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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

A Way Out of No Way

**Reviewed for H-South by Gavin James Campbell

Dianne Swann-Wright. _A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and

Freedom in the New South_. Charlottesville: University of

Virginia Press, 2002. xiv + 195 pp. $49.50 (cloth),$14.95

(paper), ISBN 0-8139-2136-8,0-8139-2137-6.

Freedom at the Grassroots

This study seeks "admittance to the thoughts and mind-sets of the people who worked" in Buckingham County, Virginia in the period from 1865 to 1930 (p. 110). It does so by examining the numerous records, both written and oral, that county residents left behind. Divided into an introduction and six chapters, Dianne Swann-Wright's volume examines how blacks and whites struggled to shape the meaning of freedom in the post-emancipation South.

Though largely focused on the county's black residents, Swann-Wright's book begins by examining how prominent whites responded to the social and economic challenges they faced amidst a population of newly emancipated African Americans. Some, like the Old South patriarch Edward Trent Page, were swept away by a world transformed, seemingly incapable of unbending their inherited sense of dignity to mingle with the sharpies that were concluding deals with winks and whiskey. Page literally paid the price in the 1870s when he declared bankruptcy. Others, like the nouveaux riche merchant-turned-planter James Moore Newman, adjusted themselves by developing effective "patronage styles" (p. 19). Unlike Page, Newman successfully anticipated what his black workforce wanted in both service and goods, and in so doing established a kind of reciprocal relationship with the black laborers he so desperately needed. In short, white skins were a badge of authority in the post-emancipation South, but they were no guarantee of prosperity.

The second chapter delves into "what individuals felt and thought about each other and themselves," particularly in the context of labor (p. 45). Not surprisingly, whites like Page and Newman did not think or feel very highly about the blacks whom they employed, preferring to maintain a "wide social distance" (p. 47). But they were also keenly aware of the need to bend somewhat to accommodate the needs of their labor force. For their part, blacks largely adhered to the social codes whites insisted on, putting their energy instead into contesting humiliating and impoverishing labor relations. As Swann-Wright points out, black families continuously made disciplined economic decisions, always attempting to maximize their earning potential, maintain their dignity, and modify the more exploitative aspects of their working lives. So, for instance, one laborer named George Holman chose to attend a church fair and pay someone to replace him for a day rather than miss the exciting event. Similarly, he --not white employers--exercised control over where and for how long his son would work (pp. 56-58). These sorts of decisions would have been impossible under slavery and demonstrate the practical ways blacks claimed freedom in the New South.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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