Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

Excerpt

this book aspires to be a history of a remarkable man named William Ellison. In reality, it is both more and less than that. Less, because William Ellison was not a major historical figure whose every act was recorded; much that should be included in a full history of his life remains unknown and unknowable. More, because William Ellison's life was so intimately bound up with his family that his history is inseparable from the history of his family. More also, because William Ellison was inexorably pulled into the maelstrom of antebellum politics by his race. A man of mixed white and black ancestry, Ellison was one of a quarter of a million individuals in the slave states in 1860 whom well-spoken whites referred to as free Negroes or free people of color. Four million other Afro-Americans were slaves in 1860, as Ellison himself had been when he was born in 1790. Ellison's experience in slavery and freedom spans the history of the slave states from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Despite Ellison's best efforts to live a quiet, private life of freedom, his fate was linked to other free people of color and, through them, to the politics of the slave South. William Ellison's history, therefore, is his family's life and times.

William Ellison confounds expectations we are tempted to project onto him from our own times. A brown-skinned man who would be called black today, Ellison did not consider himself a black man but a man of color, a mulatto, a man neither black nor white, a brown man. At a time when most Afro-Americans, like other Americans, worked the soil, Ellison was a cotton gin maker, a master craftsman. When nearly . . .

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