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. By Eva Sheppard Wolf. (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2012, Pp. xi, 174. $19.95, paper.)

This book tells the remarkable story of Samuel Johnson and his family, persons of color, some free and some enslaved, who lived in Warrenton, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. More importanüy, they lived in the shifting and precarious interstices of antebellum Virginia's racial system. Eva Sheppard Wolf has mined official records that Johnson and his family left (deeds, wills, and particularly legislative petitions) and has provided us with a winsome, tragic portrait of a man and his family making an unexpected way through a strange land.

Johnson's freedom came in 1812, when he succeeded in purchasing himself with $500 accrued over a decade from his work as "principal servant" in a tavern in Warrenton. He also secured, by special act of the legislature, the right to remain in Virginia. Johnson was, in the terms of the day, a mulatto. His mixed race status and his work in a tavern frequented by lawyers and political elites allowed him to build a network of powerful friends. Johnson used that network in the years ahead to seek right of residence for his enslaved wife and their enslaved children. He was eventually their owner.

It was not adequate money or even friendly influence that kept Johnson's family in slavery. Virginia's racial system was changing in the midst of Johnson's efforts. Gabriel's unrealized rebellion (1800), Nat Turner's realized one (1831), and the increasing anxiety white Virginians felt in relationship to their own slaves and to abolitionism meant that newly freed slaves were required to leave Virginia. This was a return to an older legal norm, abrogated briefly in Virginia in the spirit of the Revolution. Manumitted slaves who did not leave the commonwealth risked being sold back into slavery by public authorities. While Johnson succeeded in gaining the necessary dispensation for himself, repeated attempts to do so for his wife and children in later years were "tortuous and torturous" and fruitless (31). …