The Negro Act of America


SLAVES in America were governed by a law called ‘the Negro Act’ which made it permissible by law for black people to be bought, sold and used as slaves by anyone classified as white in that country. This week we look at some of the provisions of the Negro act.
When slavery was legalised each state in America enacted its own Negro act.
The Negro act defined who qualified under the act and stipulated the fines and forms of punishment applicable for any crimes committed by the Negro slaves in the particular state.
In this article we focus on the Negro Act of South Carolina, a state with many Jewish slave traders. It was a typical slave country with a big population of blacks.
According to the Negro Act of South Carolina, the term Negro was confined to slave Africans who were mainly the ancient Berbers and their descendants.
The Berbers are the blacks of North Africa. The term Negro did not embrace the free inhabitants of Africa such as the Egyptians, Moroccans and the Asiatics.
The Negro Act also defined the term “mulatto” as a person of mixed race between white and Negro. According to the Negro Act the mulatto ceased to be white because of what was described as a Scot slight taint of the African blood. (Scotland was predominantly black at one stage).
The Scot slight taint of African blood was the mark of the mulatto and it would hinder him from enjoying any white benefits even if he was the son of a white man.
However, if the mulatto had been whitewashed over generations and was now almost indistinguishable to the white man he was known as a soft mulatto. The Negro Act secured him or her more rights than the Negro and the hard (dark hued) mulatto.
There was also the issue of the indigenous Americans who were called Indians. The indigenous Americans were black and sometimes indistinguishable from the Negro. For instance, when the first American Indians were shipped to Spain, the slave markets classified them as Negro slaves. There were also Mongol people who reached America from the Far East and crossed the bearing strait. These were eventually called Red Indians.
The Negro Act also defines the term mestizo as the mixing of the Red Indian and the Negro. The mestizo because of the presence of African blood in him was hindered from enjoying the privileges of a white person unlike the Red Indians.
The Red Indians were presented as ‘People with the blood of freedom, like that of the whites; there is nothing degrading in it, and hence, therefore the Indian and his descendants may well claim to be white within the legal meaning of our constitution.’
The Negros, mulattos and mestizoes were called persons of colour. Among these were the slaves. The Negro Act also provides for how a slave could be freed by his master by mutual consent and a judicial hearing. The freeing of a slave was known as emancipation and there was a set of laws that if the white master and the black slaves did not follow properly in that process, they would be liable to imprisonment, punishment or fine.
The owner and his slave were required to show up at the court of justice before five white witnesses, and upon oath, to answer all such questions as they might ask concerning the character and capability of the slave. If they found the slave rebellious they would not endorse him and they would not grant him a certificate of emancipation.
However, if they found the slave honest and not of bad character, they would grant him the certificate and it would be declared legal and valid within 6 months after the execution. The emancipated slave was required to carry a copy of the certificate of emancipation and the slave owner the original copy.
The slaves had many skills and talents and at times the slave master would make profits from their abilities. This was usually the case with sporting blacks who whites would gamble with. In order for the slave to be motivated and to make profits for his master, sometimes the two of them would agree on granting the slave freedom after making the master certain profits or working for an agreed period of time.
Aged and ill slaves would sometimes be emancipated instead of the slave master having the burden of looking after them. There were also some slaves who were served for an agreed period after which they were freed.
The Negro act classified the slave as property. In the first chapter called; ‘the Status of the Negro, his Rights and Disabilities’, the act declares negroes, mulattos and mestizoes to be slaves. Their offspring were to follow the condition of their mothers and thus would be born as slaves. Such slaves were called chattels personal which meant chartered property such as cattle.
‘Under this provision, it has been uniformly held, that colour is prima facie evidence, that the party bearing the colour of a negro, a hard mulatto or mestizo is a slave’ read the Negro Act a very degrading document to the black people of America.
In the case of the freed (emancipated) Negros, mulattos and mestizoes, the law protected them by declaring anyone convicted of their forcible abduction, or assisting therein, to be liable to a fine of no less than $1000 , and imprisonment of not less than 12 months. The black man with his freedom papers was thus entitled to all the rights of property. That is the right to protect his person and property, by action or indictment; a right which the white inhabitants of the state were entitled to.
The freed blacks were expected to work and pay tax and if they failed to, they could be seized and sold back into slavery for a term not exceeding one year or a term long enough for them to pay the due taxes.
The free slaves were also only allowed to work and live in specified areas and if apprehended by whites in other jurisdictions, the free slave could be seized and sold again. In such a case, half the money of the slaves’ proceeds would go to the informer or catcher and the other half to the state.
The Negro Act also stated that a slave cannot legally marry and any marriage among slaves and between slaves and free Negros was legally deemed as concubinage. The act also authorized sheriffs, military and police officers to do as they saw fit in raiding, disciplining, dispersing slaves and free Negros found assembled for they feared resistance.
The Negro, mulatto or mestizo who was involved in plundering or vandalizing property, setting ablaze the agricultural produce of whites, helping slaves escape or poisoning anyone, was to suffer death. The so-called emancipated slaves were not free but were actually on a very short leash.


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