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Family or Freedom

People of Color in the Antebellum South

Emily West

Publication Year: 2012

In the antebellum South, the presence of free people of color was problematic to the white population. Not only were they possible assistants to enslaved people and potential members of the labor force; their very existence undermined popular justifications for slavery. It is no surprise that, by the end of the Civil War, nine Southern states had enacted legal provisions for the "voluntary" enslavement of free blacks. What is surprising to modern sensibilities and perplexing to scholars is that some individuals did petition to rescind their freedom.

Family or Freedom investigates the incentives for free African Americans living in the antebellum South to sacrifice their liberty for a life in bondage. Author Emily West looks at the many factors influencing these dire decisions -- from desperate poverty to the threat of expulsion -- and demonstrates that the desire for family unity was the most important consideration for African Americans who submitted to voluntary enslavement. The first study of its kind to examine the phenomenon throughout the South, this meticulously researched volume offers the most thorough exploration of this complex issue to date.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: New Directions in Southern History

Front cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-20

In 1859 a twenty-eight-year-old free black woman named Jane Moore requested of the Sixth District Court of New Orleans that she be enslaved. Explaining in her petition how she was emancipated in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1855, prior to her move to New Orleans in 1856, Jane Moore did not wish to remain free: ...

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1. Presumed Enslaved: Free People of Color and the Law in the Southern States

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pp. 21-52

Although Georgia was the last southern state legally to enable voluntary enslavement, the issue had been a controversial one, debated for some time within the state legislature. This Daily Intelligencer editorial exemplifies how responses to humanitarian complaints about the exploitation of free blacks’ enslavement ...

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2. Free People of Color and Residency Requests

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pp. 53-74

Julius Dabney obtained his freedom from William McKay at some point during the antebellum era. Thereafter, he purchased his wife, Lucinda, and the couple subsequently had a child, Juliet Ann. But all was not well in the Dabney household, with both husband and wife worried about expulsion from their home in Virginia. ...

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3. "Traditional" Motivations and White Perspectives on Voluntary Enslavement

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pp. 75-92

The aptly named Daniel Freeman from Orangeburg, South Carolina, requested that the House of Representatives permit him to become enslaved to John B. Murrow. Freeman was apparently “assured that the condition of slavery would be preferable to his present condition as a free person of color. ...

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4. Free People of Color and the Enslaved

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pp. 93-122

Born free, because although her father was enslaved, her mother was white, Lucy Andrews from Lancaster District, South Carolina, petitioned the South Carolina State Assembly for enslavement in the late 1850s. She described how, as a sixteen-year-old mother: “she is dissatisfied with her present condition, ...

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5. Expulsion, Enslavement, and Ties across the Color Line

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pp. 123-152

A rather complicated case, which encapsulated many of the racial concerns of the day, went before the general assembly of Virginia in the early 1830s. Lucy Boomer was a free woman of color emancipated through the will of the late John Winn, to whom she had been enslaved. ...

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pp. 153-156

An 1854 novel, The Planter’s Northern Bride, contains an oblique but starkly revealing reference to an enslaved woman, Judy. Although living as free in Kentucky, having escaped from her master, Judy was far from content. In a plaintive request to Crissy, an enslaved woman, Judy laid bare her determination to return to bondage: ...

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pp. 157-160

There are many, many people who have assisted me in writing this book. First, I should like to thank my postdoctoral research assistant, Laura Sandy, who was funded by the Leverhulme Trust to undertake primary research for this project. Laura instinctively understood some of the difficulties involved in exploring the past when sources are scant, ...


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pp. 161-202


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pp. 203-220


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pp. 221-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780813140858
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813136929

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: New Directions in Southern History
Series Editor Byline: Peter S. Carmichael, Michele Gillespie, & William A. Link See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 845246924
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Family or Freedom

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Subject Headings

  • Free blacks -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Free blacks -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Free blacks -- Family relationships -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slaves -- Family relationships -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Law and legislation -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
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