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Black History Month keynote speaker Burr traces roots of free Black people in America's antebellum period

March 5, 2021 - University of New Mexico School of Law Professor Emerita Sherri L. Burr shared the elaborate ancestral history of Africans in America before the Civil War era in her presentation "Genealogical Research into America's Antebellum Past: The Challenges of Finding the Enslaved, the Free, and Enslavers." Burr served the keynote speaker at the University of Houston Law Center's annual Black History Month lecture, which was held virtually on Feb. 25. Dean Leonard M. Baynes served as a commentator.

Burr used research from her book, "Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia, 1619-1865," as the focus of her talk. Part of the history of free Black people in the U.S. can be traced to two Dutch ships that arrived in 1619 in what is now considered Virginia, which eventually led to the first permanent settlement of Africans in this country.

"The first census was in 1790, but in Virginia and Maryland there were some census records that show Virginia had 1,800 free Blacks in a census taken around 1755," Burr said. "By 1790, Virginia had 12,766 free Blacks, which included my ancestors, and Maryland had 8,000. Throughout the entire Antebellum Period, there were always more free Blacks in the South than the North.

“Once people received their freedom they were in a community with relatives, and they didn't want to leave the territory. For others, how would they know what they're going to? Unless they had some kind of access to knowing about other places, they tended to stay put."

Burr said the population of free Black people grew organically through birth and manumission - a private release from slavery or servitude. However, the legal status of Africans was convoluted.

"By 1660, Virginia passed laws to base legal status on matrilineal heritage," Burr said. "This was a big shift from the legal status that coming out of England where it was patrilineal. They changed it so that status would be based on a free woman would give birth to free children and enslaved women would produce enslaved children. The legal status of the father was irrelevant - so an English master could impregnate his slaves and produce more slaves, but an English woman who had a child by enslaved person would give birth to a free person.”

Burr continued that following the Revolutionary war, many plantation owners started freeing their slaves. From 1786-1802, thousands of slaves were granted their freedom either by deed or will.

"This growing number caused consternation in the Virginia legislature,” Burr said. “In 1802, Virginia legislators passed a law requiring slaves granted freedom to leave Virginia within a year and a day of receiving their emancipation or manumission. They also passed a companion law that if free Blacks left Virginia to obtain an education in the North, they could not return to the state. That also encouraged people to keep their family close. If they sent their children away, they could not come back."

In his commentary, Baynes noted that the oral history of several Black family’s evidence that several of our founding presidents fathered children with enslaved African-American women. This sexual exploitation of Black women is an often-little discussed consequence of U.S. slave history. The Founding Father’s particular history in this regard is emblematic of this larger narrative explored by a McGill University study that examined the genealogy of African-Americans.

"The study said essentially all African-Americans have some European ancestry," Baynes said. "African-Americans living in the Southern states have more African-American ancestry than those in the North. Conversely, African-Americans outside the South have a larger fraction of European DNA. The study said most European DNA among people of African descent happened before the Civil War. Genetic patterns observed by the researchers suggest that at least for a century there was an ongoing mixture of Blacks and whites. Only after slavery did it drop off steeply."

Six years of tracking relatives and ancestors resulted in Burr’s book, which was published by the Carolina Academic Press in 2019. It received numerous awards and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. After hearing Burr present part of her research in 2018, the Aaron Burr Association unanimously voted to acknowledge that Aaron Burr fathered two children of color with Mary Emmons and that all of their descendants were legitimate members of the Fairfield Branch of the Burr Family.

In 2019, the Aaron Burr Association placed a memorial headstone, acknowledging his parentage, on the gravesite of John Pierre Burr at Eden Cemetery in Pennsylvania. Burr worked with the Aaron Burr Association for eight months to secure grant funding, design the headstone, arrange shipping, and installation.

The event was sponsored by the University of Houston Law Center’s Black Law Alumni group.

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