#29 The Great September U.S. Compromises (Part One)

On September 18 and 20, 1850, history recorded two distinct “compromises” that impacted African American lives. Part One, we will look at what life became in the area now known as Washington, D.C., once Congress came together and compromised on legislation.

The ‘give and take” of 1850

The 20th of September marked the signing of a bill that affected an area now known as the District of Columbia: It abolished the slave trade. It was part of the U.S. package known as the Compromise of 1850. It was fashioned by Sen. Henry Clay, a 70+ legislator dubbed the “Great Pacificator” by his colleagues. His aim was to get Congressional members to ‘give and take’ in five different compromises, with one resulting in the freeing of slaves in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, the fugitive slave law was strengthened nationwide.

There were numerous congressional bills introduced in Congress in January 1850. By September, it was narrowed to five separate bills. Each bill was separately voted upon by Congress. Elimination of the slave trade in D.C. also included the welcoming of California as a free state in the U.S. and settling the border dispute between Mexico and Texas. It also gave the law enforcement authorities the right to capture slaves and suffer economic penalties if the slaves escaped while under the marshals and sheriffs’ jurisdictions. Eventually, this bill’s purpose would fall apart.

The United States Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia on September 20, 1850, as part of the legislative package called the Compromise of 1850. Since the founding of the District of Columbia in 1800, enslaved people had lived and worked in the nation’s capital. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws regulating slavery in the district were considerably more lenient than slave codes in the South. Still, slavery continued to exist in Washington until April 16, 1862. President Lincoln signed legislation freeing the 3,000 African Americans bound by the District’s slave code on that day. (The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia… Washington: L. Towers, 1862. Slaves and the Courts, 1740 to 1860. Law Library)

While Antebellum Washington was a thriving community for free Blacks, whereby 1860, they outnumbered the enslaved Blacks by four to one. The former slaves who could migrate to the District of Columbia did so. Meanwhile, former slaves who were granted their freedom by plantation owners were not given the flexibility to live their lives outside of the states approving the new status. It was home to a thriving community of free blacks.

Certificate of Freedom of Harriet Bolling, Petersburg, Virginia, 1851. Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period. The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Carter G. Woodson Collection. Manuscript Division

Harriet Bolling is an example of a Mulatto woman who was granted her freedom in Virginia by James Bolling. Yet, her freedom restricted her movements to the Commonwealth of Virginia, where she remained in Petersburg.

“Free Southern blacks continued to live under the shadow of slavery, unable to travel or assemble as freely as those in the North. It was also more difficult for them to organize and sustain churches, schools, or fraternal orders such as the Masons,” according to the Library of Congress.

Part Two: African American man is “first” to Compromise in the South

The following blog will review another September “Compromise about noted educator Booker T. Washington’s classic address at an Atlanta convention in September 1895.

In the next Good Genes Genealogy Services’ September 2021 e-book, read the combined Parts One and Two about the great “Compromises” impacting African Americans. Both occurred in September.

Your assignment: The global community has been required to adhere to certain restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you react when your everyday travel was restricted and asked to wear masks in public? How do you imagine the African American slaves responded to their lifetime restrictions?