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Almost Free

A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Eva Wolf Sheppard

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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Author’s Note

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p. xi

This book is not fiction. I have not made up facts, moved events around in time, or invented dialogue. But this book, even more than most history books, is an act of imagination. I wanted to bring to life a person who reached...

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1. A New Birth of Freedom

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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...

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2. Among an Anomalous Population

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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...

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3. Petitioning for Freedom in an Era of Slavery

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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...

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4. Visions of Rebellion

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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...

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5. Race, Identity, and Community

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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...

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6. Legacies

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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...

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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...

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pp. 139-141

Acknowledgments sections, like Samuel Johnson’s petitions to the Virginia legislature, tend to be formulaic. But I mean what I say as sincerely as he did. It really is a great pleasure to thank the many people who helped make this book...


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pp. 143-166


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pp. 167-174

Further Reading

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E-ISBN-13: 9780820343648
E-ISBN-10: 0820332291
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820332291
Print-ISBN-10: 0820332291

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 6 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900
Series Editor Byline: Richard S. Newman, Patrick Rael, and Manisha Sinha, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 785943549
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Almost Free

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African American families -- Virginia -- Fauquier County -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Slaves -- Emancipation -- Virginia -- Fauquier County -- History -- 19th century.
  • Freedmen -- Virginia -- Fauquier County -- Biography.
  • Johnson, Samuel, 1775?-1842.
  • African Americans -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Fauquier County (Va.) -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Fauquier County (Va.) -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
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