“Navigating Free Black Citizenship: Port City Encounters from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro”
What can the life of a free black man from Baltimore tell us about the history of race, law, and citizenship? Going beyond a better known history derived from constitutions, statutes, and judicial opinions, this paper adopts a life history approach. The life story of George Hackett demonstrates how the nexus between race, law, and citizenship was also shaped by intimate negotiations in a local courthouse, on the one hand, and comparable contests over free black status throughout the Americas, on the other. In 1807, Hackett was born into a puzzle. Neither the state nor the federal constitution spoke to the status of free black Americans. Legislators were left to construct a distinct legal category – free persons of color – by regulating naturalization, immigration, and political rights. Neither slaves nor free white men, Hackett navigated a fragmented terrain. Some argued he was a denizen. Others likened him to an alien. Still others asserted he was a citizen. Not until the 1866 Civil Rights Act was the question clearly settled. Those born in the United States were citizens “without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.”
This framing of Hackett’s story is familiar. Historians have recognized how free men and women occupied a fraught status and how the Civil Rights Act marked a radical shift. Still, when we turn to Hackett’s life story we find new vantage points. Did he believe himself to be a citizen? In the 1840s and 1850s, Hackett conducted himself like a person with rights that courts would respect. When assaulted, Hackett charged a white Baltimorean, winning a judgment. As an AME Church Deacon he led public assemblies and litigated to secure his leadership and church property. As a business person, Hackett won permits that guaranteed his trade. Hackett invested in a lot and house expecting the court to enforce his deed. When financial difficulties hit, Hackett sought insolvency relief and was forgiven his obligations to creditors, black and white. And Hackett was head of a family secured by law, from a marriage license to the administration of his estate after death. Hackett’s story suggests how free black people in Maryland engaged race, law, and citizenship. Men like Hackett constructed a bundle of rights that resembled those later recognized by the Civil Rights Act: “to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, [and] to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”
This paper’s central concern is with how Hackett developed the vision and acumen necessary for such a campaign. One answer is also well known: free African Americans, to varying degrees, developed an insurgent political culture through churches, fraternal orders, and political organizations. For Hackett, each of these counter-publics in Baltimore bred ideas about rights and strategies for securing them. But again Hackett’s life story opens a new vantage point. He was also a sailor who, during his years at sea, acquired a critical perspective on the problem of free people of color. Between 1839 and 1841 as steward to the Commodore on the Navy’s USS Constitution, Hackett learned how challenges he faced Baltimore were animating port cities throughout the Americas. At Veracruz, U.S. diplomats negotiated with Mexico over the spread of slavery in North America. In Havana, colonial authorities barred the disembarkation of free sailors of color, fearing their capacity to destabilize slavery. In Rio de Janeiro, authorities confronted free people of color organized in brotherhoods through local regulations that circumscribed free black lives. In each of these cities, free black militias helped govern the city while also generating controversy.
Anchored in Valparaiso for many months, Hackett took in lessons about law. And what he saw may have surprised him. The hierarchical, regimented life aboard a naval frigate generated regular conflict. Some disputes were adjudicated on the spot. Serious or repeated infractions led to courts martial, more formal and public proceeding during which advocates maneuvered facts and law through ritualized proceedings. Hackett observed as the ship was transformed into a floating courthouse. Black crew members were permitted to testify against their white counterparts and witnessed the administration of lashes to white sailors. After two years at sea, the Commodore’s death led Hackett back to Baltimore. When he returned, he embarked on a new campaign becoming one of Baltimore’s most recognized leaders. His expectations were high, his sense of rights acute, and his primary venue: the local courthous