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  • Gendered Slavery and the Dawn of Freedom in the Deep South
  • Loren Schweninger (bio)
Susan Eva O’Donovan. Becoming Free in the Cotton South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. xii + 364 pp. Map, notes, and index. $35.00.

In recent years the literature about the transition from slavery and freedom in the United States during the tumultuous decades before and after the Civil War has greatly expanded our understanding of African American history. Steven Hahn's study A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004) reveals how rural folk, slaves and freed people, became politicized during slavery and participated in the political life of the former Confederacy during Reconstruction and afterwards. Melvin Patrick Ely's examination of Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (2004) details how a group of slaves, manumitted in Virginia in 1810, settled on family tracts in what they called Israel Hill (after the Biblical Israelites escaping to the Promised Land), and how they lived and worked in the midst of a slave society. A number of other books by Daina Ramey Berry, David Cecelski, Patricia Click, Paul A. Cimbala, Sally Hadden, Tera Hunter, Wilma King, Stephanie McCurry, Nell Painter, and Dylan Penningroth, among others, have provided new perspectives to a variety of topics concerning slaves and free blacks as well as freedmen and freedwomen.1

Despite this exciting re-interpretation, very little work has focused on specific areas of the Deep South. In Becoming Free in the Cotton South, Susan Eva O'Donovan has chosen to investigate as a case study an eighteen-county region in southwest corner of Georgia, bordered by Alabama and Florida on the west and south and dissected by the Apalachicola River, which meanders through Newton in Baker County and Albany in Dougherty County. Settled following the War of 1812 by slave owners and others seeking to open up new cotton lands and wrestle profits from the labor of blacks, within a few decades the land was cleared, fields planted, and tens of thousands of slaves imported not only from piedmont Georgia and South Carolina but also from the upper south states of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. The black population in the region exploded from a few thousand during in the 1820s [End Page 37] to more than 63,000 on the eve of secession, when slaves outnumber whites by a substantial number.

The slaves brought to the region, either with their owners or by slave traders, were usually in their teens and early twenties. "Arriving often alone, bereft of the cushioning properties of family and friends, and deposited on strange ground," the author writes, "slaves could do little initially to shield themselves from planters' assaults" (p. 25). It was clear that planters favored young, able-bodied blacks, and as a result the new arrivals left behind family and kin who were older, less productive, sickly, or infirm. The demand for young workers continued throughout the period. In 1860, nearly three out of five slaves in the region were under the age of nineteen, and almost half were under the age of fifteen.

The author examines what happened in this remote section of Georgia during the era of slavery and afterwards. One of the author's strengths is her ability to put her findings into a broad comparative framework. She discusses black life in a variety of settings, including the urban South, the Sea Islands and Costal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia (where the task system prevailed), and sections of the Upper South with its large free black population (there were fewer than 150 free blacks in the 18 Georgia counties in 1860). The comparative context is also employed when examining the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. While Union and Confederate armies marched back and forth across Virginia and Sherman's troops destroyed a large swath of Georgia in 1864, no federal troops entered the eighteen-county region until May 1865, a month after the end of hostilities. After the war, while representatives of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, called the Freedmen's...


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