The Author’s Corner with Warren Milteer

North Carolina's Free People of ColorWarren Milteer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book, North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is derived from my interests in my family history. My passion for researching my family roots led me to conduct research in archives and courthouses. The information that I uncovered encouraged me to ask broader questions about the experiences of free people of color, both my ancestors as well as others who shared the same status. Free people of color became the focus of my academic research during my undergraduate studies. I continued my work through graduate school and wrote my dissertation on the topic. North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is a revised and expanded version of my project from graduate school.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: The book argues that intersections among freedom status, racial categorization, gender, wealth, occupation, reputation, and other forms of hierarchy created a wide range of experiences for free people of color in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The story of North Carolina’s free people of color challenges previous understandings of the American South as a place organized under a strict racial hierarchy, suggesting instead that free people of color lived in a society with a much more malleable social order that permitted some free people of color to become relatively successful while others struggled for their subsistence.

JF: Why do we need to read North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 offers us a fresh understanding of the origins and status of free people of color in North Carolina and to some extent the South more broadly. I provide readers with a careful analysis of the development of “free people of color” as a sociopolitical category in addition to exploring the diverse experiences of free people of color. Unlike most studies of free people of color in the South, I focus not only on the African origins of free people of color but also consider the importance of Native peoples in the growth of the population. This study of free people of color bridges the divide between the histories of people of African and Native descent in the South. My book highlights the importance of various forms of hierarchy in the daily lives of free people of color. The rights and privileges of free people of color were defined by their racial categorization but also by whether they were men or women, rich or poor, or considered respectable by their neighbors. Life for poor free persons of color differed significantly from the experiences of financially successful free people of color. Free men of color enjoyed privileges unavailable to free women of color. Furthermore, nearly one in eight of the South’s free people of color lived in North Carolina, making North Carolina a particularly appropriate site to examine in order to understand how freedom and slavery coexisted in pre-1865 America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WM: I have been interested in history since childhood. As a teenager, I developed a passion for historical research, which continued through college. During college, I decided to pursue the study of American history as a career.

JF: What is your next project?

WM: My next project focuses on free people of color in what would become the U.S. South from the colonial period through the Civil War. The project examines the evolution of the political debates concerning free people of color and how free people of color responded to the back and forth of social acceptance and political attacks.

JF: Thanks, Warren!