A Question of Freedom
The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War
William G. Thomas III
From my mother, I had inherited the Lost Cause counterfactual tropes she had been taught as a girl educated in the Jim Crow South. I had already tossed that pack of lies overboard before I read the will that sent me on my odyssey. However, I had only replaced them with a token understanding of what slave-holding in the South involved. At every stop along the way, I loaded on more & more facts. Just as regularly, I tossed out my conclusions. Every time I thought I had a comprehensive understanding, a new revelation would reveal how little I knew. The institution of slavery defiled everything it touched. Sincerely, I wish that I had never gone on that particular voyage of discovery... like Odysseus, it took me decades & ever fouler encounters before I arrived at my destination.
It is easy to assume that the Civil War came along& Lincoln waved his magic wand & freed the slaves. Thomas’ book is one of the few on the story of Southern slavery that shows the 100 year struggle enslaved people fought for their own freedom.
A Question of Freedom by William G. Thomas III has, once again, shown me just how much more there is to know about the institution of slavery. Almost before the ink on the Declaration of Independence dried, slaves began taking their owners to court for the purpose of freeing themselves or family members. It was common for people to free slaves in a will. What I had never realized was that it was also common for slaves to be freed after a period of years. 10 years was common for some reason. Anyone who has had anything to do with inheritances will know that a legacy of freedom led to all manner of rancorous lawsuits. Slaves brought suit against reluctant or downright dishonest individuals who did not honor the freedom stipulated in the will. Suits were brought by slave-holders seeking to return freedmen to bondage. There were generations of suits involving individuals who had one parent that was white.
Frances ( Oh, say can you see... ) Scott Key is a prominent character in Thomas' narrative. Key, a lawyer, represented over 100 enslaved families. He also purchases slaves & married into one of the largest slave-holding families in Maryland. He freed a number of his slaves, but represented slave-holders, sued slaves & remained a slave-holder throughout his life. He is a one man example of just how complex & convoluted slave-holding really was.
What struck me about the slaves, freedmen, slave-holders, lawyers & judges involved in the suits that often challenged the very legitimacy of slavery itself is how very American it all was. The saints & the scoundrels behaved like Americans. So did slaves, the humblest base of society & the Supreme Court justices at the pinnacle of both government & society.
In the photo above, A Question of Freedom rests on a copy of the news paper published in Murfreesboro during the Battle of Stones River. The post it notes mark ads offering rewards for the return of runaway slaves. The effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation & the edition of The Daily Rebel Banner coincided. Ironically, since Middle Tennessee was inside Union lines, the Proclamation did not apply here. The two negro boys, Billy black 16 years old & Sydney mulatto 22 years old legally still belonged to F. Eogan of Tullahoma, Tennessee who would happily pay $50 for their return. They could have added quite nicely to the sometimes decades long legal ins & outs Thomas navigates the reader through.
This is the best book I have read on the subject of slaves filing suits for freedom. It is full of say what's? Who knew that Maryland outlawed slavery by popular vote in 1864... unless you had been sold into slavery as a punishment for advocating the end of slavery. When it comes to the topic of slave-holding, wonders never cease.