BLACK MASTERS: A Free Family of Color in the Old South by Michael P. & James L. Roark Johnson

BLACK MASTERS: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

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KIRKUS REVIEW

William Ellison was a freed slave and cotton-gin maker who in the early 1800s amassed a considerable fortune and joined the landed gentry of Stateburg, South Carolina. Historians Johnson (UCal, Irvine) and Roark (Emory) use Ellison's exceptional life as a prism through which complex antebellum patterns of race, class, and status are refracted. The historical record on Ellison's family is adequate, if not full: often the authors bend over backward not to assume more than they know (e.g., as regards Ellison's self-described ""natural daughter""). And tautology sometimes substitutes for explanation: when the Ellisons prosper, it's partly because of their solidarity with Stateburg whites; when they face defeat, it's because class solidarity is weaker than race. But Ellison's rags-to-riches story reveals the complex etiquette surrounding the free black. Born a mulatto slave around 1790, Ellison was apprenticed by his master (who may have been his father) to a gin maker. In 1816, his master petitioned for Ellison's freedom and, that granted, Ellison promptly moved some 40 miles away: ""far enough to escape daily association with those who had seen him grow up a slave. . . yet near enough to exploit contacts made in McCreight's shop and to trade on his reputation."" As cotton boomed, so did Ellison's gin-making trade, allowing him to buy and free his wife and daughter; his three sons were free-born. He was also able to buy houses, land, and slaves. In his dealings with whites, he relied on a ""scrupulous mix of self-assertion and deference""; in his dealings with slaves, he was rumored to be harsh and tight-fisted. (""Ellison did not view his shop and plantation as a halfway house to freedom. . . ."") But his success and solidarity with whites could not survive secession and Civil War. While many free blacks emigrated, Ellison was tied to his unsellable property, and died there in 1861. His remaining family weathered the storm (proving their patriotism by shifting from cotton to subsistence agriculture, their class solidarity by voting Democratic); but they never equalled his success. Occasionally too quick to excuse Ellison's actions--but overall a telling history, well-researched and clearly recounted.

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 1984
ISBN: 0393303144
Publisher: Norton