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Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790-1860 The Darker Side of Freedom By Tommy L. Bogger University Press ofVirginia, 1997 264 pp. Cloth, $3 5.00 Reviewed by Robert C. Kenzer, associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and audior of Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, i86;-i9ij. Tommy L. Bogger provides an insightful portrait of free black Hfe in antebeUum Norfolk, Virginia. By making careful and creative use ofmanumission and other court records, he is able to write from the vantage point ofmen and women who "seldom had the opportunity to record their opinions, register their protests, or express their aspirations and frustrations." Norfolk's size makes Bogger's efforts manageable: it is large enough to give the reader confidence in his statistical base but not so large as to prevent him from portraying the Hves ofmany ofthe city's residents through personal stories. Bogger begins his examination ofNorfolk by noting how free blacks were just coming "out of the shadows" in 1790 when the first federal census counted only 61 of them in the community. Over the next forty years, their numbers grew to nearly 1,000 and dien remained stagnant from 1830 to i860, even as the white population doubled. As diey came out of the shadows, Norfolk's free blacks tested their status in a variety of ways. By far the most interesting of these was through what Bogger terms their "unprecedented success," especially from 1790 to 1805, in using the court system. Bogger argues that despite their inferior status, free blacks employed die court system effectively because so many ofthem " 'came ofbeing' in the courthouse; they had been deeded dieir freedom there,, and tiiey returned on several occasions to record deeds for slave manumissions and land purchases." Ofparticular interest are the cases in which free blacks successfuUy sued whites. Indeed, it was pardy in reaction to these freedmen asserting their free status in the courts that white landowners began to impose new legal restrictions upon them. By far the most critical impediment to their numerical growth was Virginia 's statute of 1 806, which required diat henceforth any slave who was manumitted must leave the state. One ofBogger's most significant contributions is his Reviews 8 1 documentation of how Norfolk's free blacks circumvented this law by gaining ownership of their own relatives, who thereafter Hved essentiaUy free Uves, even though they remained slaves in die eyes ofthe law. WhUe other scholars have used the records of free black slave ownership to probe the racial ambiguities of the South's pecuHar institution, Bogger unearths an equally complex and potentiaUy more reveaHng tale. In fact, he points out that despite their reluctance to leave the country oftheir birtii, many free blacks eventuaUy decided to emigrate from Norfolk to Liberia, not so much convinced of the advantages ofAfrica over America but because their enslaved relatives saw this course ofaction as the only means of ending die charade ofdieir bondage. Economic factors as weU as legal impediments accounted for the fa√ľure of Norfolk's free black population to grow after 1830. Where some scholars have argued diat the decHne in manumissions after 181o limited the growth ofthe black population, Bogger finds the cause for the stagnancy elsewhere. Using demographic analysis of the free black sex ratio, he identifies a pattern in which free teenage boys encountering Hmited employment prospects in Norfolk tended to leave the city by taking jobs as saUors or working in the Dismal Swamp area. These young men, in turn, were partiaUy replaced by free blackwomen who came to the city to work as domestics. Blacks also faced increasingly severe economic competition from immigrants who entered the city through the community's port. Bogger draws direct links, often on an individual basis, between the decline of free blacks in certain trades and the increase in immigrants in those same occupations . These economic difficulties were not confined solely to die least skiUed free blacks. Even the most affluent black storekeepers and artisans found it difficult to compete. In about 1805, according to Bogger, "white attorneys stopped representing free blacks in ordinary civU suits against whites." When free blacks petitioned...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 81-83
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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