Free Blacks

By: Douglas Hales

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: October 22, 2020

Free Blacks in Texas experienced freedom under four different governments-those of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and Texas as the twenty-eighth state of the Union. Free Blacks were never a large population in Texas; in the 1860 census they numbered less than 400, but may have been twice that many. Free Blacks, nevertheless, made a significant contribution to the early history of Texas. Blacks often accompanied Spanish expeditions to the Texas area. It was not uncommon for succeeding expeditions to find people of African and mixed ancestry living within Indian communities. In permanent settlements established in Texas by the Spanish, Blacks and persons of mixed ancestry constituted a large segment of the outposts. As of 1792 the Black and mulatto population constituted 15 percent of the 2,992 people living in Spanish Texas. Within the Spanish empire, the legal status of free Blacks resembled that of the Indian population. The law required free Blacks to pay tribute, forbade them to carry firearms, and restricted their freedom of movement. In practice Spanish officials ignored such restrictions, often encouraging the manumission of slaves. The small number of Spanish subjects in Texas and the vast distances between settlements also brought about the intermarriage of Whites, Blacks, and Indians. While most free Blacks in Texas before 1800 were born there, thereafter an increased emigration to Texas of free Blacks and some escaped slaves from the southern United States began to take place. After the Mexican War of Independence (1821), the Mexican government offered free Blacks full rights of citizenship, allowing land ownership and other privileges. Mexico accepted free Blacks as equals to White colonists. Favorable conditions for free Blacks in Texas in the 1830s led one noted abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, to seek authorization for the establishment of a Black colony from the United States. While the Mexican government expressed interest in the idea, opposition from Whites in Texas and the United States precluded its implementation. Free Blacks, as did other frontiersmen, continued to emigrate to Texas seeking an opportunity for advancement and a better life. One such free Black was William Goyens, who migrated to Texas from North Carolina in the early 1820s and later became a prominent blacksmith near Nacogdoches. From 1835 to 1838 Goyens would act as an interpreter for Sam Houston with the East Texas Indians.

Numerous free Blacks fought for Texas independence-some fearing Anglo retribution if they did not serve, and others sharing Anglo beliefs about the Mexican government. Free Black Samuel McCulloch, Jr., appears to have been the first casualty of the Texas Revolution, receiving a shoulder wound when the Texans captured the Mexican fort at Goliad in October 1835. Hendrick Arnold served with Erastus (Deaf) Smith at the capture of San Antonio and later in the battle of San Jacinto. Wyly Martin's slave Peter gained his freedom after he voluntarily carried military supplies with his own wagon. Several landed free Black families contributed money and supplies to the cause. Even with these and many other sacrifices, free Blacks in Texas saw many fundamental changes in their lives after the revolution. While the Mexican government treated free Blacks as equal citizens and began to pursue the abolition of slavery, the Republic of Texas sought to restrict the freedoms they already enjoyed and strengthened the institution of slavery. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas designated people of one-eighth African blood as a separate and distinct group, took away citizenship, sought to restrict property rights, and forbade the permanent residence of free Blacks without the approval of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Interracial marriages were also legally prohibited. Ironically, local communities and legislators that favored the new provisions often did not want them enforced within their districts. Documents show that prominent Whites were known to intercede on behalf of free Blacks in danger of being prosecuted by the new regulations. A stricter law passed in 1840, which gave free Blacks two years to leave Texas or risk being sold into slavery, was effectively postponed by President Sam Houston. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s manumitted slaves who remained in Texas without seeking legal sanction from the legislature formed a third category of Blacks in Texas-those who were neither free nor enslaved. After annexation, the legislature passed stricter laws governing the lives of free Blacks. These new laws called for harsh punishments usually reserved only for slaves, including branding, whipping, and forced labor on public works. In 1858 the legislature even passed a law that encouraged free Blacks to reenter slavery voluntarily by allowing them to choose their own masters. The increased restrictions and the rise in White hostility resulted in a virtual halt to additional free Black immigration to Texas and may have caused a reduction in the Texas population of free Blacks. The United States census reported 397 free Blacks in Texas in 1850 and 355 in 1860, though there may have been an equal number of free Blacks not counted.

Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989). Lyle N. McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984). Harold Schoen, "The Free Negro in the Republic of Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 39–41 (April 1936-July 1937).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Douglas Hales, “Free Blacks,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 22, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
October 22, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: