaves and become planters themselves. There were free colored-owned plantations in almost all the slave societies of the Americas. In the United States, free people of color may have owned the most property in Louisiana, which had developed a distinct creole class. Slaveholders who had relationships with women of color sometimes also arranged for a transfer of wealth to them, whether through deed of land and property to the mother and/or children under the system of plaçage, or arranging for an apprenticeship to a trade for his mixed-race children, which provided them more of a chance to make a skilled living. In St. Domingue/Haiti gens de couleur owned about one-third of the land and about one-quarter of the slaves in the late colonial period.
When the end of slavery came, the distinction between former free coloreds and former slaves persisted. Because of advantages in education and experience, free coloreds often provided much of the leadership for the newly freed, as in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture, the national liberator, and several of his top generals were former free coloreds. Similarly, in the United States, many of the blacks elected as state and local officials during Reconstruction in the South had been free in the South before the Civil War. In addition, educated blacks whose families had long been free in the North went to the South to work and help other coloreds.