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Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South.

Reviewed by

Robert McColley University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This is an excellent book in many ways, and will assuredly be a permanently valuable part of the growing library that defines and dissects the complex society of Virginia between the Revolution and the Civil War. Unfortunately, the publisher in promotional material and the author in her title have made claims for the book which it can not sustain. This is most assuredly not an exhaustive survey of family and community in the "slave South," but rather an intensive scrutiny of a small and highly atypical part of that vast area, namely Loudoun County, in the Northern Neck of Virginia and in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

More particularly, the sweeping claim for this book is that it disproves the generalization propounded by Herbert Gutman and others that the typical Southern slave family conformed to the same nuclear model as free white families, with durable marriages, and parents of both sexes exerting meaningful influence on the development of slave children. Brenda Stevenson does indeed demonstrate that the slave family with both parents and children regularly gathered in the same dwelling accounted for only about twenty percent of slave households in Loudoun County. She achieves such a low figure in part by arguing that fathers who regularly visited their wives and children, but lived and worked on more or less distant plantations, could hardly function as parental authorities. She further criticizes Gutman's model by insisting on the many ways in which slave masters, mistresses, and overseers continually interrupted the lives of their slaves, further eroding parental authority.

Leesburg, the largest town in Loudoun County, lies a bit more than thirty miles west by northwest of the District of Columbia, about ten miles south of the Potomac River (and western Maryland), and about forty miles south of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. The upper Potomac, descending through the mountains toward the Chesapeake Bay, served as a natural barrier between the states which chose to abolish slavery after independence and those that chose to retain and extend it. To be sure, the political barrier maintained Mason's and Dixon's Line, but slavery was scarcely vital enough in western Maryland to withstand the anti-slavery movement on its own. Indeed, as William Freehling has demonstrated, slavery in Maryland was endangered by 1860, when forty percent of the state's African Americans were free, however circumscribed and incomplete that freedom may have been.

The scenery is lovely in Loudoun County, and the upper-Piedmont configuration of the land permits a mixed agriculture of tobacco, grain, fruit trees, vegetables, and livestock. The Potomac, the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, and finally the railroad afforded access to markets. But the limited fertility of the soil and relative scarcity of land caused the area to have a relatively short period of growth from the 1760s to the 1810s, a sharp decline (shared by much of Virginia) from 1820 to 1840, and then a limited recovery which lagged well behind the region's and nation's new wave of prosperity after 1840. Loudoun County remained politically and culturally attached to the state which, even with the great out-migrations from 1790 onward, still held more slaves in 1860 than any other state in the Union. But it was also far more influenced than, for instance, Southside Virginia by the intensifying modernization of nearby Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Slave manumissions ran well above the Southern, though perhaps not the Virginia, average. Quakers and German pietists persisted in the neighborhood and so, therefore, did abolitionism. Free blacks moved in, and moved out. Whites moved west with or without slaves, looking for richer soil and greater wealth. Slave traders searched the county for men, women, and children to carry off to New Orleans. Corn and tobacco grew more profusely, with less effort, to the south and west. Cotton, rice, and sugar would not grow in Loudoun County at all. Conditions, in brief, worked against the development of large and permanently settled slave communities of the sort one could find in the rice-growing areas of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, in the new cotton lands of the Black Belt, or even in the best tobacco lands of Southside Virginia.

Life in Black and White simply can not prove much about areas other than those very like itself, in northern and western Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky. But its very real excellence lies in the thorough picture it presents of Loudoun County. Part One describes the county's white community, with emphasis on its ruling class and special attention to family histories. Courtship, marriage, childrearing, and divorces (rare, but sometimes extraordinarily interesting) all receive thorough and judicious assessment. Part Two, which contains the controversial arguments about the African American family in slavery, treats black families both slave and free, arguing for a matrifocal if not matriarchal organization and the importance of extended family for such comfort and sense of personhood the slavery experience could allow. Stevenson suggests, not dogmatically, the possibility of some continuity from African matrifocal social arrangements. The concept of Southern patriarchy is repeatedly and sensibly invoked in discussing the political dynamics of white and free-black families, but most of the discussion of families in slavery argues against enslaved men functioning as real patriarchs, even within the quarters.

Not surprisingly, Stevenson tends to emphasize evidence that best supports her thesis. The two most elaborate documents she presents, as appendices, are an inventory of slaves on five different plantations drawn up by George Washington in 1799 and three successive inventories (1830, 1839, and 1852) made by Claiborne Gooch of his slaves in Richmond. Only one of Washington's plantations was in Loudon, but all were in the Northern Neck, so the evidence of divided families here is entirely relevant. Richmond, on the other hand, is typical neither of the Northern Neck nor of rural Virginia. It is also worth mentioning that, though Stevenson describes Washington as a slaveholder in considerable detail, she does not feel it necessary to mention (although she assuredly knows it) that Washington freed all of his slaves by his will, that Martha, who owned slaves in her own right, also freed hers, and that both arranged that the slaves should be freed only after both had died to prevent dislocation of families.

The best things about this book are the richly detailed, vividly described circumstances of black and white life in a time and place most of us have never considered. The men, women, and children described here were probably not conscious of the portentous movements historians have seen in the era in which they lived: the Second Great Awakening, the integration of national markets, and the conflict between capitalism and traditional subsistence agriculture. It is no great weakness in the book, then, that Stevenson suggests these trends only by implication. However, in keeping with her own design, she should have included more information (making a very long book even longer) about the churches, black and white, of Loudoun County. Finally, one wishes she had concluded her book with sentiments like those of Orville Vernon Burton's In My Father's House Are Many Mansions, a 1985 study of black and white communities in Edgefield County, South Carolina, that reaches from antebellum times through Reconstruction:

These complex patterns of race relations can best be studied on a local level, where processes and changes over time can be closely analyzed. Each local area is also part of the larger society. It is meaningless to dwell on the uniqueness of a community; its role must be seen in relationship to the larger system of which it is a part. (320)

Brenda Stevenson's book is another excellent local study of the sort we need to understand the Old South, in all its diversity, but it does not define the nature of black or white families in the Old South.
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Author:McColley, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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