In Almost Free, Eva Sheppard Wolf explores race and freedom in the antebellum South by illuminating the interesting—if obscure—life of Samuel Johnson, a free black man of Fauquier County, Virginia. He worked hard, observed rules, won friends, and acquired considerable property and respectability, but he fell achingly short of obtaining the freedom and security he sought for himself and [End Page 252] his enslaved family. Johnson stands out in history because, between 1812 and 1837, he petitioned the legislature ten times in that cause, with the support of many white neighbors. Wolf concludes from this case study that slavery and freedom were not mere opposites; that Johnson, in his attainment of property and respectability, occupied a “broad space . . . between freedom and slavery”; and that race was “simultaneously momentous and tenuous” (p. 3).
A tavern-keeper before and after emancipation, Samuel Johnson was resourceful and determined. After enlisting a third party to lawfully conduct the transaction, he earned five hundred dollars to purchase his freedom. Next, with much support and assistance from local whites, including a U.S. senator, he successfully petitioned for the right to remain in Virginia. This step complied with an 1806 law that otherwise required emancipated people to leave the state within a year. Only then did he complete the manumission. In the decade it took him to raise the money, however, he had married an enslaved woman named Patty and with her had two children, Lucy and Samuel Jr. To obtain more freedom and security for his family, he purchased them from their owner. Reluctant to free them without permission to remain in the state, and even more reluctant to leave Virginia, he repeatedly petitioned the legislature in their cause, with tremendous support of white neighbors. The case reached urgency as his daughter neared adulthood, so that as a free woman she could legally marry.
Wolf’s methodology and conclusions align with those of Melvin Patrick Ely in Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (2004). Their observations of considerable interracial cooperation and a wide—yet still constrained—range of possibilities for free blacks in Virginia largely refutes Ira Berlin’s earlier thesis, summed up in the title of his seminal work, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974). In her study, Wolf focuses on the way local people, white and black, variously ignored, challenged, circumvented, and maintained racial boundaries. While this shifting ground was remarkable, she concludes that “color often mattered more than behavior,” property [End Page 253] rights were stronger than personal rights, and dark skin sometimes conferred a kind of invisibility (p. 40). Berlin and Wolf agree that white antipathy grew and racial attitudes hardened over time, narrowing possibilities for free blacks, but rather than occurring after the American Revolution, Wolf places this phenomenon in the 1820s.
Wolf does a beautiful job of narrating this complex story with limited sources, especially from Johnson’s perspective. She engages in necessary speculation about his thought processes and emotions in a particularly effective way, describing various alternatives. It was difficult, however, to get a sense of the black community from this study, though sources such as legislative petitions suggest that an African American counterculture thrived in the region. Nonetheless, the book clearly demonstrates the value of local history and helps readers understand the South in more complex and nuanced ways. Not least, Wolf points out that the story demonstrates how much family, freedom, and autonomy mattered to people such as the Johnsons and how they also make history.
Deborah A. Lee, PhD, is an independent historian who lives in Stanardsville, Virginia. She is the author of Honoring Their Paths: African American Contributions Along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground (2009) and is researching the antislavery movement in the middle Potomac River region.