In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South

In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South

by John Hope Franklin, Loren Schweninger


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The matriarch of a remarkable African American family, Sally Thomas went from being a slave on a tobacco plantation, to a "virtually free" slave who ran her own business and purchased one of her sons out of bondage. In Search of the Promised Land offers a vivid portrait of the extended Thomas-Rapier family and of the life of slaves before the Civil War.
Based on family letters as well as an autobiography by one of Thomas' sons, this remarkable piece of detective work follows a singular group as they walk the boundary between slave and free, traveling across the country in search of a "promised land" where African Americans would be treated with respect. Their record of these journeys provides a vivid picture of antebellum America, stretching from New Orleans to St. Louis, from the Overland Trail to the California Gold Rush, and from Civil War battles to steamboat adventures. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger weave a compelling narrative that illuminates the larger themes of slavery and freedom. To a remarkable degree, this small family experienced the full gamut of slavery, witnessing everything from the breakup of slave families, brutal punishment, and runaways, to miscegenation, insurrection panics, and slave patrols. They also illuminate the hidden lives of " virtually free" slaves, who maintained close relationships with whites, maneuvered within the system, and gained a large measure of autonomy.
The Thomas-Rapiers were keen observers of the human condition. Through the eyes of this exceptional family and the indomitable black woman who held them together, we witness aspects of human bondage otherwise hidden from view.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195160871
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 08/01/2005
Series: New Narratives in American History Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John Hope Franklin is Professor of History Emeritus at Duke University and the author of numerous books, including From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans and Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (co-authored with Loren Schweninger). One of the most revered historians at work today, he is past president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association. Loren Schweninger is Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor and Director of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915.

Table of Contents

The Descendants of Sally Thomasxvi
1Sally Thomas: A Life in Bondage11
Virtual Freedom14
Sally's Children16
Sally's Son James23
Sally's Grandchildren: The Rapier Boys34
2From Slavery to Freedom46
The Domestic Slave Trade48
James Thomas: The Boyhood Years54
3Travels in the North and West75
Nashville's Black Community86
The Changing Attitudes of Whites92
A Fugitive Slave in the North95
The California Gold Rush99
The Epidemic's Shadow108
4In Search of Canaan117
Bound for Nicaragua119
The Dilemma of John Rapier Sr.126
The Minnesota Territory135
Canada West and James Thomas Rapier142
5The Midwest, Haiti, and Jamaica163
Into "Bleeding Kansas"167
Steamboating on the Mississippi169
John Rapier Jr. in the Caribbean180
6This Mighty Scourge of War193
James Thomas in St. Louis194
John Rapier Jr.'s Continuing Odyssey203
The War's End219
Afterword: Through the Prism of a Black Family249
About the Sources262
Appendix 1Petitions of Ephraim Foster and James Thomas to the Davidson County Court, 1851268
Appendix 2John Rapier Sr. to Richard Rapier, April 8, 1845273
Appendix 3John Rapier Jr. to James Thomas, July 28, 1861276
Selected Bibliography on Slavery281

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In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a case study of the family of slave Sally Thomas in the antebellum era through the conclusion of the Civil War. Sally's owner allowed her to establish a laundry business in the city of Nashville and to live independently with her two Virginia-born sons and, later, a third son born several years after her arrival in Nashville. Eventually Sally was able to accumulate enough money to buy her own freedom and the freedom of two of her sons. (Her middle son, with her encouragement, escaped North to Buffalo in 1834.)The family's history has been preserved through letters, personal papers, and the autobiography of Sally's youngest son, James. These family papers, plus additional research in census, property, court, newspaper, and other types of records, allowed the authors to reconstruct this family's history. This is both a strength and a weakness of the book. Sally never learned to read or write, but all of her sons were literate, as were the grandsons we learn of in the book. The family letters and reminiscences allow us to know much more about Sally than could be discovered solely through the public records that remain from the era. What is missing, however, is a woman's perspective, whether Sally's or any other woman's. The letters and autobiography were written by Sally's sons and grandsons, and both of the book's authors are men. This shows in the portions of the book describing Sally's life and thoughts. I learned just enough about Sally to make me regret that there isn't more that can be known about her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Far too many of these types of stories go undiscovered. In school all we are exposed to are runaway slaves and Harriet Tubman. Great stories of triumph from slavery such as this one should be shown to black kids to build early self-esteem. This book is underrated.