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Reviewed by:
  • Becoming Free in the Cotton South
  • Robert L. Paquette
Becoming Free in the Cotton South. Susan Eva O’Donovan (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2007) 364 pp. $35.00

O’Donovan’s study of the transition from slavery to freedom unevenly covers a stretch of eighteen counties in Georgia’s southwestern corner. She disclaims her work as a conventional regional history, preferring to call it a “socio-ecological” reconstruction, by which she seems to mean a study that delves into multilevel interactions between human and environmental systems.

During the late antebellum period, slave gangs on short-staple cotton plantations transformed this understudied corner of Georgia into a southern black belt. In 1820, it had only a few hundred slaves; in 1860, it had more than 60,000, reaching 54 percent of the total population. A tiny fraction of free people of color inhabited the region; four of the eighteen counties in 1860 had one or none. The fall of the Confederacy wrought a new social order: In 1870, 60,000 whites confronted 90,000 freed persons about their civil rights. For O’Donovan’s purposes, the region offers a convenient compression of developmental stages in representative processes, although at times, her intellectual peregrinations might have been better served by the “analytical clutter” that she sought to avoid.

The first of five chapters focuses on the building of a slave society and the attendant rebuilding of slave lives and families broken by forced internal migration. O’Donovan’s evidence fails to sustain the rise of “an ominous new variant of slavery in southwest Georgia” but does speak to a familiar regimen imposed on slaves by intrusive, market-responsive, and profit-conscious planters determined to discipline both their laborers and an unforgiving frontier. Slave life and labor remained relatively untouched in southwestern Georgia until the last years of the Civil War. Refugee planters from eastern Georgia streamed into this “land of Goshen,” although, as O’Donovan points out in Chapter 2, the gradual shifting of the balance of forces in favor of the Union led Confederate [End Page 442] officials, as well as increasingly uppity slaves, to whittle away at the masters’ dominion over their private property.

Chapter 3 underscores the hollowness of black freedom without a material underpinning. Freedmen and freedwomen aspired to own land, constitute and reconstitute families, educate their children, and worship in independent churches. In tense, conflicted negotiations with their former masters in the immediate aftermath of slavery, freed persons quickly learned how to use the law to their advantage. With a vanished dream of forty acres and a mule, freedmen tended to reach labor agreements for themselves and their families that “edged their old masters out of their lives” (138).

O’Donovan proves particularly sensitive to issues of gender throughout the book. In Chapter 4, she examines the “domestication of free labor” (162), describing the nature of freedwomen’s work as farm-hands, midwives, seamstresses, spinners, dressmakers, and laundresses. Freedwomen generally accepted the condition of coverture in which wives were bound by the legal authority of their husbands. But, as O’Donovan argues, freedwomen exerted pressure on freedmen to effect labor arrangements that would employ members of families on favorable terms.

The final chapter presages the rise of Jim Crow in the state. Night riders and paramilitary organizations intensified their attacks in 1866. Blacks responded by associating in self-defense. O’Donovan concludes with a sketch of the infamous “Camilla Riot” of 1868 in which white Democrats fired upon an armed crowd of predominantly black Republicans, killing and wounding fifty of them who were attempting to hold a political rally in the Mitchell county seat.

Despite a weakness for sentimental pronouncements over measured judgments, O’Donovan has written a readable, intelligent book. She succeeds in finding new angles to look at a revolutionary process by peering through a small window.

Robert L. Paquette
Hamilton College


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pp. 442-443
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