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Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community.

James Oliver Horton is widely known for the pioneering study of Boston's antebellum black community that he published with Lois E. Horton in 1979. This was the first scholarly study of a free black community based on the kinds of materials - tax records, manuscript tax returns, and the like - that have undergirded the explosion of social history in the last generation. Many other studies of free black communities have extended the Hortons' study, but all historians owe a debt, methodologically and conceptually, to their study of black Bostonians.

In Free People of Color, a collection of ten essays, six of which have been published earlier in journals, Horton extends his research to Buffalo, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati, while in some of the essays he deals more generally with free African Americans in the North. Several essays are based on quantitative research, such as "Shades of Color: The Mulatto in Three Antebellum Northern Communities," where census tracts for 1850 and 1860 have been put to effective use. Other essays are based primarily on literary sources, as in "Freedom's Yoke: Gender Convention Among Free Blacks," where the reader will find an illuminating study, drawn from black newspaper evidence, of "the impact of race on the relationships of black women and men" (99). Thus, readers will find a rich combination of quantitative studies of social and economic life as free black communities gathered, grew, and became more complex in the nineteenth century; and qualitative studies of attitudes, ideologies, values, and political behavior. Ranging widely as he does, Horton admirably connects his research with the astounding efflorescence of scholarship in the last several decades. The footnotes for these ten essays constitute a valuable bibliography in themselves.

Of particular note, these essays represent the ripening of scholarship on early African American history. In constructing arguments to dismantle the story of African Americans as relatively powerless victims of white oppression, a band of historians in the 1960s and 1970s constructed a model of black strength, dynamism, resilience, and resistance - a model neatly summed up in the phrase black community (whether free, slave, or mixed). Horton's essays showcase a more mature cycle of scholarship wherein a mediation is effected between victims' history and heroic history. Horton candidly addresses issues of black diversity, disunity, internal stratification, and cross-cutting tendencies. (Black communities were no more homogeneous or monolithic than white communities.) Thus he explores with subtlety the fissures that appeared in black communities - internal differences emerging out of social status, skin color, gender, religion, and ideological predispositions.

From the research, we can see, for example, that in Cincinnati the residential separation between dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned mulattoes was as great as between blacks and whites in Brooklyn; yet on crucial issues black urbanites could coalesce in Northern cities such as Cincinnati. In another important essay on black-German relations in Buffalo, Horton (with coauthor Hartmut Keil) finds substantial intermarriage between German immigrants and native-born African Americans in an era when white hostility to free blacks in Northern cities was growing rapidly. Horton and Keil find that this unusual racial mixing was fostered by a general absence of job competition (as distinct from the black/Irish situation) and by the liberalism of immigrant Germans that "challenged the blatant racism of the Democratic party" (179). This nifty piece of research, combining qualitative and quantitative approaches, warns against racial essentialist approaches.

Such explorations into the complexities of African American history in nineteenth-century Northern cities make Horton's Free People of Color an important contribution to the scholarship.

Reviewed by Gary B. Nash University of California, Los Angeles
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Author:Nash, Gary B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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