Almost Free
A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Eva Sheppard Wolf

An accessible history in the tradition of classroom staples like T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes's "Myne Own Ground"

Reviews

"Once again, Wolf crafts an elegant and illuminating study that reminds us just how complicated race was in the early national South. Thanks to the author's fascinating topic and lively prose, this is a book that should be read by multiple audiences, from lay readers to academics to students."
—Douglas Egerton, author of Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War

"Carefully researched and passionately written, Eva Sheppard Wolf's Almost Free beautifully evokes the humanity of those many thousands like Samuel Johnson who lived in the fragile space between slavery and freedom in the early republic. Few studies capture nearly so well the elusive promise and the intricacies of race and status that attended to being free and black in early national Virginia."
—Joshua D. Rothman, author of Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861


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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.

Series/imprint:
Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Page count: 192 pp.
6 b&w photos, 1 map
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5

 

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978-0-8203-3229-1
6/1/2012
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Eva Sheppard Wolf is an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion.