Ralf Freeman historical marker

Ralf Freeman (K-57)

Free black served as a Baptist pastor at Rocky River Church until law in 1831 barred blacks from public preaching. Buried 500 yards west.

Location: US 52 at Cemetery Road in Ansonville
County: Anson
Original Date Cast: 1998

Historian Guion Griffis Johnson identified three preachers—John Chavis, Henry Evans, and Ralph Freeman--as “probably the three best-known free Negroes of the antebellum period” in North Carolina. The story of “Ralph” (also spelled Ralf and, occasionally, Rafe) is less well known than that of the other two. Born a slave, Ralph belonged to John Culpeper (1764-1841), minister to the Baptist congregation at Rocky River in Anson County. In 1806 Culpeper was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first of six terms, the last concluding in 1829. When he rode off for the District, Culpeper left the church in the hands of his faithful servant, who performed all duties as a supply pastor, among them sermons, weddings, funerals, and the like. Baptist minutes in 1809 list him as “Elder Ralf,” while beginning in 1811 his name appears as Ralf Freeman indicating that he had been freed. Described as “perfectly black” with a smiling countenance, Freeman was popular with members of both races in his home church and preached to Baptists in neighboring counties and across the Pee Dee region.

In 1831, in the fevered atmosphere following the insurrection led by Nat Turner in southeastern Virginia, the North Carolina legislature enacted a law forbidding blacks from preaching to gatherings where slaves of different masters were gathered. A petition was circulated expressing the “earnest desire” that Freeman be permitted to exercise his gift of preaching the Gospel. It garnered eighty-three signatures but failed to gain the support of legislators. Freeman is said to have been “greatly mortified” by the turn of events and thereafter largely disappears from the historical record. He transferred his membership to Bethlehem, an anti-missionary Baptist church about five miles east of Rocky River and was buried there around 1838.

Guion Griffis Johnson, Ante-Bellum North Carolina (1937)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 238-239—sketch by John R. Woodard
George W. Purefoy, A History of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association (1859)
E. M. Brooks, History of the Rocky River Baptist Church (1928)
Mary L. Medley, History of Anson County, North Carolina, 1750-1976 (1976)
John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (1943)
General Assembly Session Records, 1832-1833, North Carolina State Archives

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