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.
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 Thomas||xvi|
|1||Sally Thomas: A Life in Bondage||11|
|Sally's Son James||23|
|Sally's Grandchildren: The Rapier Boys||34|
|2||From Slavery to Freedom||46|
|The Domestic Slave Trade||48|
|James Thomas: The Boyhood Years||54|
|3||Travels in the North and West||75|
|Nashville's Black Community||86|
|The Changing Attitudes of Whites||92|
|A Fugitive Slave in the North||95|
|The California Gold Rush||99|
|The Epidemic's Shadow||108|
|4||In Search of Canaan||117|
|Bound for Nicaragua||119|
|The Dilemma of John Rapier Sr.||126|
|The Minnesota Territory||135|
|Canada West and James Thomas Rapier||142|
|5||The Midwest, Haiti, and Jamaica||163|
|Into "Bleeding Kansas"||167|
|Steamboating on the Mississippi||169|
|John Rapier Jr. in the Caribbean||180|
|6||This Mighty Scourge of War||193|
|James Thomas in St. Louis||194|
|John Rapier Jr.'s Continuing Odyssey||203|
|The War's End||219|
|Afterword: Through the Prism of a Black Family||249|
|About the Sources||262|
|Appendix 1||Petitions of Ephraim Foster and James Thomas to the Davidson County Court, 1851||268|
|Appendix 2||John Rapier Sr. to Richard Rapier, April 8, 1845||273|
|Appendix 3||John Rapier Jr. to James Thomas, July 28, 1861||276|
|Selected Bibliography on Slavery||281|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.