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
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.
A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication
Subjects: History, Sociology
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