A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War

William G. Thomas III. Yale Univ, $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-300-23412-1
Thomas, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, debuts with a revelatory and fluidly written chronicle of attempts by enslaved families in Prince George’s County, Md., to win their freedom through the courts. Many of these men and women were held at the Jesuit-owned White Marsh tobacco plantation, and profits derived from their labor—or from their sale to slaveholders in the deep South—helped to finance Georgetown University. In 1791, two men enslaved at White Marsh sued the Jesuits for their freedom, basing their argument on claims that they were descended from free women of color. Their lawsuits “opened the floodgates,” Thomas writes, leading to “more than a thousand legal actions against hundreds of slaveholding families” in the county. He convincingly characterizes these “freedom suits” as “a public counterpart of the Underground Railroad” that forced a reckoning with the patchwork of laws supporting slavery. Moving profiles of Edward Queen, one of the original litigants, and Thomas Butler, whose family won their freedom suit against Supreme Court justice Gabriel Duvall, reclaim the humanity of slavery’s victims, and Thomas’s discovery that his own ancestors held Queen’s relatives in bondage adds emotional and historical nuance. The result is an essential account of an overlooked chapter in the history of American slavery. Agent: Wendy Strothman, Strothman Literary. (Nov.)
Reviewed on : 09/03/2020
Release date: 11/24/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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