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  • A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City
  • Rita Reynolds (bio)

African American women, Philadelphia, urban black women, free people of color

A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. By Erica Armstrong Dunbar. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2008. Pp. 212. Cloth, $55.00)

The history of African American women has evolved over the past 25 years at a relatively slow pace when compared with African American history in general. Deborah Gray White's Ar'n't I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, published in 1985 (New York), was one of the first books to consider African American slave women as scholarly subjects in their own right. Jean Yellin Fagan's efforts to prove Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was fact and not abolitionist fiction validated Jacobs's work as historical document. Jacqueline Jones's Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York, 2009) did much to unravel the dynamics of race, class, and gender for laboring black women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In like manner Catherine Clinton reevaluated the complexities of life for domestic southern slave women and for the wealthy white women whose seemingly never-ending needs they tended to in the antebellum South.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar explores how African American women in Philadelphia experienced the transformation from slaves to free women of color beginning in the colonial period to the Civil War. Dunbar builds on the solid historical scholarship on Philadelphia's free people of color by Julie Winch and Gary Nash, to name just two. But what makes this work different is its focus on what Dunbar calls "regular" slave and free black women of the period (2).

Dunbar's main argument is that, as freedom came in degrees to slave women who were the last to truly experience the benefits of freedom, "19th century Philadelphia served as a rehearsal for emancipation in the post-Civil War era across the nation" (3). By using black women's friendship albums, church records, labor contracts, and personal correspondences, Dunbar is able to tell the story of both wealthy literate and impoverished illiterate black women in a logical, well-documented, and convincingly argued manner.

Dunbar's relatively short volume does a great deal to reconstruct the gendered world in which antebellum urban black women struggled. She begins with the economic and political importance of slavery in colonial [End Page 322] Pennsylvania and argues that while Pennsylvania was considered "the best poor man's country," Quakers, regardless of their religious beliefs, relied on slave labor. When the Peculiar Institution came to an end during the early national period Africans and African Americans moved toward a new kind of unfree labor—indentured servitude. Black women suffered the greatest hardship because those born before March 1, 1780, would remain enslaved for life, and their children born after that date would remain in bondage for not more than 28 years. Many of the women whose status changed from slave to free found themselves forced into temporary servitude contracts.

Fragile Freedom correctly asserts that as black women transitioned from bondservants to free people Philadelphia's large concentration of free blacks provided an excellent environment for the development of a free black community. Within this emerging community black women were able to take part in organizing churches, mutual aid and abolitionists societies, and black schools. As slavery waned and the free black community grew, women took steps to ensure that strict codes reflecting their Christian beliefs were enforced. Disciplinary tribunals overseen by the church were used by African American women to "protect the sanctity of marriage, protect women from abusive husbands, and to maintain order and civility within the free black community" (6). Black women were also engaged in political work by taking part in the creation of antislavery or abolition societies. Dunbar's examination of the political realm and the role African Americans played in creating biracial organizations exposes the economic division within the free black community. It is also here that Dunbar also moves away her...


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pp. 322-324
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