Review: Almost Free
Eva Sheppard Wolf, Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. 192 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-3230-7.
This is a story of one slave and his family told through legal petitions. The first petition succeeded: mixed-race tavern waiter Samuel Johnson of Warrenton, Virginia, won his legal freedom and permission to remain in Virginia as a free person of color in 1812. Every subsequent petition Johnson filed failed. Legal freedom for his wife and daughter, both of whom he came to own, was of the “almost” variety. In piecing together a narrative from a sparse but evocative source base of deeds, wills, tax records, court papers, and an astonishing eleven petitions to the Virginia state legislature to facilitate the Johnson family’s legal freedom, Eva Sheppard Wolf has performed a valuable service. She forges through the record that is available rather than “fret over the difficulties of telling Samuel Johnson’s story” from a paucity of texts (2). Wolf’s slim, accessible story will be a welcome contribution to undergraduate seminars and lay readers looking for a manageable read, and teachers will appreciate the way Wolf takes us through the process of dissecting and connecting sources. There is an interactive quality to this book that guides the reader through the revelatory petitions text by text. Wolf then dexterously contextualizes them with her knowledge of Virginia law and custom as it progresses from the late eighteenth century through the 1840s. Wolf deserves special congratulation for doing something much harder than it looks—telling a story. Still, Wolf’s effort raises questions about the limitations of exercises in historical imagination and the tensions that emerge between historical empathy and historical analysis.
Oriented toward a broad audience, Almost Free wears its scholarly engagement lightly. She pushes back against Ira Berlin’s classic characterization of free blacks as “slaves without masters,” seeking to portray Samuel Johnson as surprisingly independent (51). But this is not an argument-driven book. Instead, it draws on her previous work, Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion (2006). There, Wolf first examined Samuel Johnson, inspired by his persistence in trying to liberate his family. Almost Free digs deeper into this story, exposing the fluid nature of race in Virginia. Specifically, Wolf seeks to problematize the slavery-freedom binary by exploring all the “almosts.” She interprets family and home as the foremost motivating forces in Samuel Johnson’s legal actions, and she utilizes genealogical tools to emphasize family and to give Johnson the personal history that slavery threatened to obliterate.
As the story goes, Samuel Johnson bought his freedom with five hundred dollars, saved from tips. He bought his wife and children soon after, and they became his slaves. His son died; his efforts then focused on freeing his wife and daughter. Complicating matters was an 1806 law that required manumitted slaves to leave Virginia within a year after they had been liberated. Violators risked being sold back into slavery. Pennsylvania and permanent freedom were only 80 miles away, but Fauquier County, Virginia, was home. Johnson was a property owner, and he had powerful white friends. As Wolf explains, he “challenged the notion that Virginia belonged to white people” and gambled that white patronage in a slave state was better than residence in a “free state where white people would have little reason to pay them any special attention or offer any help” (107–108)—a testament to how both geographical identification and white patronage stand at the center of this story. As a man yearning for legitimacy and respectability, Johnson took the only action available—petitioning the state legislature to make an exception to allow his family to remain in Virginia after he emancipated them. Johnson himself was illiterate, but an impressive array of white elites spoke on his behalf as “loyal Diligent sober accommodating faithful and honest” (93). And his daughter Lucy, who came into the foreground as his wife aged and passed, became known over time as “a respectable & useful member of this Community” (109). Johnson emancipated his daughter just as she was about to be married to a free man of color. She remained in the state with her husband and had a family of her own, living in violation of the 1806 residency law. As the Virginia establishment clamped down on the free black community in the wake of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Lucy’s husband, suspected of distributing abolitionist literature, fled to Pennsylvania and did not return. Samuel Johnson’s petitions then turned toward securing a divorce for his daughter and distancing himself from abolitionist ill repute. Lucy did remarry (a slave) and remained in Faquier County, but her freedom was always precarious, more secure through custom than law. After Samuel Johnson’s death, Lucy and her family moved to Washington, D.C., and Wolf proceeds to track her progeny into the present day.
While this book has much to commend it, it also has some significant flaws. At the outset, Wolf calls this work “an act of [historical] imagination,” declaring her desire to grant Samuel Johnson his “rightful place in the grand American story” (xi). She invites readers to use their own critical abilities to recognize that she has been necessarily selective in her interpretations of evidence. She also invites the reader to make Johnson’s journey a personal one, invoking an exercise in historical empathy that is both instructive and troubling. She succeeds in giving dimension to a historically marginalized character, but in her enthusiasm, she molds Johnson into a hero beyond reproach.
Furthermore, Wolf’s critical analysis of race and family will disappoint scholars. She seeks to highlight the fluidity and contingency of race in daily life, but the story of Samuel Johnson and his genealogy threatens to leave the reader with a far different impression—the power and desirability of whiteness. Johnson’s privileges are predicated on loyalty to the white community. By 1942, a Johnson descendant passed for white, “perhaps something that Samuel Johnson had yearned to do” (137). This is a problematic speculation not because it lacks plausibility among Wolf’s many “perhaps,” but because it stands alone on the book’s penultimate page without the rigorous analysis such a statement begs. Here, narrative and imagination, especially framed as inspirational story, make for dubious history—the linear progression of a legacy elides the subjectivity of genealogical technology. It becomes clear that “race” is “slippery” when skin color is ambiguous; race “matters” in descendants’ lives when they fail to make the obituary column of the Washington Post (137). Scrutinizing Wolf’s selectivity is crucial—Lucy, for instance, is unfailing as the dutiful daughter. What Wolf interprets as Lucy’s choice could well be compulsion. The hierarchy and coercion of “family” is invisible. If race is an unstable category for Wolf, family is a remarkably stable one. Family is made by blood and marriage—nuclear, male-headed, two-parent, loving. Samuel Johnson works tirelessly for the good of his family; Spencer Malvin, Lucy Johnson’s abolitionist husband, deserts his family, and promptly becomes the story’s villain. Wolf emphasizes Samuel Johnson’s role as devoted father, minimizing his role as master. In a good teacher’s hands, these tensions could lead to fruitful discussion. But Wolf leaves much of the analytical heavy lifting to the reader.
The relationship between race and family in the African American experience is due for reassessment. Wolf admirably highlights how human intimacies blurred legal lines. More than anything, her own imaginative adventurousness should push more scholars to grapple with the shards of evidence so that we might recover the history silenced by the selectivity of the textual record.