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Community Bonds in the Bayou City: Free Blacks and Local Reputation in Early Houston

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 266-282 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0022

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300 block of Main Street facing north at Preston Avenue, Houston, Texas, 1856.

Courtesy University of Houston Digital Library, <http://digital.lib.uh.edu/u?/p15195coll2,172> [Accessed May 28, 2013].

In 1937, in the concluding article of a series of six in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly entitled “The Free Negro in the Republic of Texas,” Harold Schoen argued that in Texas, “at all times free Negroes were in more or less obvious danger of losing their liberty.” In 1943 Andrew Forest Muir echoed that sentiment, contending that “still slaves, free negroes in the South dragged out a miserable existence.” Both Schoen and Muir characterize black freedom in antebellum Texas as extremely fragile, and subject to the “capricious action” of whites. Thirty years later, in Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, still the masterwork of the southern free black experience, Ira Berlin argued that whites relegated free blacks to the bottom of the social order and that free blacks struggled against long odds and virulent white racism to maintain their status, precariously balanced between slavery and freedom. In the decades since the publication of Slaves without Masters, historians have used the framework provided by Berlin to alter, nuance, and propose new directions for our understanding of the free black experience through numerous local and regional studies; the understanding of the free black experience in Texas, however, has progressed very little since the publication of Schoen’s and Muir’s articles more than seventy years ago.

Books like Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark’s Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South and more recently Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War document free black experiences that complicate the Slaves without Masters paradigm; by exploring the lives of free blacks through county- and city-level data, scholars have highlighted cases where free black individuals or groups had significant interactions with the white community around them, developed reputations as high-character, contributing members of society and managed to acquire for themselves varying degrees of both success and autonomy. As free people of color in a society where the vast majority of blacks remained enslaved, they represented something of an anomaly, but at the local level whites did not perceive them as a direct threat to the slave system. Rather, as Ely notes, “many Southern whites felt secure enough to deal fairly and even respectfully with free African Americans partly because slavery still held most blacks firmly in its grip.”

This recent trend of analyzing local realities and experiences for free blacks, especially as they contrast with more general state laws and abstract racial ideologies, has not been extended to include Texas. Schoen’s and Muir’s articles, though outdated, actually provide the greatest scholarly attention to local records and circumstances when assessing the free black experience in Texas. Schoen in particular seemed to presage recent historiographic debates about the disparity between white views of free blacks as a class and their treatment of individual free blacks at the local level. Schoen argues that the general attitudes reflected in law “resulted from impersonal encounters,” while white tolerance and support of free blacks at the individual level “grew out of personal contacts and … expressed itself in an unwillingness to enforce the general laws.” Nevertheless, Schoen attributes the viability of black freedom in the Republic of Texas to the “[a]id and protection” free blacks received “based upon the whims and interests of white[s].” In Schoen’s now antiquated interpretation, black freedom depended entirely on the patronage of benevolent (or even just self-interested) whites, and could be stripped away with little more than a change in mood.

This article seeks to update the scholarly treatment of free blacks in antebellum Texas through examples from Houston and Harris County, and to bring our understanding of free black Texans more closely in line with the excellent local and regional studies that have been completed for other southern communities. When the scattered evidence of free blacks in early Houston found in court proceedings, legislative petitions, censuses, and other municipal...



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