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  • Beyond Slavery's Shadowby Warren Eugene Milteer Jr
  • David W. Dangerfield
Beyond Slavery's Shadow Free People of Color in the SouthWarren Eugene Milteer Jr. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 363 pp. ISBN: 9781469664385 (cloth), $95.00.

In his Beyond Slavery's Shadow, Warren Milteer provides the first comprehensive study on free people of color in the American South since Ira Berlin's Slaves without Masterswas published in 1974. A growing chorus of scholars has challenged Berlin's paradigm by exploring free people of color whose experiences in their local communities were better than simply slaves without masters. But where these scholars have drawn on differences between laws and free people of color's actual experiences within specific communities, Milteer acknowledges that some historians remain "unconvinced of the broad applicability of their conclusions" (11). It is precisely this challenge that he takes on with a wider focus that spans the entire South, from the Chesapeake to Texas, and covers the time from the colonial era to early Reconstruction.

Where Berlin's thesis emphasized free people of color's liminal positions under the law, Milteer contextualizes the laws and rhetoric behind them "around the issue of slavery in the development of discriminatory legislation and behavior" while also recognizing the "diverse [End Page 80]outcomes for free people of color … in every section of the South" (12). And while Milteer found free people of color experiencing very real degradations, financial and legal hardships, and exploitation, he also found others with financial health, meaningful social integration, and "a freedom that was contested yet worth defending, a liberty worth dying for" (12). Along the way, Milteer also gestures toward the complex meaning behind the various ways free people of color were categorized in the old South: "'negroes,' 'mulattoes,' 'mustees,' 'Indians,' 'blacks,' 'pardos,' 'morenos,' 'mestizos,' 'quadroons,' and 'octaroons'"—all categories that have often been collapsed into the single free blackdescriptor, which is tidy but often inadequately conveys the complex experiences these free people of color may have faced (8).

Beginning his study in the colonial era, Milteer observes Southern colonies with a small but important population of free persons of color who were clearly understood to "be above enslaved people" (14). Though the beginnings of an increasingly oppressive legal and social structure were also present in that time, so too were free people of color who navigated their positions with fragile alliances and a "sense of stability within a larger social situation that was compromised by the undue influence of the master class" (30). Milteer found these contingent opportunities for free people of color expanded during the Revolutionary period, particularly during a brief tide of individual and collective emancipations. But as quickly as it came, that tide receded, and "proslavery radicals began to develop ways to advocate for slavery by attacking free people of color" (62).

Going forward into the nineteenth century, Milteer further contextualized the growing number of laws aimed at free people of color that were driven by proslavery ideology and events like the Haitian Revolution and, later, Nat Turner's Rebellion. But even as the contexts and suspicions behind these laws grew more and more hostile toward free people of color, Milteer found the passage of such laws did not always "guarantee full enforcement" (81). Restrictions included limits on immigration that were meant to limit the free person of color population; a bevy of new regulations on manumission; and requirements, for example, that free persons of color have a white guardian. Still, Milteer found that on the local level, "free people of color worked with their neighbors, both white and of color, to shape the daily patterns of southern life" (115). Sometimes transcending race, these alliances were forged among neighbors, those who shared economic interests, and those who served together in military engagements like the American Revolution and War of 1812. And despite the increasing hostility under the oppressive shadow of the slavery amid the [End Page 81]growing sectional crisis, free people of color continued to find ways to contest their status. Milteer describes those who successfully used the courts for their benefit, such as free women of color who sought child...