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Almost Free

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

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Almost Free
    Book Description:

    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. A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4364-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. CHAPTER ONE a new birth of freedom
    (pp. 1-31)

    Samuel johnson stepped from the dim courthouse to the bright outdoors, the air heavy with late summer’s smells—grass, earth, horses, sweat. The town center stirred with the bustle of court day. Men and women from miles around had come to Warrenton, the Fauquier County seat, to take care of business, to meet, to gossip. Several trials had already been held that day, and some of the participants had gathered in Norris’s tavern behind the courthouse. Johnson knew Norris’s tavern and many of the people inside it quite well since he had worked there as a slave for more than...

  6. CHAPTER TWO among an anomalous population
    (pp. 32-52)

    The first step samuel johnson had to take to free his family was to purchase them. They would not then be free. They still would be slaves. But with Johnson as their owner they would not be sold away from him. Even if legally enslaved, Johnson’s family could, if he owned them, act as free people and join Warrenton’s small free black community. They could, in other words, enter that complicated space that in early nineteenth-century Virginia lay between slavery and freedom and helped define what race meant.

    Samuel Johnson acted rapidly to buy his family. It had taken a...

  7. CHAPTER THREE petitioning for freedom in an era of slavery
    (pp. 53-77)

    For a while samuel johnson could accept that he held his family as his slaves—but only for a while. As he aged, he worried more and more about it. Johnson knew that their legal status held great importance even if Warrenton’s residents and federal Census takers viewed his entire family as free. He knew that slave property, like any other property, could be seized to pay an outstanding debt, and he knew that the same was true if he waited to free his family in his will. If, for instance, he died owing more than could be paid by...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR visions of rebellion
    (pp. 78-96)

    Perhaps nat turner was responding partly to the greater restrictions on liberty in Virginia when he plotted what became the most famous and most deadly slave rebellion in American history. In late August 1831 Turner, a literate and deeply religious slave also known as Preacher Nat, led a group of rebels from farm to farm in Virginia’s Southampton County, near the North Carolina border. They killed all the white people—men, women, and children—they could find. Turner and his followers hoped their actions would generate a great uprising of slaves that would end white dominance and fulfill Turner’s vision...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE race, identity, and community
    (pp. 97-117)

    Spencer malvin had decided who he wanted to be: a free man in a free state where he could freely denounce slavery. His departure forced others to make choices about their identities too. One enslaved man named Sandy chose as Malvin did and fled with him to Pennsylvania; Spencer had not left quite all of his friends behind when he left Virginia. Sandy’s owner, John L. Fant (who had signed the petition supporting federal aid to colonize free people of color), explained that in his “decided opinion … Spencer Malvin the Husband of Lucy … was instrumental in persuading my...

  10. CHAPTER SIX legacies
    (pp. 118-133)

    Samuel johnson did die before he left. Or, rather, he left only by dying.

    Johnson had long feared what would happen upon his death. If he believed in heaven he could be pretty sure that he would go there, but he feared death with the particular set of worries of a man who owned his family as his slaves. The winter of 1836, when he was about sixty-one years old, must have brought special concern, for that is the year he wrote his will. Even a casual glance at early nineteenth-century wills shows that most people drafted them shortly before...

    (pp. 134-138)

    It is possible to trace Samuel Johnson’s descendants into the early twenty-first century. I began that quest in an effort to find living descendants, with the hope that they might share some family stories that would help round out the document-based narrative. No such luck, although somewhere out there is a Ulysses P. Malvan, Samuel Johnson’s great-great-great-great-grandson, and if he would like to contact me, I would be over the moon.

    Although unable to get in touch with living descendants, I still found the hunt for them worthwhile. Thanks to the miracle of searchable Census and other records through,...

    (pp. 139-142)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 143-166)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 167-174)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 175-175)