Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

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Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia * Eva Sheppard Wolf * Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012 * xiv, 176 pp. * $59.95 cloth; $19.95 paper

This lively, artful, and compelling book narrates the family struggles of one African-descended family in central Virginia as they worked to free themselves from bondage. Manumission, however, was only half of the struggle. After 1 806, Virginia required freed slaves to leave the state or face re-enslavement. That law and the byzantine process of procuring an exception from the legislature show how, in the early republic, "freedom in America was white" (p. 77).

Wolf's primary contribution lies in her subtle and contextualized analysis of race. "Race in antebellum Virginia," she contends, "was simultaneously momentous and tenuous" (p. 3). It was momentous because of the legal architecture and social ideology that drew a color line. Race was tenuous because the line was a legal and social fiction. In counties like Fauquier and towns like Warrenton, African descent was not a marker of caste. Whites and people of color mingled and mixed, formed families, and owned property. That has been a subject about which much has been written. Wolf deepens our understanding of race and slavery in nineteenth-century Virginia by taking a close look at a particular set of people as their contingent circumstances changed over time in response to their own strategies and the broader sweep of events.

Her concise and accessible story centers on the African-descended Patty and Samuel Johnson family of Warrenton. Using considerable narrative skill, Wolf articulates the ephemeral struggles of the Johnsons to free themselves and the years-long efforts they undertook to gain permission from the Virginia legislature to remain in their homeland. They attracted sponsors and allied with others in their situation. Johnson and his family worked hard and embodied values of savings and investment to accumulate property, including land. …