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Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790-1860: The Dark Side of Freedom.

Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790-1860.' The Dark Side of Freedom, by Tommy L. Bogger. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. xiii, 264 pp. $35.00.

During the 1790s and the first decade of the nineteenth century free black residents of Norfolk, Virginia, owned valuable real-estate, dominated several trades, engaged in business ventures with whites, and sued whites in court. Blacks in this small port city also took the initiative in purchasing the freedom of themselves, family members, and friends. According to Tommy L. Bogger in his often intriguing study of Norfolk's free black community, these decades constituted a prosperous and optimistic time for many of the city's African-American residents. The thrust of Bogger's argument, however, is that by the 1850s Norfolk's free black community had declined in prosperity and status. Driven from the trades by Irish and German immigrants, stripped of legal protection, denied access to education, socially segregated, and the targets of violence, local African Americans were in dire circumstances.

Readers familiar with the cyclical nature of African-American history will not be surprised by such a stark reversal of fortunes over a half-century. Essentially Bogger confirms in his local study the disparity between the daunting historical experience of black Americans and the more consistently progressive experience of white Americans. Yet, through extensive research in court records, state papers, and local newspapers, Bogger provides details of free black life in Norfolk that will help shape the direction of future studies of antebellum black life in America.

This is particularly the case in regard to Bogger's contention that African Americans were most responsible for the wave of manumissions that expanded the free black class during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In his classic study of Southern free blacks, Slaves Without Masters, Ira Berlin attributes the growing number of free blacks in the upper South to the impact of Revolutionary Era natural rights ideology upon Southern white masters. Bogger joins T. Stephen Whitman, who has recently studied manumission in Maryland, in emphasizing black initiative in negotiating for freedom.

Similarly, while Berlin, Barbara Jeanne Fields, and numerous other historians have analyzed the reaction against free blacks that occurred during the 1850s, Bogger stresses that in Norfolk the reaction affected free blacks economically as well as culturally and politically. Berlin characterizes the 1850s as the "best of times, the worst of times" for Southern free blacks because they thrived economically while new legislation narrowed their freedoms. Bogger indicates that in Norfolk the 1850s were simply the worst of times.

Most of Bogger's book is devoted to analyzing how changing economic and political circumstances affected free black life in Norfolk. Relying upon American Colonization Society Papers, he shows how declining prospects in the city encouraged many local free blacks to migrate to Liberia, the society's colony in West Africa. Relying mainly upon local newspapers, he provides a detailed account of daily life among Norfolk's free black class. He discusses marriage, housing, disease, entertainment, religious and social institutions, as well as the impact of an increasingly segregated society upon black culture. Repressive legislation and white bigotry, he indicates, encouraged blacks to disregard the law and sometimes make violent reprisals.

In his discussion of family life among the city's free black residents, Bogger supports those scholars who argue that African Americans emerged from slavery with strong family institutions. Black families in Norfolk were essential in the purchase of freedom, as economic units, and as providers of education. Relying on census records, he finds that the number of nuclear families headed by males was higher in Norfolk than has been reported for other Southern cities and that most free black wives did not work outside the home.

In all Bogger makes good use of a variety of sources to provide a portrait of life among Norfolk's antebellum free black class. Yet in several respects the book is disappointing. Because Bogger by necessity relies upon white testimony, he frequently fails to achieve his goal of portraying free blacks from their own point of view. His chapter on African colonization, for example, places this phenomenon mainly in the context of white desires to deport free blacks and fails to discuss the relationship of this movement to an early variety of black nationalism.

One might also question the degree of decline in free black economic status that Bogger indicates. Some of the information he adduces suggests that during the 1840s free blacks continued to dominate work at the local navy yard and were actually replacing white workers there as late as 1842. In other cases it appears that free blacks continued to dominate certain trades into the late 1850s. Most important, Bogger misses a chance to deal with Norfolk's black population during the Civil War and Reconstruction. An epilogue indicating how the community fared as black freedom expanded and then contracted once again during the postwar period would be particularly enlightening.

Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile effort that will appeal to individuals interested in African-American history, Southern history, and antebellum American history. It certainly implies that Norfolk was on a middle ground between border-South cities like Baltimore, where free black labor undermined the slave economy, and deep-South cities like Charleston, where free blacks continued to enjoy close connections to the master class. Consequently it may provide a key to placing the free black experience in the Old South on a North-South continuum.
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Author:Harrold, Stanley
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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