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

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-06-01 17:38Z by Steven

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

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-05-21 14:41Z by Steven

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

Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 2, June 2014
pages 199-201
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.2014.0041

Padraig Riley, Assistant Professor of History
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

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

Almost Free is the story of Samuel Johnson of Warrenton, Virginia, a mixed-race slave who worked successfully to free himself and then purchased his wife and children in the early nineteenth century. Less successfully, he then struggled for many years to free his extended family, and to establish a legacy of black freedom in the heart of the slaveholding republic. Relying on a remarkable series of petitions Johnson sent to the Virginia state legislature from 1811 to 1837, Wolf reconstructs the man’s life and identity. This entails considerable speculation, but Wolf’s imaginings are balanced by a rich archival source base covering much of Johnson’s life. This accessible book is ideal for undergraduate instruction, and it is an important addition to scholarship on race and slavery. For Wolf, Samuel Johnson demonstrates that free blacks were not simply “slaves without masters” and that race in the antebellum South was a fluid concept, rather than a simple black-and-white proposition.

Wolf contends that race was not dictated by statute but rather was “something people themselves created and re-created in their multiple interactions with one another” (3). Samuel Johnson became free in 1812, well after an 1806 statute that compelled all freed slaves to leave the state within a year, under threat of being sold back into slavery. Because he wanted to remain in Virginia, he had to petition the state legislature. While most such petitions failed, Johnson’s succeeded because he was backed by both local whites and a few influential political figures. Thus, at the local level, whites did not simply act out the 1806 statute or Thomas Jefferson’s fears about the dangers of slave emancipation. They instead accepted Samuel Johnson as their neighbor, quite literally in the case of John and Maria Smith, who lived next door to him.

As a free man, Johnson saved money to purchase his wife and children, becoming, like many free black slaveholders, the master of his own family. He also owned land and sued white men in court. But, ultimately, the law left him and his family vulnerable. Despite numerous petitions to the state legislature, his family members were never allowed to remain in Virginia as free inhabitants. Had Johnson freed his family, they would have been legally bound to leave the state within a year; had he unexpectedly died, his family would have remained enslaved, subject to sale. In addition, Johnson suffered numerous other legal restraints as a free man of color, from restrictions on owning firearms to being unable to testify against a white man in court. He could be a white man’s neighbor, but he was very far from being his equal.

Why, then, did Johnson stay? Wolf poses this question quite poignantly by contrasting Johnson with Spencer Malvin, a free African American man who married Johnson’s daughter Lucy in 1826. Malvin, born free, knew the evils of slavery firsthand: as a teenager, he had been apprenticed to one Fielding Sinclair, who killed his adolescent slave. Sinclair was charged with murder, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, perhaps because Malvin could not testify against a white man. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, Malvin openly attacked slavery, circulating antislavery papers in Warrenton. He left Virginia and his family in 1832, along with a fugitive named Sandy, eventually settling in Pennsylvania.

But Johnson and his daughter Lucy remained, even after white hostility to free blacks increased in the wake of Turner’s rebellion. Many of the local whites who had supported Johnson’s petitions in the past now requested that the state legislature support the colonization of all free blacks outside of Virginia. For Wolf, Johnson’s decision to remain under such circumstances suggests an act of resistance: “In staying, they rejected racial exclusion. . . . They challenged the notion that Virginia belonged to white people” (107).

On the one hand, this contention is clearly true. But in other respects, Samuel Johnson’s life was marked by deference, rather than challenge, and white support for his limited freedom was a sign of condescension rather than recognition. Thus Philip Pendleton Barbour, as Wolf shows us, one of the foremost defenders of slavery during…

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Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-05-15 04:32Z by Steven

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

University of Georgia Press
June 2012
192 pages
6 b&w photos, 1 map
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8203-3229-1
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8203-3230-7
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-8203-4364-8

Eva Sheppard Wolf, Associate Professor of History
San Francisco State University

In Almost Free, Eva Sheppard Wolf uses the story of Samuel Johnson, a free black man from Virginia attempting to free his family, to add detail and depth to our understanding of the lives of free blacks in the South.

There were several paths to freedom for slaves, each of them difficult. After ten years of elaborate dealings and negotiations, Johnson earned manumission in August 1812. An illiterate “mulatto” who had worked at the tavern in Warrenton as a slave, Johnson as a freeman was an anomaly, since free blacks made up only 3 percent of Virginia’s population. Johnson stayed in Fauquier County and managed to buy his enslaved family, but the law of the time required that they leave Virginia if Johnson freed them. Johnson opted to stay. Because slaves’ marriages had no legal standing, Johnson was not legally married to his enslaved wife, and in the event of his death his family would be sold to new owners. Johnson’s story dramatically illustrates the many harsh realities and cruel ironies faced by blacks in a society hostile to their freedom.

Wolf argues that despite the many obstacles Johnson and others faced, race relations were more flexible during the early American republic than is commonly believed. It could actually be easier for a free black man to earn the favor of elite whites than it would be for blacks in general in the post-Reconstruction South. Wolf demonstrates the ways in which race was constructed by individuals in their day-to-day interactions, arguing that racial status was not simply a legal fact but a fluid and changeable condition. Almost Free looks beyond the majority experience, focusing on those at society’s edges to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom in the slaveholding South.

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