Arkansas Gazette ran information |
about the act that expelled “free persons of
from the state of Arkansas on March 5, 1859.
Among the most overlooked groups in Arkansas history have
been free African Americans before the Civil War.
The 1835 territorial census in Arkansas counted 176 free
black people, who were also called free persons of color. Historically, the
term referred to people of African, and sometimes African and European, descent
who were not enslaved. In the U.S., many were slaves who had been freed. Others
were the descendants of freed slaves.
Free African Americans lived in nearly every county in
Arkansas, except Union, Jackson, Pike, Greene and Conway counties. Izard County
had the highest number of free African Americans with a total of 45 people on
Life as a free person of color was restrictive. For
example, in 1836, Little Rock passed an ordinance prohibiting African
Americans, both free and enslaved, from carrying any kind of weapon within city
limits. If an African American was found carrying a weapon, including
gunpowder, then law enforcement was required to confiscate the weapons, and the
person received 30 lashes. Housekeepers were allowed to possess firearms, if
they had a city license.
However, free African Americans could sue and be sued, own
property and travel around the state at will, as long as they had access to
documents to prove their freedom. Free people also could rise to prominence.
Gad Bradley came to Arkansas in the 1830s and settled in Washington,
Arkansas. He brought with him his wife, who had been an Army officer’s slave in
which was considered Indian Territory.
Bradley had fallen in love with her and had been determined to buy her freedom.
He worked hard and saved money until he had enough to purchase her. The couple
married and left Oklahoma, settling in Washington, where Bradley worked as a
gunsmith. Bradley bought land and built a house, where he raised his family for
the next 20 years.
Others were born free. A case in point is Peter Caulder, who
was born in South Carolina around 1797. His father, Moses, was a free man. In
1814, Caulder enlisted in the United States Third Regiment of Riflemen during
the War of 1812. He accompanied Major Stephen H. Long to western Arkansas
Territory in 1817 to establish a fort. Caulder became one of the first inhabitants
of a new settlement, which was called Fort Smith.
Caulder later married Eliza Hall, the daughter of David
Hall, a free man who lived in Marion County. The couple then set up a homestead
in the county and began a family.
Even with the cumbersome restrictions placed on African
Americans, the state was still a destination for many free black people. Between
1835 and 1840, the population of free persons of color in Hempstead County
increased from six to 61.
The population increase alarmed white lawmakers. In 1843,
the Arkansas legislature passed a law prohibiting immigration into the state of
any free person of color. The aim was to curb the number of free black people
in Arkansas. The new law also mandated people provide proof of freedom and to pay
a bond of as much as $500 to assure “good behavior” while residing in the state.
There were some exceptions to the law. Many free people in
Arkansas, for example, worked on steamboats that required them to move around
the country. Steamboat workers often needed to stay in the state for long
periods of time. To address this issue, the state gave an exemption but limited
the length of time steamboat workers could stay to three months.
Weeks after the law went into effect, John Pendleton, a free
man living in Crawford County, was arrested for violating the law. Pendleton
appealed his conviction all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In Pendleton v. State of Arkansas
Pendleton’s attorney argued the law was unconstitutional because it violated
the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause of the Fourth Amendment. The
state court ruled African Americans, both free and slaves, were not citizens of
the country. Instead, African Americans only enjoyed a “quasi-citizenship” that
allowed the state to impose different laws on them based on their skin color.
Meanwhile, tensions between northern and southern states
were rising. The nation was hurtling toward a civil war.
On Nov. 3, 1858, Arkansas Gov. Elias Conway addressed the
legislature and asked lawmakers to adopt a law to expel free African Americans
from the state. The existence of free African Americans living successfully in
Arkansas belied the tenant that underpinned the justification of slavery,
namely that African Americans were inferior and should be enslaved. The state
legislature complied with Conway’s request and passed a law on Feb. 12, 1859
that expelled all free African Americans from the state.
The penalty for not complying with the new law was fierce. Under
the worse circumstances, free African Americans could be re-enslaved. Most free
African Americans left. Out of the 29 free black people in Hempstead County in
1850, there were only two left after the law passed.
Both Peter Caulder and Gad Bradley left Arkansas after the
law was enacted. Caulder resettled in Missouri, where he died around 1861. Bradley
returned to Indian Territory.