By Maury York
Free Negroes, though few in number relative to the entire population, had an impact on the development of Franklin County prior to the Civil War.
Many of them worked as farm laborers, but some pursued important crafts.
According to the 1850 census, Blacknall was black and had
been born in Virginia.
A few possessed real or personal property, and at least two in 1860 - John Hogwood and Thomas Blacknall - owned slaves.
According to Dr. John Hope Franklin, author of The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, most free blacks lived in rural areas of the eastern part of the state.
Some were freed by their masters, others purchased their own freedom, and some escaped slavery.
Through these means and natural increase, the number of free blacks in North Carolina grew from 5,041 in 1790 to 30,463 in 1860.
At this time, nearly a million people, including 331,059 slaves, lived in the state.
In the Upper Tar River region, fewer free blacks lived in Franklin than in most surrounding counties.
At the time of the 1860 census, 566 free blacks out of a total population of 14,107 lived in Franklin County, whereas 1,123 made Granville their home, 2,452 lived in Halifax, 687 resided in Nash, and Wake had a free black population of 1,446. Warren County, whose full-blown plantation economy in 1860 was supported by more than 10,000 slaves out of a total population of 15,726, was home to only 402 free blacks.
As in other areas of eastern North Carolina, most free blacks in Franklin County worked on farms, but few owned land.
Farmers in 1850 included members of the Anderson, Dunce, Dunston, Fog and Mitchell families.
Quite a few craftsmen, however, contributed to the local economy.
These included carpenters Leonidas Anderson, Henry and James Dunston, and John Fog. John Mitchell built coaches, and several members of the Dunston family worked as blacksmiths.
Stone cutters or stone masons likely left a lasting legacy in the form of distinctive chimneys and building foundations. Among them were Hardy Floyd; Jacob Anderson; Icona Anderson, whose personal estate in 1850 amounted to $80; and Ruben Petifoot, who lived with his wife Julia, six children, and an elderly adult.
The 1860 census listed Blacknall and his family members as mulattos.
According to Dr. Franklin, in 1860 only two free blacks in Franklin County, John Hogwood and Thomas Blacknall, owned slaves (one and three, respectively).
Blacknall had acquired 175 acres of land on Lynch Creek in 1823 and in 1830 owned seven slaves. In 1836 he purchased additional property adjoining his farm. He raised livestock and grew corn, oats, wheat, and vegetables.
By 1860, with real estate valued at $6,000 and a personal estate of $1,300, Blacknall was one of the wealthiest free blacks in North Carolina.
Many of these people lived on the margin of society, and some suffered the indignity of being disfranchised by the Constitution of 1835. Nevertheless, they struggled to make a living and a contribution to the county's economy.
Published in The Franklin Times on August 15, 2013.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College.