In the times of slavery, many freed Black people were forced into an impossible choice: leave their loved ones behind or face an America that would never truly allow them to be free.
These were the options presented to Percy Ann Martin, a freed woman who did what, today, we would perceive as the unthinkable. She petitioned the courts to return to slavery rather than be separated from her husband.
But what really drove her and others to make this request? Laws passed in the 1800s were deliberately designed to keep even freed Black people in bondage. Southern states demanded impossibly high taxes on freed Blacks and senselessly punished them with laws for being too “idle” or “immoral.” Breaking these laws could land freedmen in jail or back enslaved.
Some states went as far as to expel all freed Blacks, resenting their freedom so much, the state forced them out of the only home they had ever known. Slave owners even insidiously encouraged strong family relationships to keep as many people enslaved as possible, relating the idea of freedom to separation from family.
Percy Ann Martin and many other freed Blacks faced this impossible choice, which really wasn’t a choice at all. They never truly desired to return to slavery, because, even in freedom, they were enslaved by a political system designed to keep them in chains.