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  • Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston by Amrita Chakrabarti Myers
  • Wilma King (bio)
Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston. By Amrita Chakrabarti Myers. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 288. Cloth, $39.95.)

"In the broadest sense," writes Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, "Forging Freedom is a social history illuminating the lives of free black women in Charleston, South Carolina, from the era of the new republic to the dawn of the Civil War" as the women actualized their own visions of liberty (2). In a three-part study divided into six chapters, the author presents women who defined, negotiated, defended, and renegotiated their liberty within the historical context as legislators passed laws in 1820 and 1841 that interfered with the women's abilities to "'joy" their freedom.

The book begins by illuminating the stark contrasts in Charleston before the Civil War, when elegant mansions and seedy bordellos were an easy walking distance apart. Equally arresting for visitors was the proximity of elite white Presbyterian churches to the independent black Zion Presbyterian Church.

To be sure, many scholars, including Orville Vernon Burton, Stephanie McCurry, Norrece T. Jones Jr., Leslie Schwalm, Michael P. Johnson, Julie Saville, Larry Koger, and Walter Fraser Jr., have produced fine studies about pre-Civil War Charleston and South Carolina. Myers acknowledges that the opening chapter "relies in large part on the scholarship of Cynthia Kennedy and Bernard Powers Jr.," historians who produced detailed material about early Charleston (214n2). Yet Charleston remains an ideal location for Myers's study owing to the number of free black women in the population between 1790 and 1860 and the readily available cornucopia of public and private sources. Of the nine archival repositories listed in Myers's bibliography, six are located in Charleston and house collections including tax records, legislative petitions, family papers, and court records. [End Page 127]

Primary sources detail how black women became free and inform readers of women's efforts to protect their liberty, regardless of when or how they received it. Once freed, women often sought real and personal property—land and slaves—signs of prosperity and self-sufficiency that made their emancipation more meaningful. To be sure, some free black women reached that goal, but the majority did not.

Myers develops minibiographies of Cecille Cogdell, the wife of Richard Walpole Cogdell and mother of his four children, and Sarah Sanders, an enslaved woman whose children Cogdell also fathered. Myers presents economic and legal reasons why Richard Cogdell, widowed in 1831, never liberated Sanders but provided a home in Charleston for her and their children, his legal property. In 1843 Cogdell inherited a small fortune, quit his job, and took an eighteen-month European excursion without his black or white family. Afterward, he returned to Sanders, who died giving birth to their tenth child in 1850.

Myers describes Sanders as a "negotiating" woman, yet Sanders remained illiterate, enslaved, and property-less and left no records about her life or that of "her" children. After her death, Cogdell parented her children (actually, their children) alone, and in 1858 he moved with them to Philadelphia, where the children became free. By that time, three of Cogdell's four legitimate sons and his legal heirs had predeceased him. Ultimately, the portrait of the Sanders-Cogdell family illuminates the process of blacks forging freedom in the home of a white patriarch whose first priority was his white family.

The 1858 relocation of the Sanders-Cogdell family calls readers' attention to the Act of 1841, which closed avenues to freedom and created a sense of hopelessness. Of that statute, the author writes, "Even if an enslaved person did leave, however, there was nowhere to go" (72). Rather than having nowhere to go, it appears that the decision maker in the Sanders-Cogdell family had other reasons to remain in Charleston with his black and white families instead of relocating them or with them at the time.

Forging Freedom answers many questions about free black women in the slave era, but it also raises questions that may not be answerable. For example, Myers concludes "that after gaining...


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pp. 127-129
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