Freedmen’s Colony, where enslaved Africans in North Carolina proved they could manage their own affairs

Stephen Nartey November 22, 2022
Freedmen's Colony/Photo credit: National Park Service

The Freedmen’s Colony came into existence in May 1863 after the federal government decided that with the influx of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans making it to Roanoke Island for their freedom, they should be given a chance to consolidate their liberty.

The federal government tasked Union Army Chaplain Reverend Horace James to ensure that the enslaved Africans were well equipped as they transition to freedom physically and educationally to be able to run their own affairs. That is how Roanoke Island offered a sanctuary and became a safe refuge for freed slaves and even for those who had run away from their slaveholders after the Civil War, according to Roanoke Island website.

Historical accounts indicate that the experiment of the freed slaves managing their own affairs became an overnight success with significant evidence of infrastructure and investment in education to show for it.

The Freedmen’s Colony was an opportunity given by the federal government after Union troops were victorious in the Battle of Roanoke Island in 1862. The land was allocated to them as a show of appreciation for the enslaved Africans’ role in the war and fortified the confederate army’s defenses on the island. It attracted scores of runaway slaves from neighboring areas, especially those who were courageous to make the journey to the Freedmen’s Colony.

No slave ever maintained his status as someone under captivity the moment they stepped foot on the island and were out for their freedom. The inhabitants were the offshoots of the war fought by the Union army and their contributions in diverse ways to ensure the war was won in 1862.

Some of the freedmen assisted the Union troops in their military campaign while others offered their skills in trade by rebuilding forts on Hatteras Islands, New Bern, and Roanoke Island among other military bases throughout North Carolina. The women helped with domestic tasks for the Union leaders.

The Freedmen’s Colony expanded in influence and its numbers grew exponentially. In his Annual Report of the Superintendent of Negro Affairs in North Carolina in 1864, Rev. James indicated that the enslaved Africans had made significant progress in infrastructure and education with a handful of bottlenecks.

This success was short-lived after the casualties of the Civil War began to escalate once more. The Union army needed men to assist them to re-stamp their authority. They called on the ex-soldiers of Roanoke Island and, out of the estimated 4,000 recruits from North Carolina, 150 of the officers were from Roanoke Island.

The island was left with a handful of tradesmen because of the many recruited into the army from the colony. The inhabitants of the colony had to rely on government support to survive. The government however reneged on its promise to provide them with adequate rations to enable them to survive.

Another devastating blow dealt to the Freedmen’s Colony was when the government asked that lands forcefully acquired by the Union troops must be returned to the original owners. The protection and rights covering the enslaved Africans were withdrawn despite the investment they had made on the island.

With time the island went into extinction and no longer became a safe haven for enslaved Africans. Over half of the colony’s population migrated to other parts of the country in search of greener pastures from 1865 to 1866. The colony was formally disbanded in 1867.

There are a few descendants of the Freedmen’s Colony who occupy parts of the land today maintaining the virtues of hard work, education and the entrepreneurial spirit their ancestors left them with.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 22, 2022


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