On February 21, I received an email from someone through the contact form on the website. I paste it below, exactly as it came to my inbox, without any identifiers regarding who sent it.
Hunter, I’m a lover of history and have done a great deal of personal study on the 1800’s in the United States. When I read the focus of your project, I had a few questions come to mind.
If your intent is to approach your project with an aim toward racial justice for the black people, why are you excluding the hundreds of thousands of free blacks in the South from your study? If you are only focusing on blacks who were also slaves, what about the justice for the free blacks? Or about the stories of men who started as slaves, but used their skill as craftsmen to buy the freedom of themselves and their families with money they earned?
How are you determining if a black craftsman was a slave or free? To portray someone as a slave without clear proof of that fact would be in injustice to the man. We today have a very bad habit in the US of assuming that every black person in the South in 1860 was a slave. In fact, the southern states had 4 times as many free blacks per capita as the northern states and it was a number that was growing through the early 1800’s.
I have a good friend who is a black man, who learned his ancestor was in the Confederate army and employed by a very famous general during the civil war. He assumed his ancestor was a slave when he wrote his first book about it, but later learned he was actually a free man.
I tell you this because I believe you are truly passionate about this subject material and it could be disappointing to publish your work having not considered the questions I posed, and then to later learn the answer to those questions had a significant impact on the facts of your study.
[insert name here]
I actually looked at this email about an hour and a half before an assignment for school was due, so I could not respond immediately. On the morning of February 24, though, with about six different tabs open, the entire 1860 U.S. Census downloaded, and books of all sorts spread around me, I composed and sent the following response. Again, this is exactly what I put, and aside from my own name (which you probably already know), I hide any personal identifiers.
[insert name here],
Thank you for your email and questions. I appreciate that you are engaging with the material and putting it in conversation.
Regarding your first question about excluding free Black people, I find it more fruitful overall to focus on the millions of enslaved Black people in America. To be sure, free Black people did contribute significantly to building this nation, as evidenced in North Carolina from cabinetmakers like Thomas Day and countless free Black people in New Orleans, among many others. Historians like Catherine Bishir do an excellent job of showing this in North Carolina in particular, so it is clear that free Black folks also helped build this nation. The main point I make by highlighting the enslaved individuals is that there was an exponentially higher amount of Black people in bondage than in freedom, and their labor provided the economic foundation for the South and arguably for America. I will include people who were born enslaved and got their freedom, as well, and I have already hinted several times at two of these individuals: Cesar Chelor, a planemaker from Wrentham, Massachusetts, and John Hemmings, the head carpenter and joiner under Thomas Jefferson. Regarding justice for free Black people, I am not clear exactly what you mean. If you mean justice in telling their stories, I am doing that in part, but my main focus is on the enslaved population, and I think having a focus is absolutely necessary for historical analysis. One cannot try to take on the stories of every single Black person who lived in America. Our foci coming together can help tell these stories and paint a larger picture in tandem with one another.
Regarding your point on determining whether someone was enslaved or free, do you have a particular point of contention with people I have highlighted so far? It seems clear to me that determining their status based on the documentation from the enslaver gives an obvious indication as to whether they were enslaved or free. As you can read in my highlights regarding Ned Davis and Henry from The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation, I frequently cite two tax lists of the enslaved, one from 1825 and another from 1841. Both men are listed on both documents, and they both also come up in letters between overseers and the Jackson family. Using the enslavers’ documentation also helps with other enslaved woodworkers, like the aforementioned Chelor and Hemmings. Chelor was purchased by Francis Nicholson and appears on his documentation, including his will in which he frees Chelor. Hemmings was born at Monticello and there exists significant correspondence, even between Hemmings and Jefferson to the tune of over a dozen letters, that indicates Hemmings’ status as enslaved. Like Chelor, Hemmings is freed by a will, but that does not negate that the majority of his life was spent in bondage.
I agree with you that we should not assume that every Black person in America in 1860 was enslaved. That is demonstrably false. To your point about the South having 4x more free Black people per capita than the North, though, I question why you choose to talk in terms of per capita. According to the 1860 Census, there were a total of 488,070 free Black people across all of the states and territories of the U.S. while there were 3,953,760 enslaved people. Regarding a distinction between North and South, there were 226,152 free Black people in the North and 261,918 in the South. Indeed, there were more free Black people in the South. However, many of these were in the Upper South, and it still hardly held a candle to the enslaved population. Take for example arguably the best state for your case, Virginia, who admittedly had 58,042 free Black people. Not too shabby. Unfortunately, they also still had 490,865 enslaved people. Looking at an even worse example of free vs enslaved population, take Mississippi. In 1860, the free Black population was 773 people. Less than 800 Black people in Mississippi in 1860 were free. Compare that to the 436,631 Black people who were enslaved. I am unsure from where you are deriving your numbers, but even with a free Black population being higher in the South than the North in 1860, that does not negate the literally millions of people who were enslaved.
I appreciate your telling me the story of your friend. It can be great when Black people can find out those bits of light in the darkness that can make up all of our pasts. Even with one ancestor he found who was free and fought for the Confederacy, though, I am willing to wager that the majority of his ancestors were not free. I do understand and appreciate the concern to ensure that what I publish is accurate. It is an ever-present concern in historical research, as I am sure you are well aware, that finding accuracy is not always cut and dry as we continue to uncover lost records and look in overlooked places. I do my best to ensure that my information is as accurate as I can muster from the data I have available, and I am always willing to make edits when necessary and to admit publicly that I did so. I thank you, too, for noticing my passion about this project. As you probably read, it is an amazing opportunity to be able to combine my love of woodworking with my love of history and justice, and I hope I can continue to do all of that through this work.
If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out again. Perhaps we can meet sometime to talk about this and any other ideas, as well. I am certainly in this work for the long haul, as history so often demands, and I enjoy when I get to cross paths with others who are passionate about history, as well.
Unfortunately, I have yet to hear back.
I’ll let you make your own call about any and all of this. Feel free to let me know any thoughts you may have through commenting on this post or sending me a message through the contact form here.