Milteer, Warren Eugene, Jr. Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. ISBN 9781469664385. £90.52 cloth. 376pp.
Warren Eugene Milteer, Jr.’s most recent monograph, Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South, winner of the 2022 Charles S. Sydnor Award, contributes to a body of scholarship that, although much smaller than the enormous historiography on enslavement, is nevertheless vibrant and growing. In this ambitious project, Milteer widens the scope of his work on free people of color that he began with his first two books—the first, a county-wide study, and the second, a state-wide interrogation—to a regional study encompassing the entire southern United States. Aside from an unpublished dissertation that considered this regional population by Herbert Bolton in 1899, historians like Milteer have produced either local or statewide studies on free Black people or thematic ones, like Carter G. Woodson’s investigation of enslavers within this group. Ira Berlin’s 1974 Slaves Without Masters, which systematically examined free Black people’s status and treatment in the South, has largely stood as the authority on the topic for decades. However, in Milteer’s view, Berlin’s analysis was too heavily centered on the restrictive laws and heated political rhetoric directed at free people of color as a group, a focus which downplayed the day-to-day interactions that transpired at the local level whereby communities often lived cooperatively with their white neighbors.
Milteer’s book is thus a welcome addition to the historiography, first and foremost in the sense that a half century is a long time to wait for a regional reexamination of this critical population who existed side-by-side with enslaved people throughout the South. Milteer consciously tries to offer a new direction that considers the work of historians like Melvin Patrick Ely and others who explore the haphazard ways in which restrictive laws were enforced, allowing the space for free people of color to sidestep them. As he notes in the introduction, “The book tries to highlight the strategic goals and importance of the increasingly radical rhetoric around the issue of slavery in the development of discriminatory legislation and behavior” (Milteer, 12). Milteer also counterbalances this with the efforts of moderates and allies of free people of color who pushed back against legal constraints and sentiment. Ultimately, at the center of this analysis is the diverse population of free people of color who strived and often thrived in southern communities.
Beyond Slavery’s Shadow showcases considerable and meticulous archival plumbing. Each chapter begins with a short vignette which introduces the reader to one individual and his or her fascinating life. Beginning in the colonial era and continuing to the demise of slavery, the book offers a breathtaking assortment of the varied experiences of free people of color across time and space. Milteer excels at providing countless examples of the ways this population contributed to their local communities in areas like agriculture, industry, domestic services, and fishing, among others. He offers brief glimpses of entrepreneurs like Rebecca Dwight, who “developed a steady business selling liquors, wines, turtle soup, relishes, and steaks to the people of Charleston, South Carolina” (132). Although many of the individuals are mentioned in snippets, the richness of description and sheer numbers put forward paint a clear picture of the diversity of experiences.
In spite of its ample strengths, there are some shortcomings to Beyond Slavery’s Shadow. One conceptual issue lies in the title of the book itself. In the introduction, Milteer notes that he “focuses primarily on the lives of free persons and not enslaved people. The experiences of free persons of color who may have shared a common racial categorization with the enslaved do not fit neatly with the struggles of enslaved people because, indeed, free persons had a different status” (12). This position minimizes the instability of the status of those who may not have been enslaved, but who also did not have technical legal freedom—the vulnerable population, mostly in the Deep South, whom Berlin deemed “quasi-free” (Berlin, 145). How easy, then, is it to categorize these individuals who claimed their freedom and acted independently but did not hold legal documentation to that status? To imply that free people of color as a whole held a firm status, separate from the enslaved, stamps a certainty that is not substantiated by the work of many historians who point to the ambiguity and “murkiness” of this group, some of whom ventured out of “slavery’s shadow,” while others remained within it. Milteer discusses some of the challenges of free people of color, including the very real threat of kidnapping and re-enslavement, but more could have been included on the herculean efforts of people of color in freedom suits, as scholars like Loren Schweninger have detailed.
In spite of more attention to gender, Beyond Slavery’s Shadow nevertheless centers, more often than not, on men’s experiences, despite the fact that free women of color outnumbered men in the South, making up 52.3% and 54.5% of the free Black population in the Upper South and Lower South respectively (Berlin, 177-178). Milteer includes some details about free girls and women of color within his analysis, yet men figure prominently in the opening stories of the chapters, with the exception of that of Marietta T. Hill’s mention at the start of Chapter 7. The book contains a useful index of all the names of people who appear within the text, but women are underrepresented at roughly a third. Taken together, the disproportionate space devoted to highlighting men’s roles within free Black communities, in spite of the population being predominantly female, seems to obscure the integral role that free Black women played. This is disappointing, especially considering the rich work that has been done by historians on free Black women as property owners, entrepreneurs, educators, and heads of households. Scholars have long considered the unique lived realities of free women of color in a number of influential studies, including local ones like Suzanne Lebsock’s The Free Women of Petersburg, and importantly, the first monograph exclusively on this group, Wilma King’s The Essence of Liberty, which surprisingly does not appear in the bibliography of Beyond Slavery’s Shadow.
These criticisms aside, however, Beyond Slavery’s Shadow is a page-turner in its compelling analysis. Milteer deftly lays out the origins and growth of the diverse population of free people of color, and, importantly, he demonstrates the value in terms of work, institution building, and persevering presence in their communities across the South. The scope of the research is stunning, and Milteer’s diligence in scouring a wide range of archives has resulted in a significant work that adds further nuance and context to the conditions under which free people of color struggled and oftentimes thrived. Further, Milteer’s work underlines Berlin’s longstanding claim that the contested freedom of free people of color served as a harbinger of what all Black people would experience in the decades following the end of slavery.
Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
King, Wilma. The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Lebsock, Suzanne. The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860. New York: Norton, 1984.
Milteer, Warren E. Jr. Hartford County, North Carolina’s Free People of Color and Their Descendants. Burlington, NC: Milteer Publishing, 2016.
—. North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020.
Schweninger, Loren. Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Woodson, Carter G. Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830; Together with Absentee Ownership of Slaves in the United States in 1830. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1924.
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