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Family or Freedom

Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South

Emily West
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    Family or Freedom
    Book Description:

    In the antebellum South, the presence of free people of color was problematic to the white population. Not only were they possible assistants to enslaved people and potential members of the labor force; their very existence undermined popular justifications for slavery. It is no surprise that, by the end of the Civil War, nine Southern states had enacted legal provisions for the "voluntary" enslavement of free blacks. What is surprising to modern sensibilities and perplexing to scholars is that some individuals did petition to rescind their freedom.

    Family or Freedom investigates the incentives for free African Americans living in the antebellum South to sacrifice their liberty for a life in bondage. Author Emily West looks at the many factors influencing these dire decisions -- from desperate poverty to the threat of expulsion -- and demonstrates that the desire for family unity was the most important consideration for African Americans who submitted to voluntary enslavement. The first study of its kind to examine the phenomenon throughout the South, this meticulously researched volume offers the most thorough exploration of this complex issue to date.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4085-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In 1859 a twenty-eight-year-old free black woman named Jane Moore requested of the Sixth District Court of New Orleans that she be enslaved. Explaining in her petition how she was emancipated in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1855, prior to her move to New Orleans in 1856, Jane Moore did not wish to remain free:

    By virtue of an act of the legislature approved March 1859, permitting free persons of African descent to select their masters and become slaves for life, she is . . . thereof willing to select and has selected Elias Wolf as a fit and [able?] person to...

  4. 1 Presumed Enslaved: Free People of Color and the Law in the Southern States
    (pp. 21-52)

    Although Georgia was the last southern state legally to enable voluntary enslavement, the issue had been a controversial one, debated for some time within the state legislature. ThisDaily Intelligencereditorial exemplifies how responses to humanitarian complaints about the exploitation of free blacks’ enslavement were couched in proslavery rhetoric. Indeed, supporters of the act regarded the movement of free people of color into a system of bondage as a deed of benevolence. Voluntary enslavement legislation thus represented the culmination of a proslavery rhetoric that assumed slavery was a positive good. It also facilitated the shift toward an idealized biracial South...

  5. 2 Free People of Color and Residency Requests
    (pp. 53-74)

    Julius Dabney obtained his freedom from William McKay at some point during the antebellum era. Thereafter, he purchased his wife, Lucinda, and the couple subsequently had a child, Juliet Ann. But all was not well in the Dabney household, with both husband and wife worried about expulsion from their home in Virginia. So Julius and Lucinda decided to petition the legislature, asking for permission to remain in the state. In this request, Julius described how he and his wife “had flattered themselves that they and their infant should henceforth enjoy the blessings of liberty and the right of acquiring property...

  6. 3 “Traditional” Motivations and White Perspectives on Voluntary Enslavement
    (pp. 75-92)

    The aptly named Daniel Freeman from Orangeburg, South Carolina, requested that the House of Representatives permit him to become enslaved to John B. Murrow. Freeman was apparently “assured that the condition of slavery would be preferable to his present condition as a free person of color. That he is anxious to relinquish his present dubious condition and grant to himself the benefits of protection and support which will arrive from the relation of master and servant.” Freeman then marked his request, for which there survives no date, with an “X,” so indicating that the “real” writer of his petition remains...

  7. 4 Free People of Color and the Enslaved
    (pp. 93-122)

    Born free, because although her father was enslaved, her mother was white, Lucy Andrews from Lancaster District, South Carolina, petitioned the South Carolina State Assembly for enslavement in the late 1850s. She described how, as a sixteen-year-old mother: “she is dissatisfied with her present condition, being compelled to go about from place to place to seek employment for her support, and not permitted to stay at any place more than a week or two at a time, no one caring about employing her.” Andrews wanted to raise a family, yet said she was unable to provide a subsistence standard of...

  8. 5 Expulsion, Enslavement, and Ties across the Color Line
    (pp. 123-152)

    A rather complicated case, which encapsulated many of the racial concerns of the day, went before the general assembly of Virginia in the early 1830s. Lucy Boomer was a free woman of color emancipated through the will of the late John Winn, to whom she had been enslaved. Lucy’s 1833 petition to the legislature asked not for slavery but for “permission” to remain in Virginia, framing her request in terms of her relatively advanced age and her “faithfulness,” as defined by whites. She claimed to have always worked hard for the Winn family before her “reward” of freedom. Her petition...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 153-156)

    An 1854 novel,The Planter’s Northern Bride,contains an oblique but starkly revealing reference to an enslaved woman, Judy. Although living as free in Kentucky, having escaped from her master, Judy was far from content. In a plaintive request to Crissy, an enslaved woman, Judy laid bare her determination to return to bondage:

    “You jist sit down, one minnit, Crissy, and let me say someting ben on my mind dis long time. Spose you ask your massa to buy me?” She uttered this in a low voice in Crissy’s ear, who had seated herself at her request, pressing her clothes...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 157-160)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 161-202)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 203-220)
  13. Index
    (pp. 221-234)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 235-236)