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For much of North Carolina’s history its General Assembly sought to strike a balance between the undeniable utility of black people’s armed labor and the threat that gun-toting black people were thought to pose. Masters equipped their slaves with firearms much like many other tools and many citizens turned to the Assembly to undertake measures to ensure that this armed labor did not compromise white people’s safety or property. The state’s legislature dictated the terms under which masters could arm their slaves and while some slaveholders defiantly used armed African-descended laborers as they wished most white people believed that armed slaves should be kept under a responsible white person’s control. Further, many white people harnessed free people of color’s subordinate armed labor. Since free people of color used firearms to feed themselves much as many white people did the legislature regulated free people of color’s gun use, in effect claiming mastery over them.

The Assembly gave white people wide discretion through their county courts to manage the armed slaves and free black people in their communities. Slaveholders, court officials, and petitioners all played roles in the decision making processes about which free or enslaved black people could be entrusted to legally bear arms. More important than the ways that white people harnessed black North Carolinians’ armed labor, free and enslaved black people’s firearm use was incredibly valuable to their own families and communities. People of color’s armed labor provided a means through which they could more easily provide for and protect themselves and other members of their respective communities. Armed black laborers held a great deal of labor potential that was iv incredibly valuable for whomever controlled their labor whether that was themselves, their slaveholders or employers, or even municipal authorities. Armed black people’s utility coupled with the latent threat that some people believed that it held and this delicate situation ensured that people of color’s firearm use would remain a contentious topic for North Carolinians and their competing personal and public interests from the colonial era through to the end of the Civil War.


All rights reserved to Antwain K. Hunter. This dissertation was initially published by the University of Pennsylvania and can be found here.

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