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THE FREE-SLAVE PHENOMENON: James P. Thomas and the Black Community in Ante-Bellum Nashville Loren Schweninger Considering the recent proliferation of scholarship concerning blacks in the ante-bellum South, perhaps, as one historian suggests, there should be a ten-year moratorium on any future study of slavery. Though characterized by interpretational differences, the writing offers a new perspective on several important aspects of American Negro slavery: blacks in bondage attained a relatively high degree of flexibility within the system; they resisted as well as accommodated themselves to their condition in a myriad of subtle and ingenious ways; and they maintained a distinct Afro-American cultural heritage, despite the institutional barriers of the "peculiar institution."1 That such generalizations can now be made rests largely on a closer scrutiny than ever before of various groups of bondsmen and women: investigations, for example, of field hands, house servants and mammies, of drivers and overseers, artisans and mechanics, rebels and runaways, as well as children and old folks, wives and mothers, husbands and fathers.2 In all, the recent literature has greatly expanded our understanding of the Afro-American past. Yet, one significant group of bondsmen and women has received scant attention: free-slaves. This is not surprising, as even the term seems incongruous: how could slaves also be free? In many respects, of course, they could not, and even legally emancipated blacks are considered by many historians as only "quasi-free." In addition, as their livelihoods depended upon secrecy, or deception, or at the very least, a tacit illegal agreement with a prominent white benefactor , it is extremely difficult even to identify, much less uncover 1 John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Ante-Bellum South (New York, 1972); Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston, 1974); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Skves Made (New York, 1974); George Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn., 1971); Robert Starobin, Industrial Sfovery in the Old South (New York, 1970); Herbert Gutnian, "The World Two Cliometricians Made," Journal of Negro History, LX (1975), 53-227: reprinted as Slavery and the Numbers Game (Urbana, 1975). 2 See especially Blassingame and Genovese above. 293 294CIVIL WAR HISTORY information about, such slaves. Owners were reluctant to acknowledge that bondsmen in their charge roamed about unsupervised, undermining the foundations of the system; the unsuspecting foreign traveller, or northern visitor, or southern defender of slavery believed these blacks to be either slaves or free Negroes; and freeslaves themselves refused to admit, much less advertise, their situation . Consequently, the journals of the slave holding class, descriptions by outside visitors, writings of white southerners, and to a large extent, even the autobiographies of nineteenth century blacks, contain only fleeting references to these quasi-free bondsmen .3 But there were slaves in the ante-bellum South who achieved an amazing degree of self-sufficiency.4 Numbering perhaps many thousands, living in nearly every region of the South (though especially in urban centers) and attaining a remarkable degree of upward mobility within the caste system, they came and went as they pleased, earned their own living, hired out and ran their own businesses, and lived outside the purview, and sometimes the control , of their master.5 Though always cognizant of their precarious and anomalous condition, these virtually free slaves achieved a large measure of spiritual, intellectual, and material independence, so much that even some whites envied their self-confidence, self-reliance, and economic mobility.8 Though a close examination of one such free-slave, James P. Thomas, as seen in a collection of slave letters, notes, and autobiographical reminiscences, is only the study of a single bondsman, it perhaps reflects the activities and attitudes of other slaves who lived nearly as free men. "My recollections of early life are many, but none are so vivid as the one instance when I was loaded in a vehicle of some sort, bound for Charlottsville," Thomas began his autobiography, "there 3 John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York, 1974), Ch. XI; Ira Berlin, Shves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South...


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