General Information Liberty Life

Remember to carry your “Freedom Papers”

Servant tag from 1800's
Servant tag from 1800’s

While most Americans could walk around freely without identification papers, the situation was far different for African Americans for much of the nation’s history.

Slaves who left their home plantation — for example when they were hired out — were required to carry written slave passes or metal identification tags that were similar to soldiers’ dog tags. The tags were typically stamped with the person’s occupation and the year he or she was hired out, according to the Smithsonian magazine.

Slaves who escaped, were freed or bought their own freedom would try to get freedom papers or certificates of freedom. They lived in constant fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, according to the University of Pittsburgh.

Free African Americans in Pennsylvania, for example, would go to court and apply for a certificate of freedom. They had to prove they were born free or had been freed, often using legal documents like manumission or emancipation papers. If the court was satisfied, it would issue a certificate with a detailed description of the person, including skin shade, hair texture and any scars, according to the University of Pittsburgh.

Because kidnappers might find and destroy the free person’s papers, free African Americans often registered their papers with a county deeds office, the university said.

Sometimes free people without legal papers would be confined in jails on suspicion of being escaped slaves. They would have to try and get witnesses to come to their defense and swear that they were in fact free, the university said.

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