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Thursday, January 1, 2009

In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South

by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger  (Oxford UP)

It is rare that this blog discusses any work that is reviewed in the New York Times except, perhaps, to contextualize it within wider historical and cultural tendencies. But I must make an exception with this remarkable little book, In Search of the Promised Land. Authored by John Hope Franklin — the indefatigable dean of African American historians best known for his important popular history of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom — and Loren Schweninger, the author of Rebels on the Plantation and Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, it follows the lives and fortunes of three generations of slaves and free blacks who were the descendents of a quasi-free slave, Sally Thomas, who lived in Nashville.

What is a "quasi-free" slave? The category was elastic and varied from region to region and even person to person, but a quasi-free slave generally earned their own living as a tradesperson: a barber, a blacksmith, a laundress, and so on. Slave owners would then take some or all of the profit that their slaves took in.

Sally Thomas was fortunate in that her owner paid very little attention to her. Not only was she able to purchase the house where she did her work as a laundress, she was also able to save enough money to buy one of her sons out of slavery (with the consent of her master).

Sally's three sons were the children of two different white fathers. It is not known if Sally willingly entered into sexual relations with these men. One later became a United States Supreme Court Justice. Neither men did anything for their sons — the judge even voted with the majority in the Dred Scott case, which stated that a negro "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."

In spite of the terrible fathering they received, her sons and grandsons did remarkable things for black men who lived in the last half of the 19th-century: they traveled widely and many became educated, in spite of all the impediments in front of them. Perhaps the most successful was her son James P. Thomas, who became a well-known barber in St. Louis and the husband of a very wealthy free black woman.

The most stunning personalities, however, would have to be John Rapier, Jr., and James Rapier, Sally's grandsons. During Reconstruction, James became an important political leader and was elected to the U.S. Congress. He helped to pass the 1874 Civil Rights Act.

After trying a variety of ventures, including an attempt to jump start a new, non-racist nation in Nicaragua, John eventually made it through medical school. As soon as he graduated, he went to work as a medic for the union army.

During his time with the army, John, Jr., often spent his evenings attending to the medical needs of the black people in the neighborhood where he lived. This was in sharp contrast to the attitudes about poor blacks that he showed earlier while traveling through Jamaica and Haiti. There, he was so appalled by the casual dress, pagan beliefs, and dirtiness of the poor blacks that he wrote to his brother that he became convinced that he would never want to live in a society where most blacks were free.

This, of course, is a stunning and painful demonstration of DuBois's 'double-consciousness', where blacks in America necessarily view themselves both as agents who can affect their fate and as objects in the view of white people. According to DuBois blacks, to a degree, must internalize the way whites objectify them in order to be able to simply get by in a society where whites have the power.

Obviously, this family is unusual. Sally Thomas was given tremendous opportunities due to the leniency of her master, but she also worked her fingers to the bone to make the most of them. And she succeeded: all three of her sons became somewhat educated and important men. And a couple of her grandsons became truly generous and great men.

The question arises: what does our learning about this unrepresentative family teach us about race in America? Plenty. For one thing, during their trips the men often commented on how rude northern people were to blacks. In the south, there were terrible legal impediments in the way of black self-determination. However, white people and black people did seem to get along on a basic day-to-day level. (History proves that this was true only when blacks did not agitate for their rights.)

The book goes to great pains to show that the descendents of Sally Thomas were pained and frightened by seeing slave auctions and people in shackles. Not only did they feel compassion for their brethren, but they also worried that they could easily fall into their lot. Sally's accomplished children were still technically slaves, in spite of their slave mother's very free daily life. If she were to die, or her owner were to suffer a financial loss, the boys could be sold into the most vicious slavery imaginable. This anxiety hung over the heads of both free and slave family members until after the Civil War.

How did Franklin and Schweninger get the information for this well-written and dramatic account? They didn't make it up! At the end of each chapter there are pages of copious footnotes. And as we read through the text, it becomes clear that the authors chose the Thomas-Rapier family for good reason: many of their letters, and the memoir of James P. Thomas (which has been published as From Tennessee Slave to St. Louis Entrepreneur) are extant.  

After reading this book, I do not feel that slavery was any less cruel than I did before. I believe that the 19th-century black polemicist David Walker was correct in arguing that the slavery of the American south during the plantation era was, according to the historical record, the worst that the world has ever seen.

That said, it helps to see the nuance in the situation, to realize that blacks and whites could sometimes be friends on an equal footing (if the white so desired.) That there were ways blacks could push back so as to make their lot a little more tolerable — such as demanding some celebration during the holiday season. And it is inspirational to watch a family go from slaves to important congressmen, doctors, and businessmen in two generations.

It is essential to note that there was one ingredient absolutely needed to make all of this happen: Sally Thomas getting some opportunity in life. She certainly deserved more, but her life and the life of her family shows that nobody gets anywhere without some help.

Opportunity, both for ourselves and others, resides in the choices of a person, a group, a community, and a polity.

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