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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Charlotte Forten Grimke, ca. 1870s
Charlotte Forten Grimké
- A free man of color in the South, autobiography of Willis Hodges, written 1848-1849, excerpts (PDF)
- A free woman of color in the North, journal of Charlotte Forten, 1854-1859, excerpts (PDF)

It is helpful at this point to view some demographic statistics (in rounded numbers):1
  • Of the total U.S. population in 1860 (31 million):
       Enslaved blacks comprised about 13% (4 million)
       Free blacks comprised about 1½ (500,000).
  • Of the total African American population in 1860 (4.5 million)
       Enslaved blacks comprised about 89% (4 million)
       Free blacks comprised about 11% (500,000).
  • Of the free black population, 47% (226,000) lived in free states.
Of the free black population, the percentage of free-born is difficult to determine, yet their influence in the lives of their fellow freemen, newly freed slaves in the North, and later for enslaved blacks, extended beyond what numbers can imply. If one's identity as "American citizen" means "free," then free-born blacks held a unique position among black abolitionists. We look at the early years of two free-born African Americans of very different backgrounds who later became abolition activists in the North.

  • Willis Augustus Hodges. Born in 1815 into a free black family in Virginia, Hodges wrote his autobiography in his mid thirties, stressing his dual intent (1) to make known the "wrongs and sufferings [of] the free people of color in the southern states," and (2) to counter the prevalent and self-serving opinion among whites that enslaved blacks were happier and more secure than free blacks. In these selections on his childhood, Hodges recounts how white men used lies, trickery, and terror to intimidate and control free blacks, using tactics like those of slave patrollers before 1865 and the Ku Klux Klan after 1865. In 1896, half a century after it was written, Hodges's autobiography was published by his son in The Indianapolis Freeman, a black newspaper.

  • Charlotte Forten. When she began her private journal in 1854, Charlotte Forten was the sixteen-year-old daughter of free parents in Philadelphia (and granddaughter of sailmaker and abolitionist James Forten, Sr.; see #4: Entrepreneurs), beginning a new phase of her life as the only African American student in a white school in Salem, Massachusetts. Later she became active herself as an abolitionist—the well-known Charlotte Forten Grimké. Here we read her journal entries as an adolescent schoolgirl pursuing her personal intellectual interests as well as her burgeoning activism as a free woman of color, having witnessed the tumultuous events in Boston around the 1854 trial of captured fugitive slave Anthony Burns and his forced return to the South. These selections include as an appendix the 1848 poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," which Forten reads during the Burns trial. (Also see her 1864 Atlantic Monthly article on teaching freed slaves in South Carolina in #8: Education.)
Also consider the selections by the free-born black businessmen William J. Brown and Mifflin Gibbs in #4: Entrepreneurs. (20 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Compare and contrast the experiences of Willis Hodges and Charlotte Forten in their youth. How do they relate to themselves as free-born African Americans?
  2. How are their experiences influenced by region, family status, education, and other personal and socio-economic factors?
  3. How do other blacks—enslaved and formerly enslaved—respond to them? How do Hodges and Forten interpret and adjust to these responses?
  4. How do white people—southern and northern, pro- and anti-slavery—respond to them? How do Hodges and Forten interpret and adjust to these responses?
  5. How do questions #3-4 help us analyze the "identity" of a person or group in the past?
  6. How accurate can we be? Do inaccuracies invalidate the effort? Why or why not?
  7. From the readings in this Toolbox, contrast the self-image ("identity") of enslaved blacks, freedmen (freed slaves) and freemen (free-born African Americans). To what extent do their experiences—and how they recount their experiences—reflect these designations?
  8. Create a dialogue between Hodges and Forten on the eve of the Civil War, evaluating the situation of black Americans in 1860-1861, and predicting their future into the twentieth century.
  9. Create a guidebook with Q&A for newly emancipated slaves (1865) on "becoming and being free," co-authored by Hodges and Forten with William Brown and Mifflin Gibbs (see Entrepreneurs, #4). What will be most important in the minds of the newly freed? in the minds of the always free?

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Willis Hodges autobiography:   7
Charlotte Forten journal: 13
TOTAL 20 pages
Supplemental Sites
Willis Augustus Hodges, full text of autobiography, as digital images of 1982 Gatewood edition, in In Motion, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library (see entry #9)

Charlotte Forten Grimké, biography, works, quotations, and scholars' comments, in Only a Teacher (PBS)

Charlotte Forten Grimké, biography and bibliography, in Voice from the Gaps: Women Artists and Writers of Color, from the University of Minnesota

Capture and Trial of Anthony Burns, 1854 African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts, from the Massachusetts Historical Society

Data Analysis: African Americans on the Eve of the Civil War, data compiled by Dr. Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College

Population density maps, from the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, Northern Illinois University

1 Dr. Patrick Rael, Dept. of History, Bowdoin College:
-"Free Black Activism in the Antebellum North," The History Teacher (39:2), February 1996, online at
-"Data Analysis: African Americans on the Eve of the Civil War," at, citing "Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790-1970" [Computer file] (Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, 1997).

Images reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library:
- Charlotte Forten Grimké, studio portrait, ca. 1870s. Digital ID #18SCCDV.
- Willis Augustus Hodges, illustration in I. Garland Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, 1891. Digital ID #1153923.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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