Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation

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Around 1785, a woman was taken from her home in Senegambia and sent to Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean. Those who enslaved her there named her Rosalie. Her later efforts to escape slavery were the beginning of a family's quest, across five generations and three continents, for lives of dignity and equality. Freedom Papers sets the saga of Rosalie and her descendants against the background of three great antiracist struggles of the nineteenth century: the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolution of 1848, and the Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States.

Freed during the Haitian Revolution, Rosalie and her daughter Elisabeth fled to Cuba in 1803. A few years later, Elisabeth departed for New Orleans, where she married a carpenter, Jacques Tinchant. In the 1830s, with tension rising against free persons of color, they left for France. Subsequent generations of Tinchants fought in the Union Army, argued for equal rights at Louisiana's state constitutional convention, and created a transatlantic tobacco network that turned their Creole past into a commercial asset. Yet the fragility of freedom and security became clear when, a century later, Rosalie's great-great-granddaughter Marie-José was arrested by Nazi forces occupying Belgium.

Freedom Papers follows the Tinchants as each generation tries to use the power and legitimacy of documents to help secure freedom and respect. The strategies they used to overcome the constraints of slavery, war, and colonialism suggest the contours of the lives of people of color across the Atlantic world during this turbulent epoch.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this well-researched and readable family history, Scott (Degrees of Freedom) and Hébrard (Assumed Identities) recount the remarkable story of the Tinchants across generations and continents. As people of color, the Tinchants struggled, survived, and flourished-in Senegal, Cuba, New Orleans, Antwerp, and Paris; and through the Haitian Revolution, French Revolution of 1848, the Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S., and WWII in Europe. While the particularity of this story adds to the intrigue, the authors' impulse to write about the family is not entirely clear, though extensive citation of various documents-including speeches, personal letters, and even a baptismal record-show that Scott and Hébrard have invested an enormous amount of time and effort into telling their tale. Navigating the turbulent political and social waters of their various contexts, members of the Tinchant family often found themselves in "delicate positions," as in Joseph's attempt to sustain amiable contacts with the white customers of his retail store in New Orleans at the height of the Civil War. Throughout, the "family emerges as one with a tenacious commitment to claiming dignity and respect." Scott and Hébrard's rendering of the Tinchant family's story is historically enlightening and inspiring. Map and family tree.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Sidney W. Mintz
A wonderful, richly detailed history that leads the reader through two centuries in the life of a single family as the individuals within it spend their times on earth, struggling for security and standing. Unusual scholarship, beautifully recounted.
Stuart B. Schwartz
Scott and Hébrard combine the painstaking work of archival researchers with the vision and sweep of the best historians to produce a marvelous multi-generational family saga that underlines the power of our humanity in the face of history's changes and challenges. This is not a book only about an Afro-American family; it is about us all.
Boston Globe - Henry Louis Gates Jr.
It's a brilliant book.
Laurent Dubois
With this riveting family story that takes us from eighteenth-century Africa to twentieth century Europe, Scott and Hébrard re-write the history of slavery, race, and citizenship. Freedom Papers is stunningly original and movingly told—an instant classic.
Lolis Eric Elie
Freedom Papers is a tour de force. In its pages, the Tinchant family maintains an inspiring commitment to revolution and racial pride from Civil War New Orleans to Nazi Germany. This book will be welcomed by anyone eager to understand how our worlds connect across boundaries of race, geography, and time.
Kathryn J. Burns
The pleasures of Freedom Papers unfold at various levels. It's a family saga, an excursion through the commercial circuitry of the Atlantic world, and a compelling introduction to the great Age of Emancipation. It's also a historical whodunnit: who was 'Rosalie of the Poulard nation'? Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard trace the ties created by Rosalie and her descendants, Atlantic survivors whose ingenuity--combined with strategic access to pen, ink, and notaries--gave them just enough archival salience to make this telling possible. Scott and Hébrard are practiced experts at making the archive speak.
Booklist - Vanessa Bush
A sweeping tale of a fascinating family and the complex history of the African diaspora.
Choice - J. R. Kerr-Ritchie
Scott and Hébrard impressively spin the family's web from documents culled from local/national archives in the U.S., France, Spain, Belgium, Cuba, Senegal, England, and Haiti. There are an Atlantic map, a genealogical tree, and family pictures. They persuasively argue the cross-national connections, as well as the fragility of freedom and citizenship.
Boston Globe
It's a brilliant book.
— Henry Louis Gates Jr.
A sweeping tale of a fascinating family and the complex history of the African diaspora.
— Vanessa Bush
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674047747
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 2/27/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,443,748
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca J. Scott is Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.

Jean M. Hébrard is a historian at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Seven: “The term public rights should be made to mean something.”

To those who might intimate that Edouard Tinchant was actually not a US citizen at all, he countered by invoking his service in the Union Army, when the 6th Louisiana Volunteers had guarded New Orleans against a possible Confederate attack. He declared that although born French, he had won “American letters of naturalization on the ramparts of New Orleans, upright, my weapon in my hands, at the foot of the flag of the United States for which I was ready to spill the last drop of my blood.” Ignoring the question of whether he had followed up his military service with a formal legal procedure of naturalization, he wrote: “What human power can then deny me the title of American citizen?”

If anyone should think to cite the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford to the effect that a man of his color had no possible claim to US citizenship, Tinchant was quick to proffer the contrary opinion of federal Attorney General Edward Bates, who had concluded in December of 1862 that men of color could indeed claim citizenship in the United States. The Bates opinion, which asserted the possibility of such citizenship in part by distinguishing citizenship itself from the privilege of exercising political rights, had been discussed at the time in L’Union. The publishers of L’Union had even made available as a pamphlet (ten cents a copy) what they described as the attorney general’s opinion on le droit de citoyenneté (the right to citizenship). For radical advocates of universal suffrage and full political rights, Attorney General Bates’s distinctions among possible degrees of citizenship were not helpful, but his conclusion that citizenship itself was independent of color provided a new basis on which to advance further claims.

In New Orleans in the summer of 1864, the all-white Unionist state constitutional convention, largely populated with lawyers and small-scale businessmen, was yielding repeated expressions of open racial hostility, and Union General Nathaniel Banks seemed willing to proceed with a Reconstruction that involved very few political rights for men of color. Under the circumstances, Lanusse could argue persuasively that the discriminatory practices still in force in Union-occupied New Orleans reflected a general hostility of the United States government to men of color. Tinchant countered that although the laws of the state of Louisiana were still stained with their origins in “aristocracy,” once the roots of the Confederacy that “rotted deep in the earth” were extirpated, men of color would see their rights protected under federal law. National citizenship seemed to Tinchant a far more promising source of rights than state measures, though national citizenship in fact remained undefined, and federal policy uncertain.

As for the incident the year before when Edouard had been expelled from a streetcar by a fellow Union soldier, Edouard insisted that he had been vindicated by a subsequent official rebuke by the provost marshal of Carrollton to the sergeant who had arrested him, and to the lieutenant who had taken him into custody. Edouard added a dramatic touch: the provost marshal had threatened that if such an incident were repeated, he would tear up the streetcar line from New Orleans to Carrollton. “Can M. Armand Lanusse tell me under what flag one could have done more to redress a harm done to a simple soldier?” Although Edouard Tinchant’s older brother Joseph might, after having done his duty in the war, justifiably choose to settle in Mexico in pursuit of peace and quiet for his family, Edouard asserted that he saw it as his own duty and that of other men of color in New Orleans to support the Union cause so that “a last and supreme effort of all of us together” could “defeat, reverse and obliterate this tyrannical aristocracy that forced our father to expatriate and which, ever since our earliest years, he has taught us to hate.”

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