In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South

In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South

In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South

In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South

Synopsis

The matriarch of a remarkable African American family, Sally Thomas went from being a slave on a tobacco plantation to a "virtually free" slave who ran her own business and purchased one of her sons out of bondage. In Search of the Promised Landoffers a vivid portrait of the extended Thomas-Rapier family and of slave life before the Civil War.
Based on personal letters and an autobiography by one of Thomas' sons, this remarkable piece of detective work follows the family as they walk the boundary between slave and free, traveling across the country in search of a "promised land" where African Americans would be treated with respect. Their record of these journeys provides a vibrant picture of antebellum America, ranging from New Orleans to St. Louis to the Overland Trail. The authors weave a compelling narrative that illuminates the larger themes of slavery and freedom while examining the family's experiences with the California Gold Rush, Civil War battles, and steamboat adventures. The documents show how the Thomas-Rapier kin bore witness to the full gamut of slavery--from brutal punishment, runaways, and the breakup of slave families to miscegenation, insurrection panics, and slave patrols. The book also exposes the hidden lives of "virtually free" slaves, who maintained close relationships with whites, maneuvered within the system, and gained a large measure of autonomy.

Excerpt

The French political philosopher Voltaire once remarked that if God did not exist, man would have to invent him. the aphorism reveals more, perhaps, about the human desire for rational constructs than about the existence of God. On the other hand, the best history uncovers subjects that are simply beyond invention. the family from the antebellum South portrayed here by historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger breaks nearly all the traditional stereotypes associated with such rational constructs as black/white and slave/free.

How could one invent Sally Thomas, an African American in Nashville who worked tirelessly to insure that her three sons by white men all eventually found freedom—while she remained enslaved? and did so even when that meant buying the freedom of one son and encouraging another to run away to the North, where she would never see him again. Who could invent the white father of her youngest son, James, one of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who signed the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, asserting that the Negro "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect"? Who could foretell that, as conditions worsened for African Americans during the 1850s, James Thomas would join his nephew in a quest for a freer country by traveling to . . .

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