Almost Free
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Almost Free

A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Title Details

Pages: 192

Illustrations: 6 b&w photos

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 06/01/2012

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3230-7

List Price: $34.95


Pub Date: 06/01/2012

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3229-1

List Price: $120.95


Pub Date: 06/01/2012

ISBN: 9-780-8203-4364-8

List Price: $34.95

Subsidies and Partnerships

Published in association with Library Company of Philadelphia

Published with the generous support of Sarah Mills Hodge Fund

Almost Free

A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

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  • Description
  • Reviews

In Almost Free, Eva Sheppard Wolf uses the story of Samuel Johnson, a free black man from Virginia attempting to free his family, to add detail and depth to our understanding of the lives of free blacks in the South.

There were several paths to freedom for slaves, each of them difficult. After ten years of elaborate dealings and negotiations, Johnson earned manumission in August 1812. An illiterate “mulatto” who had worked at the tavern in Warrenton as a slave, Johnson as a freeman was an anomaly, since free blacks made up only 3 percent of Virginia’s population. Johnson stayed in Fauquier County and managed to buy his enslaved family, but the law of the time required that they leave Virginia if Johnson freed them. Johnson opted to stay. Because slaves’ marriages had no legal standing, Johnson was not legally married to his enslaved wife, and in the event of his death his family would be sold to new owners. Johnson’s story dramatically illustrates the many harsh realities and cruel ironies faced by blacks in a society hostile to their freedom.

Wolf argues that despite the many obstacles Johnson and others faced, race relations were more flexible during the early American republic than is commonly believed. It could actually be easier for a free black man to earn the favor of elite whites than it would be for blacks in general in the post-Reconstruction South. Wolf demonstrates the ways in which race was constructed by individuals in their day-to-day interactions, arguing that racial status was not simply a legal fact but a fluid and changeable condition. Almost Free looks beyond the majority experience, focusing on those at society’s edges to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom in the slaveholding South.

A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication

Once again, Wolf crafts an elegant and illuminating study that reminds us just how complicated race was in the early national South. Thanks to the author’s fascinating topic and lively prose, this is a book that should be read by multiple audiences, from lay readers to academics to students.

—Douglas R. Egerton, author of Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War

Carefully researched and passionately written, Eva Sheppard Wolf's Almost Free beautifully evokes the humanity of those many thousands like Samuel Johnson who lived in the fragile space between slavery and freedom in the early republic. Few studies capture nearly so well the elusive promise and the intricacies of race and status that attended to being free and black in early national Virginia.

—Joshua D. Rothman, author of Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861

Deep research and vivid writing bring to life a resourceful free black family in an Old South where the color line was 'simultaneously momentous and tenuous'—where whites churned out racist laws and pro-slavery rhetoric even as they sometimes recognized black character and achievement.

—Melvin Patrick Ely, author of Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War

Wolf frames the determination of Samuel Johnson, a Virginia slave turned free black, within early-19th-century meanings of ‘race’ and law. Relying heavily on local Virginia records, Wolf challenges Ira Berlin's interpretation of free blacks as ‘slaves without masters.’

—J.D. Smith, Choice

Wolf's insights about race fit neatly in the historiography of race and freedom in the antebellum South. . . . But what Wolf has done in Almost Free, admirably, is explain complicated issues of race through an absorbing human story in a manner that will be accessible to undergraduate students. The book is smoothly written and eminently teachable.

—Rebecca Goetz, Common-Place

Almost Free rescues [Samuel] Johnson and his struggles from oblivion, making use of meager public records to craft a remarkable and moving portrait.


The author’s careful and exhaustive research yields a wealth of detail about people who left few direct records of their own understandings of their world of central Virginia.

—Calvin Schermerhorn, Virginia Magazine

Wolf ’s work is strongest in her consideration that race relations in antebellum Virginia must be examined in a more personal frame of reference. Scholars of antebellum race relations, particularly those interested in the status of free blacks, will find her book useful; general audiences will enjoy the story of one man’s desire to free himself and his family despite legal and societal challenges.

—Andrea S. Watkins, Journal of the Early Republic

About the Author/Editor

EVA SHEPPARD WOLF is an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion.