May 27, 2010

Manumission Documents

Posted in Manumission tagged at 12:01 am by Wyllo

Manumission [man-yuh-mish-uhn]
n. Liberation from slavery, bondage, or restraint; a setting free; emancipation. [To complete the usual legal ceremony of manumission in ancient Rome, the master turned the slave around and released him from his hand before a magistrate.]Emancipate
2 n. The act of manumitting, or of liberating a slave from bondage.
3 n. The formal act of freeing someone from slavery

Manumission Documents were a legally binding instrument of manumission — the freeing a slave from slavery. Some states, Kentucky for instance, required two white people other than the owner to be signatories for the act of manumission to be considered legal. Otherwise, any former slave who had been manumitted could be seized and re-sold into slavery.

Most often, manumission documents were recorded by the Town Clerk in the town where the slave was freed, but they were not always recorded in the most conspicuous of places. In some towns, they were recorded in the Highway Books, while other records of this type were likely to be in the Recorder’s Office in the “Miscellaneous Records” or the County Deed Books. (When searching for these records, it is a good practice to look for any and all transactions made by the slaveowner.) Sometimes the transaction might be a Bill of Sale or Transfer of Property, followed later by a Deed of Emancipation. Books of Court Orders held the free register entries; Free Blacks in most states were required to register their proof of their freed status. Court Order Books also recorded when an FPOC (freed person of color) registered their proof, the circumstances under which they established their freedom (birth/emacipation), and when the person last registered.

Manumission papers were (in a way) a type of “identification card” given to a slave at the time he/she was freed. The paper was signed by the former owner of the slave to certify that the person bearing the paper was indeed a freed man or woman; and in some states, as mentioned above, other signatures may have been required.

Since African-Americans could not testify in court, their Manumission Papers spoke for them. Escapees who tried to pass as an FPOC needed more than a fake pass, which made the trafficing of forged manumission documents prior to and near the beginning of the antebellum period a lucrative business. Proof that the trade in forged documents sometimes appeared in newspaper advertisements where an owner was searching out an escaped slave:

“… He is likey to have forged papers that will have freed him in January 1816…”

Later into the antebellum period, however, manumission papers became more standardized as printed forms that required a fairly detailed personal information about the bearer. They were often a typeset paper with either lines or empty spaces where the owner could write in information pertaining to the freed person. This standardization made it much more apparent as to who may or may not be free.
In some cases, however, manumission was not permitted:

“I made personal application to the court, but it was judged that I had done nothing ‘meritorious;’ and thus I remained the slave of Mr. Smith for one year, when, feeling unsafe in that relation, I accompanied him to New York, whither he was going to purchase goods, and there I was legally and in due form made a FREEMAN, and there my manumission is recorded.” —Lunsford Lane; or, Another Helper from North Carolina.

After The Emancipation Proclamation was voiced by President Abraham Lincoln, the word emancipated was often substituted for manumitted on legal documents. The document manumitted nearly 4,000,000 slaves, most of them in the South.

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