Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (reweiw) [Watkins]

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (reweiw) [Watkins]

Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 2013
pages 575-577
DOI: 10.1353/jer.2013.0062

Andrea S. Watkins

Wolf, Eva Sheppard, Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

The tenuous status of free blacks within antebellum Virginia is examined by Eva Sheppard Wolf through the life of Samuel Johnson, a slave who purchased his own freedom and struggled over the course of the rest of his life to free his family and keep them together. His attempts to work within the legal framework established by the state and his own connections to powerful Virginia citizens illustrates the nebulous place free blacks held within antebellum society, as well as the role of personal relationships between black and white residents in achieving freedom and prosperity.

Wolf, associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, has pieced together a story of Johnson’s adulthood and family life through local court records and Virginia legislative petitions. The specifics of Samuel Johnson’s birth are not known, but his identification as “mulatto” in records indicates he had a slave mother and white father. Wolf suggests that Johnson’s white father may have found his mulatto slave son work in Norris Tavern in Warrenton, Virginia, the county seat for Fauquier County. As a tavern servant Johnson had the opportunity to forge relationships with white members of the community who came to Warrenton for court business and to save tip money to purchase his freedom. Johnson entered an agreement with his owner Edward Digges in 1802 to purchase his freedom for five hundred dollars. Virginia law regarding manumission of slaves changed in 1806. The new law established that freed slaves must leave the state within one year of liberation. Johnson had a choice to either continue to save and purchase his freedom with the knowledge he must leave or remain enslaved. The decision was not an easy one as he was married with two children by 1811, when he had collected the five hundred dollars.

Johnson’s choice demonstrates the importance of personal relationships in understanding race relations in the antebellum period. Over time Johnson had established ties with important white men within Warrenton, Fauquier County, and beyond. He was known as a hard-working slave and was viewed by many as an asset to the community. To leave Fauquier County, or Virginia, was to face a life of uncertainty. Would he find such valuable work in another state or find a place in a new community equal to the one he had in Warrenton? Thus, Johnson chose to petition the state legislature to allow him to remain in Virginia and he enlisted the help of various white citizens as witnesses to his character. His petition was passed by the legislature, and eventually Samuel Johnson became a free man on August 25, 1812. The fact that Johnson called on white slave owners to attest to his hard work, character, and value to the community reveals how often the relationships between blacks and whites in the early nineteenth century do not match the rhetoric of speeches and legislation critical and fearful of the presence of free blacks.

Wolf recounts how in the following years Johnson purchased his wife and two children, but their position was precarious as they could be sold for payment of Johnson’s debts, and he could not free them without fear that officials would expel them from the state one year after manumission. Johnson submitted petition after petition to the state’s authorities requesting that his family be allowed to remain with him when freed, and again and again those petitions failed to pass. Wolf successfully portrays the frustrations of trying to navigate the legal system of the time, but also the high stakes for Johnson and his family if he acted without legal provision. Johnson’s resourcefulness in garnering support throughout the white community is evident in his 1826 petition for his daughter Lucy that had the signatures of 226 people including white women and two U.S. congressmen. Johnson successfully purchased a home and land on the edge of Warrenton, and the family established a comfortable lifestyle until his death in 1842. At that time only his daughter and her children were still living. Johnson had already freed Lucy, taking the chance that his own standing and her ties to the local community would forestall any attempts to have…

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