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Free Men in an Age of Servitude

Free Men in an Age of Servitude: Three Generations of a Black Family

Lee H. Warner
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Free Men in an Age of Servitude
    Book Description:

    Freedom did not solve the problems of the Proctor family. Nor did money, recognition, or powerful supporters. As free blacks in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, three generations of Proctor men were permanently handicapped by the social structures of their time and their place. They subscribed to the Western, middle-class value system that taught that hard work, personal rectitude, and maintenance of family life would lead to happiness and prosperity. But for them it did not -- no matter how hard they worked, how clever their plans, or how powerful their white patrons.

    The eldest, Antonio, born a Spanish slave, became a soldier for three nations and received government recognition for his daring and his skills as a translator. His son, George, an entrepreneur, achieved material success in the building trade but was so hampered by his status as a free black that he eventually lost not only his position in the community but his family. John, George's son, seized the opportunity proffered by Reconstruction and spent ten years in the Florida state legislature before segregation forced him to return to the life of a tradesman.

    Warner describes the Proctor men as "inarticulate." They left no personal papers and no indication of their attitudes toward their hardships. As a result, this work relies heavily on local government documents and oral history. Inference and intimation become vital tools in the search for the Proctors. In important ways the author has produced a case study of nontraditional methodology, and he suggests new ways of describing and analyzing inarticulate populations.

    The Proctors were not typical of the black population of their era and their location, yet the story of their lives broadens our knowledge of the black experience in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6486-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction An Essay on the Inarticulate
    (pp. 1-14)

    The Proctor men—grandfather, son, and grandson—were part of a large and vital Southern family. Little is known about most of the family, as little is known about individuals in most black families of that time and place. The three generations of Proctor men, moreover, did not leave any personal material. But their accomplishments were so large that Southern memory—in its own ways—chronicled their achievements and their lives.

    The chronicle of memory was Southern romanticism at its best—or worst. Uncritical black descendants and white patricians raised the accomplishments of the three to the level of enshrinement...

  5. ONE Antonio the Soldier
    (pp. 15-25)

    Of the three Proctor men, Antonio, the patriarch, did best. Perhaps his ambition was more circumscribed, although he taught his son and grandson to aspire beyond themselves. Or perhaps it was the time in which he lived; his son’s and grandson’s maturity came when race was more limiting. Fortune, too, played a part: the patriarch seemed to be in places of opportunity at times of promise. Whatever the reasons, of the three of them, only Antonio did not see his attainments dashed by others.

    For the first third of his life he was Antonio Propinos. Born a slave in Santo...

  6. TWO George the Entrepreneur
    (pp. 26-37)

    The Tallahassee in which George began to practice his trade, and where he would spend the first half of his adult life, was a raw frontier community. The site of the town had been selected in 1823 and lots sold to the public in April 1825, immediately after the initial survey was completed. Tallahassee’s growth was explosive. One early settler observed in late 1825 that “a year ago, this was but a forest; now there are more than a hundred houses, two hundred inhabitants, and a newspaper.” ¹ By 1830 the population would reach 926 (541 whites; 381 slaves; 4...

  7. THREE Work and Family
    (pp. 38-49)

    Tallahassee in 1840 was still a small village, serving as county seat and territorial capital. The settled area comprised a grid about eight blocks long (north-south) by five blocks wide (east-west) on the top of a gentle ridge two hundred feet above sea level. The masonry capitol, then about half finished, was at the south edge of town, and three blocks north of it stood the three-story masonry county courthouse. The business district that occupied the area in between was largely constructed of wood, which was readily available and cheap, and uniformly one to three stories tall. The residential districts...

  8. FOUR Reversal
    (pp. 50-60)

    The early 1840s were a disaster for George Proctor. The events of those years dashed whatever optimistic trend his life had, destroyed his career, and made clear his inferior, almost servile, social status. From that point until his death, despite some periods of stability and brief glimpses of hope, his life was one of sorrow and defeat.

    Many Americans, of course, had harsh experiences in those years following the panic of 1837. The events of the sharp economic turnaround of that year were not so disastrous. It was, rather, the second shock of 1839-1840 that proved impossible to surmount. The...

  9. FIVE George’s Defeat
    (pp. 61-70)

    Sometime in 1842 George Proctor moved his family out of the town of Tallahassee. It appears to have been a logical move; his construction business in Tallahassee was effectively finished. With the debts adjudged to him, he would probably have found it impossible to borrow money for his trade even if he had wanted to. He may have simply wanted to get out of the town where his troubles were and where his hopes and dreams had been dashed.

    John Proctor said his father went to St. Marks—the nearest point on the Gulf Coast—“at one time to work...

  10. SIX California
    (pp. 71-84)

    Arrangements complete and affairs in order, George Proctor left Tallahassee for St. Marks. There he took the regular packet ship for New Orleans, a favorite embarkation point for forty-niners. He left New Orleans on 17 April 1849 bound for San Francisco via Chagres on the barkFlorida. The ship was a small one, evidently in good condition, and its route was known as the quickest. Once committed, evidently, Proctor wanted no delays.¹

    His quest was not a unique one. Rudolph Lapp points out that “the gold mines of California … had a powerful attraction for black men,” who saw in...

  11. SEVEN George’s Family
    (pp. 85-96)

    At George Proctor’s departure the family unit was intact and would remain so for a decade. Toney the patriarch was ninety-nine and, for his age, active and lucid. Nancy, thirty-four, had five of the surviving children in her care: Charlotte, age nine; Georgianna, age six; John, who had accompanied his father to St. Marks for his departure, age four; Mahainam Stewart, three years old; and George, the baby, who was one. A sixth child, Mary, who would have been three years old, appears to have survived but evidently was not with the family in 1850. The final member of the...

  12. EIGHT John the Politician
    (pp. 97-114)

    Leon County, throughout Reconstruction, had an absolute majority of black persons. In terms of registered voters, the disparity between the races was even greater. Just after Congress had taken control of the reconstructing process in 1867, the voter lists (skewed by congressional directives) showed a six to one black advantage.¹ Those statistics were at odds with the state as a whole, where whites predominated. But Tallahassee was the capital, and for that reason the black majority there always had special significance. The majority was absolute and symbolic at once. In Reconstruction’s early years it exalted the status of elected representatives...

  13. NINE The End of Reconstruction
    (pp. 115-134)

    John Proctor did not know Reconstruction was about to end any more than his father had realized that the panic of 1837 was about to engulf him. Neither comprehended, nor did many—perhaps most—other Americans, that the guideposts and assumptions of the current order of things were about to be challenged and overwhelmed. In the case of Reconstruction, passage of time had weakened the ardor of its congressional leaders. As the giants of the war generation passed from the scene, their successors, who paid lip service to the war’s ideals, had more interest in national reconciliation, less faith in...

  14. TEN Afterword
    (pp. 135-139)

    Letty Proctor was born in 1878. Very late in her life she recalled that the earliest memory she had of her father’s occupation was of his being a mason. He laid bricks for the rest of his life, she confirmed, and, “Oh blessed be, he was laying brick when he died.” ¹ The importance of Letty’s statement was not in identifying her father’s occupation, for that was common knowledge, but the timing of it. John Proctor’s last legislative service was in 1886, the year his youngest daughter turned eight.

    Senator Proctor did not arbitrarily decide to leave public life and...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 140-156)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 157-165)
  17. Index
    (pp. 166-168)