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1806 Bill Would Require Freedom Certificates


Within two decades after the passage of the Gradual Abolition Law of 1780, Pennsylvania's free African American population increased dramatically. Along with those freed by the gradual emancipation law, thousands of Blacks entered the commonwealth from Maryland, Virginia and other southern states, drawn by a new perception of Pennsylvania as a "free state," and place of refuge from bondage. While many of these new arrivals in the state were free persons of color, many more were not. Self-emancipated persons freely crossed the Mason-Dixon line and settled in communities of color both large and small, hoping to blend into and begin a new life as a resident of Pennsylvania.

As these African American communities grew, so did the apprehension of the neighboring white communities. While racism was the primary cause of these fears, regular incursions from southern slave hunters also created considerable unease and threatened the peace of many small towns. The idea that abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers were creating problems by encouraging and harboring freedom seekers was a popular theme of editorials in newspapers sympathetic to the southern slave interests.

A century earlier, Pennsylvania's Provincial Assembly passed a series of Black Codes in an effort to control the movements and limit rights of the colony's Black population. Those highly restrictive laws stood until struck down by the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act. Two decades later, Pennsylvania legislators, meeting in Lancaster, made another attempt at passing a law imposing tight controls over the commonwealth's Black residents. This "Act respecting Black and Mulatto persons" sought to limit the influx of people of color attempting to take up residence in the state by requiring the equivalent of court-issued freedom papers. Moreover, it would have required every person of color living in Pennsylvania to prove their own freedom to local authorities and thereafter maintain and keep a certificate of freedom for everyone in their household.

In a nod to the pro-slavery sympathisers, it also set up penalties for anyone who employed a Black or Mulatto person who lacked a freedom certificate, or who harbored anyone without such papers. It encouraged neighbors to spy on each other and inform authorities if they suspected the law was being broken by allocating half of all penalties as a reward to the informant.

Ultimately, this bill does not appear to have been brought up for a vote in the 30th Session. It remained in committee, appointed to make any needed alterations, and was reported on January 9, 1806 by Senator Presley Carr Lane, who ordered it's first reading. From there, it vanishes from the regular State Legislature news reported in the Lancaster newspapers. When the 30th-Session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly convened in the spring of 1806, it was not among the more than one-hundred laws passed in the session of 1805-1806.

Although state legislators failed to pass a statewide registration law for African Americans, the spirit of the 1806 bill re-appears in the ordinances passed in the boroughs of Lancaster and Harrisburg fifteen years later requiring all residents of color to register with local authorities. Control of African American communities would remain with local authorities for the next few decades.

An Act respecting Black and Mulatto persons

Bill Read in the 30th Session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly

Sect. I. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same That from and after the first day of (blank) next no black or mulatto person shall be permitted to settle or reside in this state unless he or she shall first produce a fair certificate from some court within the United States of their actual freedom which certificate shall be attested by the clerk of said court and the seal thereof annexed thereto by the said clerk.

Sect. II. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid That every free black or mulatto person residing within this state on or before the first day of (blank) one thousand eight hundred and six shall enter his or her name together with the name or names of his or her children in the prothonotary's office of the county in which he or they reside which shall be entered on record by said prothonotary and thereafter the prothonotary's certificate of such record shall be sufficient evidence of his her or their freedom and for every entry and a certificate thereof the prothonotary shall be entitled to receive (blank) cents to be paid by warrants drawn by the commissioners of the county on the treasurer thereof Provided nevertheless That nothing in this act contained shall bar the lawful claim of any person to such black or mulatto and in order to prevent imposition by transfer of such certificate aforesaid it is required and enjoined on the prothonotary issuing the same to note the age size and complexion of the person for whom it is granted.

Sect. III. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid That every black or mulatto person who sall come to reside in this state with such certificate as required in the first section of this act shall within (blank) months have the same recorded in the prothonotary's office in the county in which he or she means to reside for which he or she shall pay to the prothonotary (blank) cents and the prothonotary shall give him or her a certificate of such record.

Sect. IV. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid That no person or persons residents of this state shall be permitted to hire or in any way employ any black or mulatto person unless such black or mulatto person shall have one of the certicates as aforesaid under pain of forfeiting the sum of (blank) dollars for every such offence to be recovered before a justice of the peace in the same manner as debts of a similar amount are by law recoverable one half thereof for the use of the informer and the other half for the use of the poor of the township or county in which he she or they shall reside and shall moreover pay to the owner if any there be of such black or mulatto person the sum of (blank) cents for every day he she or they shall in any wise employ harbor or secret such black or mulatto person or shall in any wise hinder or prevent the lawful owner or owners from retaking and possessing his or her black or mulatto servant or servants which sum or sums shall be recovered before any justice of the peace in the same manner as debts of a similar amount are by law recoverable.


Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal, 24 January, 11 February, 31 March, 08 April 1806.

Harrisburg's 1821 registry of free Black residents was located several years ago in the city archives. Read about it here.
A complete transcription of names and page images from that original registry is available on this site.

Lancaster's "Negro Entry Book" is examined and detailed in the article "The Negro Entry Book:  A Document of Lancaster County's Antebellum African American Community," by Leroy T. Hopkins, Jr., published in the Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society.


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