- Free Blacks in Antebellum Texas ed. by Bruce A. Glasrud, Milton S. Jordan
Any study of black Texans in the antebellum period must contend with the foundational scholarship of Harold Robert Schoen and Andrew Forest Muir. Though neither published a monograph, their articles remain some of the most thorough and engaging on the topic. Fortunately, two distinguished editors, historians Bruce Glasrud and Milton S. Jordan, possessed the sound forethought to gather Schoen and Muir’s key works on the subject in a single, accessible volume titled Free Blacks in Antebellum Texas, thereby filling a longstanding lacuna in the study of free blacks in the state. (Historian George R. Woolfolk’s The Free Negro in Texas, published in 1976, has served as the sole book on this topic for more than forty years.)
The book opens with a meaty introduction. After weaving key biographical sketches about Schoen and Muir and forcefully stating the objectives and importance of this project, the editors deftly situate this body of work within the state’s broader historiography, all while emphasizing the archival limitations that not only dogged Schoen and Muir’s research but that of other scholars as well. However, it is worth noting the editors’ refreshing optimism that those long “scattered” sources related to black Texas history “will be found” (3).
The initial six articles, by Schoen, highlight the precarious and perilous presence of free blacks in Texas from the revolution to the creation of the Texas Republic. By examining blacks’ contributions and importance to Texas independence and especially the emergence of racially specific laws during the Republic’s existence, Schoen not only spotlights interesting and seldom discussed black figures in early Texas history, but also troubles persistent notions of a simple, bifurcated racial past in Texas. In “Origin of Free Blacks in The Republic of Texas,” he proclaims that state authorities largely defined the social and political categories of “free black” or even [End Page 511] “free person of color” with some acknowledgement of interracial unions during the antebellum era. Thus, fully understanding the history of free blacks in antebellum Texas requires some grappling with the undeniable presence of whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans in that shared space. Schoen is at his strongest when he delves into the state’s early political and legal wrestling with the topics of manumission, citizenship, and rights for a rather small but dynamic free black population.
Andrew Muir’s four articles provide sometimes short but rich surveys of free black life in four Texas counties. While some of Muir’s claims can be found in Schoen’s essays, Muir’s various county micro-histories highlight the extent to which spatial and temporal realities really shaped a diverse set of free black experiences in the state. Muir is deliberate to note that large generalizations about the social interactions between free blacks and whites especially determined how the former group was received in various communities, as enforcement of the law proved highly contingent on personal relationships and even blacks’ social capital.
Together, Schoen and Muir illuminate some of the enduring challenges of recovering the black Texas past. At the same time, their work confirms how far the study of blacks in Texas has come. Many of the outstanding questions presented in their work have now been answered by a host of Texas historians, and we are well on our way to understanding a great deal more about the black experience in the Lone Star State. This book proves useful to those eager to learn more about blacks who lived outside of slavery’s grip. Graduate history students and Texas scholars in particular may find the work enormously useful, if not for the new insights presented but for the rich and varied source materials used. Thus, this collection not only uncovers history but also demonstrates how history should be done.