23 March 2017 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

The Price to Purchase Your Own Freedom from Slavery

Resources to explore the limitations of freedom for “free” African-Americans before slavery was abolished

In the early 19th century, freed slaves in Virginia faced a dilemma: voluntarily leave the state within a year of their liberation, or remain in the state illegally with the possibility of being caught and sold back into slavery.

The cost to buy one’s “self”

Samuel Johnson would be among those who found themselves in such a predicament, according to Almost Free, by Eva Wolf Sheppard (University of Georgia Press, 2012). “It was around then, in 1800,” Sheppard wrote, “when he was in his mid-twenties, that Johnson determined that he too would become free.” 

Of course, the first challenge for Johnson was to work out a deal with his owner, Edward Digges, which would allow him to purchase his own life. Then he would have to figure out a way to put aside substantial savings. As a strong young slave, Johnson was worth quite a lot of money. Fortunately, even as a slave, he brought in a bit of income from tips earned by working in Digges’ tavern. 

The price of freedom? $500. That was the amount Johnson and Digges agreed upon in 1802, and as Sheppard noted: 

But even that was not assured. Nothing required Digges to allow Johnson to purchase himself even if he raised a large amount of money. In addition, since slaves did not have legal personhood and could not legally marry, own property, enter into contracts, or make wills, any agreement forged between Johnson and Digges lacked legal validity. Johnson could not sue if Digges were to renege. He would have to convince Digges to allow him to purchase himself and then would have to trust Digges to carry out his end of the bargain.

With all of this in mind, it seems it would make the most sense, once Johnson managed to buy his own life, that he would get out of Virginia and never look back, rather than stick around and risk getting sold back into slavery. But the matter grew more complicated when during the years of nickel-and-diming his way to emancipation, Johnson fell in love and married a woman who was a slave. Then she gave birth to a son, then a daughter, who both became the property of his wife’s owner.

So, nearly 10 years after the agreement with Digges, when Johnson had saved enough money to purchase his freedom, he petitioned the state of Virginia not only to validate his emancipation, but to also allow him to remain where he could be close to his loved ones, the place he considered home.

Sheppard wrote,

Samuel Johnson seems to have felt that leaving Virginia for freedom among people and places unknown would only replicate the journey that had brought Africans to America: separation from one’s home, family, and local culture.  

The struggle of a free man to free his family

Johnson’s petition was approved, but new challenges emerged. 

With his wife and children still enslaved, there was the threat that the family could be split apart if one of them was sold to a new owner. So Johnson, who proved to possess some business savvy, managed to save enough money to purchase his wife, Patty, and their son and daughter. As Johnson’s property, they were safe for a while, but as Sheppard pointed out:

...slave property, like any other property, could be seized to pay an outstanding debt, and [Johnson] knew the same was true if he waited to free his family in his will. If, for instance, he died owing more than cold be paid by selling his other property, then his enslaved family would have to be sold to pay the debts; any emancipating provision would not take effect. What weighed most heavily up was probably less the issue of debt than his family’s legal right to remain in Virginia. 

Sheppard’s book provides illuminating interpretations of history as context for the challenges faced by Johnson and his family in the subsequent decades as they fought for freedom, and the opportunity to remain together. 

But for researchers seeking to go deeper and explore hard-to-find primary source materials chronicling the limitations of freedom for “free” African-Americans in the south, ProQuest History Vault is an invaluable resource. The Slavery and the Law module features numerous petitions on race, slavery and free blacks, submitted to state legislatures and county courthouses 1775-1867. 

In providing access to these rare, expertly-curated documents, History Vault enables researchers to follow a particular person or family over time to observe how the political, social and cultural environment impacted their lives. The result: a uniquely insightful way to understand history.

These History Vault petitions include the various attempts by Johnson over the next four decades to emancipate his family and enable them to remain in their home state: 

    • After purchasing himself, and then his wife and children, Samuel Johnson petitions for the emancipation of his family and the permission for them to remain in Virginia. This folder contains the official petition and supporting documents of his case.
      Folder: 001542-017-0721
      Date: Dec 16, 1815 - Dec 31, 1815
      Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series I: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777-1867
    • When his initial petition to free his family and have them remain in Virginia was rejected, Johnson returns to ask for their freedom and request permission to remain in the state. Among the supporting documents for his case, this folder contains related paperwork that reveals Johnson owned property valued at $3,600 in 1820. These documents also reflect an increasing sense of urgency as his daughter Lucy grew closer to marrying age – according to Sheppard, “Lucy could not get legally and properly married and could not have free children unless her father emancipated her.”
      Folder: 001542-018-0250
      Date: Dec 14, 1820 - Dec 31, 1820
      Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series I: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777-1867
    • When Johnson’s previous attempt to emancipate his daughter was deemed "ineffectual" because he had failed to submit "sufficient evidence,” Johnson brings additional documents to the legislature to support this renewed petition. The supporting paperwork for this petition also vaguely reference the death of his son, and, according to Sheppard, showcase how the case for Lucy’s freedom “depended less on the evidence of her own good behavior, honesty, loyalty and industry than on her father’s. As a female person of color she was doubly debilitated, doubly restricted from the world of freedom, power, independence.”
      Folder: 001542-018-0344
      Date: Dec 17, 1822 - Dec 21, 1822
      Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series I: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777-1867
    • This time Johnson petitions for his emancipated daughter to be permitted to remain in Virginia. Johnson tells the legislature that he is becoming "old and feeble" and explains that Lucy's husband, Spencer Malvin, deserted her and their small children when it was discovered that he was circulating abolitionist literature. In support of his case, Johnson asks the legislature to take into consideration his own “life of incessant toil" as well as his long-time devotion to the town where he lived and its people.
      Folder: 001542-020-0248
      Date: Jan 19, 1835 - Feb 11, 1835
      Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series I: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777-1867
    • Nearly four decades since he first sought an opportunity to purchase his own freedom, Johnson once again petitions the Virginia legislature so that his daughter and grandchildren be permitted to remain in Virginia.
      Folder: 001542-020-0552
      Date: Jan 25, 1837 - Dec 31, 1837
      Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series I: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777-1867

In the end, Johnson never convinced the legislature to grant permission for Lucy to stay in Virginia. She did remarry, a man who was a slave and who, therefore, couldn’t leave the state. Lucy took her chances as an illegal resident of Virginia and chose to remain in the only home she’d ever known. 


Sheppard, Eva Wolf. Almost Free, edited by Eva Wolf Sheppard, University of Georgia Press, 2012. Available from ProQuest Ebook Central 

ProQuest History Vault: 
Southern Life, Slavery, and the Civil War

This category consists of four modules: Slavery and the Law; two modules of Southern Life and African American History, 1775-1915, Plantations Records; and a module on the Civil War entitled "Confederate Military Manuscripts and Records of Union Generals and the Union Army." Slavery and the Law features petitions on race, slavery, and free blacks that were submitted to state legislatures and county courthouses between 1775 and 1867. Southern Plantation Records document the far-reaching impact of plantations on both the American South and the nation. Plantation records are both business records and personal papers because the plantation was both the business and the home for plantation owners. The Confederate Military Manuscripts module brings together unique collections that are being digitized for the first time.

Looking for additional Civil War resources? 

Check out Alexander Street’s Civil War database with indexed, searchable information on 4.3 million soldiers and thousands of battles, together with 16,000 photographs. It contains all of the more than 4,600 known regimental rosters, 3,461 regimental chronicles, and 1,010 officer profiles. Hundreds of individuals have contributed more than 100,000 hours to its creation.

Learn more and sign up for free trials of these and additional resources to enhance research.