U.S. Intellectual History Blog

White Ideology and Black Freedom in the Antebellum South

The following is a guest post by John Garrison Marks, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In his dissertation, “Ports of Freedom: Race and Respectability in the Urban Black Atlantic,” he examines how free people of color in the United States and Spanish America engaged in an Atlantic discourse on race, freedom, and respectability in their efforts to mitigate the impact of racial discrimination on their daily lives.

One of the advantages of studying the Atlantic World is the opportunity to find historiographical links not recognized by others. I’ve noticed recently that when studies of race and slavery in Latin America gesture towards a comparison with the United States, they often reflect an outdated perception of the state of the literature on US South.  In particular, it seems that historians of Latin America and the Atlantic World have yet to integrate the recent local studies of free blacks in southern communities into the story of the broader regional experience. Even historians of the antebellum United States sometimes still see these studies as reflective of only local realities rather than broader regional and national trends. When considered broadly, recent literature on free blacks in the South reveals that throughout the region, crucial gaps existed between whites’ abstract ideologies about black capacities for freedom and their treatment of free blacks in their communities.

Ira Berlin’s Slaves Without Masters remains the most comprehensive treatment of the problem of black freedom in the antebellum South and the reference for historians of race in other locales. For Berlin, the line between slavery and freedom in the South was thin and superficial, as free blacks remained at the bottom of the social order, subjected to the verbal and physical abuse of whites.  He documented how southern whites characterized blacks as lacking the capacities to survive in freedom, and addicted to vice and crime. Though they had legally attained freedom, many whites felt that the positions of former slaves not changed.  For Berlin, black freedom was precarious, and free blacks often lived at the margins of society, forced constantly to protect and defend any measure of autonomy and social standing they had managed to attain.

Even while subsequent community studies have provided a more nuanced understanding of the ways whites viewed black freedom in the Old South, the Slaves Without Masters paradigm has proved remarkably durable. Michael Johnson and James Roark’s Black Masters detailed the life of free black South Carolinian William Ellison, and examined how he managed to obtain wealth and social prestige within South Carolina slave society, cultivating relationships with prominent whites, and even owning slaves and a plantation himself. Nevertheless, Johnson and Roark make clear they view Ellison’s case as exceptional, and that freedom always marked blacks as people “whites had to watch.” While the degree of Ellison’s success was certainly uncommon, the fact that whites—who in the abstract retained the views so carefully detailed by Berlin—would treat free black members of their local community with a degree of fairness and even respect, was decidedly not.

As more historians in recent years have published detailed community studies that emphasize the importance of local records and local circumstances, a clearer picture of the southern free black experience has emerged. Melvin Patrick Ely has documented the remarkable stability for the free black community of Prince Edward County, Virginia in his book Israel on the Appomattox. Ely’s study reveals the importance of local reputation and interracial social networks for Prince Edward’s free blacks. Contrary to the Slaves Without Masters paradigm, the free blacks in Ely’s story were not afraid of using the court system and other institutions to defend their freedom and livelihoods, and they often received the full support of white friends and acquaintances in doing so. Ely revealed how whites in Prince Edward County treated their black neighbors “fairer than we typically think, more often than we think.”[1] Nevertheless, some reviews of Ely’s work doubted its applicability elsewhere in the South, seeing the case as representative only of the peculiarities of a single county.

Since the publication of Israel on the Appomattox, a number of other local studies have appeared, revealing the extent to which local realities throughout the South paralleled those of Prince Edward County. Kirt von Daacke (whose title, Freedom Has a Face, perhaps most succinctly describes this ideological flexibility) reveals similar dynamics in Albemarle County, Virginia, where free blacks avoided restrictive state laws and defended their freedom by crafting reputations for themselves as respectable individuals and cultivating social ties with their white neighbors. Other local studies—on Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Rockbridge and Augusta Counties, and elsewhere in Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri [2]; and a number of other locales, including my own work on antebellum Houston, Texas [3]—reveals that throughout the antebellum South, free blacks used local reputations for respectability, social networks that included prominent whites, and southern court rooms to defend their freedom and livelihood against racial restrictions handed down from state legislatures.

These broad parallels in recent literature on the southern free black experience at the community level offer a few conclusions. First, these studies suggest a certain degree of flexibility in white southern racial ideologies. As Ely suggests, whites may not have enforced state-level restrictions on black freedom because they were out of step with local realities, even while agreeing with them in theory. Second, these parallels reveal the broad applicability of the racial dynamics in studies like Ely’s and von Daacke’s for other southern communities.  Third, these community studies reveal links with the experiences of free black northerners, as well as free people of color elsewhere in the Atlantic World, links that are obscured when we assess white views of black freedom from a more abstract perspective. Though whites continued to think of free blacks generally along the lines of the Slaves Without Masters model, from urban Texas to rural Virginia they tended to deal in similar ways with the free blacks they knew as individuals and neighbors. In light of this recent literature on the local free black experience, it is perhaps time we begin to think of these community dynamics, this ideological flexibility, as the norm rather than exception.


[1] Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War, (New York: Knopf Press, 2004), 344.

[2] See, for example, the work of Anne S. Twitty and Kelly Kennington.

[3] My article, “Community Bonds in the Bayou City: Free Blacks and Local Reputation in Early Houston,” is forthcoming from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fascinating post, it is of utmost importance to take the world of free blacks into consideration, especially in its connections with whites. Could you explain the following sentence, perhaps pointing at examples: “it seems that historians of Latin America and the Atlantic World have yet to integrate the recent local studies of free blacks in southern communities into the story of the broader regional experience.” Are you thinking of Rebecca Scott’s work on Louisiana and Cuba? Also, what are the actual links with the “free people of color elsewhere in the Atlantic World”?

  2. Though whites continued to think of free blacks generally along the lines of the Slaves Without Masters model, from urban Texas to rural Virginia they tended to deal in similar ways with the free blacks they knew as individuals and neighbors. In light of this recent literature on the local free black experience, it is perhaps time we begin to think of these community dynamics, this ideological flexibility, as the norm rather than exception.

    An exciting challenge to “common knowledge.” Even if not the norm, if often enough the exception to be statistically significant [although it’s too late to measure], the lesson that could be drawn from history is that the norm for race relations wasn’t Twelve Years a Slave either [a perception of the norm I imagine will be reinforced by that soon to be award-winning film].

    This is not to draw a happy face on race in America then or now, but any historical success of black self-empowerment–not just white oppression–needs to be part of the education process.

    This also brings to mind Tom Sowell’s “Black rednecks” thesis, that dysfunctional black culture is pretty much a cousin of the prevailing dysfunctional Scots-Irish [“Cracker”] culture of the South, the poor whites whom they lived beside and competed with. Indeed Sowell begins with early 1900s Chicago, that hillbillies were a more suspect class than blacks.

    If there’s some truth to it, it’s easy to believe that upstanding free blacks–even in the age of slavery–might have enjoyed a status and/or respect that low-living whites with

    an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship

    did not.

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