In 1805 the General Assembly passed a law to identify free African Americans and to control the availability of freedom papers. As the lawmakers explained: “great mischiefs have arisen from slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free under the faith of such certificates” (1805 Laws of Maryland Chapter 66). The law required African Americans who were born free to record proof of their freedom in the county court. The court would then issue them a certificate of freedom. If the black person had been manumitted, the court clerk or register of wills would look up the manumitting document before issuing a certificate of freedom.

A typical certificate not only indicates how the individual became free, but also lists physical characteristics that could be used to establish identity. These include height, eye color, complexion, and hair color and texture.

Washington County MD Court Certificates of Freedom

Washington County MD Circuit Court Certificates of Freedom and Manumissions

With support of a National Historical Publications and Records Commission Documenting Democracy Grant, the C2938 record series was completely digitized and item level processed by name in 2016. To search results, please visit the Legacy of Slavery database.

 

Typical Certificate

44
Maryland Washington County to Wit

I do hereby certify that it appears from the records of my office that the bearer here of Negro Patience was manumitted and set free by the will of Margaret Snyder late of said County deceased which will was regularly proved in the Orphans Court of said County on the 14th day of November 1808. The said Patience is at this time about twenty three years of age about five feet three inches higf her colour not so dark as Negroes in general, a large mouth thick lips a scar on the back of her left hand near the wrist and a large black mole on the breast she is at this time a residence of the state of Maryland.

Given under my hand and the seal of my office this twenty third day of August in the year one thousand and eight hundred + twenty eight

Daniel Schnebly Register
Wills W.C. Md