Petition of Joseph Tate, 1839

Free Black man requests permission to reside in Texas

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by Kathryn Siefker, Associate Curator of Exhibition Content

In the early 1830s, Joseph Tate was a free Black man from Jasper County enjoying the full rights of citizenship provided him, and all free persons of color, by the Mexican government in Texas. His immigration to Texas had been encouraged by the government who had offered him liberty and land. 

Like many Texans, Tate served in the Texas Army during the fight for independence from Mexico. But once the Constitution of the Republic of Texas was made official in September 1836, he found himself subject to laws that denied him citizenship. Instead of celebrating independence from Mexico with the majority of Texans, he now had to seek permission from the legislature to continue to live in Texas, not as a full citizen, but as a resident. 

The 1836 Texas Constitution decreed that "no free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic, without the consent of congress." The following year, on June 5, 1837, Congress amended this requirement, allowing any free Black resident living in Texas before the Declaration of Independence to remain as long as they wished. Tate was one of the roughly 150 free Black residents in the Republic who qualified for this exemption. A petition requesting permission for Tate to remain in the Republic was submitted on his behalf to the Texas Congress in November 1839. The document was signed by more than 90 Jasper citizens who vouched that the “petitioner is a sober, honest, steady, industrious and inoffensive man and decree that his petition be favorably received duly corresponded if possibly.”

While Tate’s residency permit was granted, his December 1839 application to obtain land in neighboring Jefferson County was denied "in consequence of his ebony coloring." A heated debate had broken out in Congress that same December over the continued residence of free Blacks. Legislators argued that the presence of free Blacks living as responsible, hard-working residents undermined the belief that they were inferior and thus called into question the legitimacy of slavery.

In February 1840, Congress therefore instituted “An Act Concerning Free Persons of Color” which ordered all free Blacks to leave the Republic within two years, unless granted an exemption by Congress. Those who weren’t granted an exemption and didn’t leave could be sold into slavery. The act also outlawed the immigration of free Blacks into the Republic. The public outcry in response to the act subsequently prompted “An Act for the Relief of Certain Free Persons of Color” in December 1840. Also known as the “Ashworth Act” for the people named in the petition, it once more allowed all free persons of color present before the 1836 Declaration of Independence to remain in Texas. Those that came after were still subject to the February 1840 law and had two years to leave the Republic. When those two years were up, they were granted one more year to leave, and then an additional two years.

In spite of constantly changing laws that made every day an uncertainty for free Blacks, they persevered— purchased land, owned businesses, raised their families, contributed to their communities, and found ways to succeed.


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Petition of Joseph Tate, 1839 Artifact from Jasper, Texas
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