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Black Jacks

JEFF BOLSTER INTERVIEW (Continued) So these people were predominantly free men in an era of slavery? What happens when a person who has some freedom arrives in a world full of slavery? How does he fit into this world?

Bolster: That question speaks to the raising of political consciousness, to the raising the political sensibilities among free men of color who worked aboard ships in a world that was still defined by slavery. We have numerous instances of free black men from the north or England sailing into a southern harbor or southern river and being captured, being kidnapped, being stolen back into slavery. This happened thousands and thousands of times. It's clearly documented.

We have instances in which one of the most famous black men of his generation, Captain Paul Couffe, a free black man from Massachusetts, who was a ship builder and a ship owner, who sailed primarily with crews composed of African American and Indian men. (He) found his crew detained. Traveled overland to speak personally with the president of the United States demanding that he have a clearance for his ship. We have many other instances in which after 1822 southern states following the lead of South Carolina, began to jail black men simply by being free and arriving in a southern state where slavery still existed. Free men were taken off their ships and put in jail until their ships sailed. My calculations show that there were over 10,000 free black northern men who spent time in southern prisons simply for arriving as free sailors on ships and being detained in New Orleans or Charleston or Savannah or elsewhere.

So the implications of seafaring for free men was that it heightened their political consciousness, frequently made them quite afraid. It also led to a certain bravado. I found instances of men who individually had been jailed seven or eight times in southern ports. In other words, they kept returning they kept working aboard ship knowing full well that upon arrival in Charleston or Louisiana they would be put into jail and they were, seven, eight, nine times. I found ships articles being signed "Liverpool, England" where the black men consented ahead of time knowing that they were going to New Orleans that of course they would be put into jail. So there was a certain degree of bravado, of standing up to "The Man" that comes through in those records. Clearly however, these were northern men, English men who became the eyes and ears of their communities by sailing into the heartland of slavery, spending time in jail, rubbing elbows with slaves in those jails and then sailing back out again in many instances to disseminate what they had learned.

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