- Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow by Daniel B. Thorp
In Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow, historian Daniel B. Thorp offers a tightly focused account of African American experiences in the aftermath of slavery. Excavating the complex stories of black family and community construction in Montgomery County, Virginia, Thorp's detailed study provides tremendous resources for future community and regional historians, even as it reinforces the tragic story of black pride in autonomy despite the rise of segregation.
In researching Montgomery County, Thorp adds to understandings of the regional diversity of postbellum African American life as well as of the shared patterns of Jim Crow across the South. Located in southwestern Virginia and considered part of southern Appalachia more broadly, Montgomery County was an isolated tobacco and wheat farming region with a mixed population of enslaved workers, would-be planters, and small farmers. Transportation developments in the late antebellum era supported the growth of slavery so that by 1860, slaves made up 31 percent of the county's population. It is this population that Thorp carefully details through a "Long Reconstruction," using census data, land deeds, personal letters and records, oral histories, and many other forms of community documentation (p. 6). At the most immediate level, this [End Page 472] monograph demonstrates the significance of race to patterns of economic modernization in a region long presumed to be relatively untouched by the larger experiences of slavery and Reconstruction.
Thorp builds his study of African American life in Montgomery County through thematic chapters that each begin with a compelling anecdote of an individual or family. He then traces specific forms of change from the end of slavery to the late nineteenth century, while also suggesting some generational patterns of African American freedom. For example, in chapter 3, "Labor, Land, and Making a Living," Thorp begins with the story of Gordon and Nellie Mills. Freed as a young couple but with literally no resources to call their own, the Millses both worked as laborers for ex-slave owners before purchasing a small farm by the 1870s. As the Mills family expanded, its members struggled to pay off debt while also expanding their land claims. Their success was modest but significant: Mills descendants still live on the family homestead. Yet Thorp also notes that many members of the Mills family departed the region in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as industrial and urban opportunities outside the rural region beckoned.
Thorp's chapters on education and religion provide greater focus on emerging African American community relationships and cultural visions of freedom. Notably, readers may be familiar with the general pattern of African American struggles to establish schools for black children in the late nineteenth century, but Thorp provides new perspective on debates over industrial curricula that reveal important connections between Montgomery County and larger networks of black educational activists across the nation. He documents white school leaders' growing interest in Booker T. Washington's vision of manual training, even as local African Americans fought for more advanced models of vocational training promoted by Philadelphia-based educator Fanny Jackson Coppin.
Facing Freedom reminds readers of African Americans' creative daily struggles for freedom while the expanding power of Jim Crow increasingly limited their options. The often-dense detail of this bottom-up approach to late-nineteenth-century African American life in a rural corner of Virginia may be most appealing to specialists in regional history, but the stories that Daniel B. Thorp tells are powerful and complex.