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Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia: 1790-1860.

Tommy L. Bogger, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. 264pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Tommy L. Bogger relies heavily on federal censuses and local records to craft a meticulous demographic reconstruction of the free African American population in Norfolk from 1790 through 1860, identifying already-familiar national patterns in his analysis of the localized historical record: the decline in manumissions as the nineteenth century progressed; the persistence of self-purchase throughout the period; the surplus of free women over free men within the Norfolk population. Similarly, Bogger documents the decline of employment opportunities for this population of skilled artisans, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs; the labor competition that resulted from an influx of European immigrants; the eventual relegation of free African Americans to the most dangerous and undesirable jobs in the city; and the steady restriction of African American legal privileges in the city. Within this difficult milieu, establishing and maintaining family life and community integrity posed obvious challenges. Bogger aptly describes the strategies Norfolk free blacks employed to surmount these difficulties, but he provides little insight into the ways in which family life and the institutional infrastructure of community in Norfolk - churches, schools, and mutual aid societies - mirrored the domestic arrangements and community life of free blacks in other urban areas along the eastern seaboard.

Although there are points when Bogger advances assertions beyond the limits of his data, on the whole this book raises at least three important but unanswered questions about the world of free African Americans in the antebellum era. First, how did free blacks perceive and act upon opportunities for African emigration? The conundrum of African colonization - a general distrust of the American Colonization Society and an enduring attraction to an African homeland - is as typical of other antebellum settings as it is characteristic of Norfolk. Bogger does not identify that connection, and as a result the Norfolkians seem to struggle with the paradoxical call to Africa in a cultural and political vacuum. Second, what was the nature of the connections between free African Americans in this explicitly southern setting and those living in the mid-Atlantic states? Despite their geographical proximity and cultural and political vitality, Bogger tends to treat the free African American communities in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia as marginalia to his text. To have more deeply probed the persistent links between African Americans in Norfolk and other urban areas would have enriched our understanding of the Norfolk experience. Third, how did free African Americans perceive slave-led revolts against slavery? Passing references to the Haitian Revolution, and to the Prosser and Turner rebellions allude to the profound impact those events had on white southern minds, but BoBBer leaves unexplored the ways in which these events shaped the hopes and dreams of the free Norfolkians. In the end, the book proves disappointing in its failure to establish the connections between the African American experience in Norfolk and the broader narrative of American history.

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Author:Bethel, Elizabeth Rauh
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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