In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South / Edition 1

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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 slave life before the Civil War.
Based on personal letters and an autobiography by one of Thomas' sons, this remarkable piece of detective work follows the family 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 vibrant picture of antebellum America, ranging from New Orleans to St. Louis to the Overland Trail. The authors weave a compelling narrative that illuminates the larger themes of slavery and freedom while examining the family's experiences with the California Gold Rush, Civil War battles, and steamboat adventures. The documents show how the Thomas-Rapier kin bore witness to the full gamut of slavery—from brutal punishment, runaways, and the breakup of slave families to miscegenation, insurrection panics, and slave patrols. The book also exposes the hidden lives of "virtually free" slaves, who maintained close relationships with whites, maneuvered within the system, and gained a large measure of autonomy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In Search of the Promised Land is a unique and exciting addition to the literature on slavery and nineteenth-century history. It shows the complexity of slave life and challenges existing historical interpretations without completely overturning the studies of the last thirty years. . . . I love the story itself—what a story!"—James Fuller, University of Indianapolis

"The book's focus on the Thomas-Rapier family provides for one of the more vivid presentations of antebellum race relations I have seen. So much of scholarship on slave life tends to lose sight of individuals who had to confront life in a slave society. This book brings individuals back into the picture."—Dickson D. Bruce, University of Irvine California

Caleb Crain
The authors argue that this ''highly unusual family'' illuminates relatively unexplored aspects of Southern history, and they tell its story elegantly.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Tracing the Thomas-Rapier family through three antebellum generations-from about 1808 to 1865-distinguished historians Franklin and Schweninger present an absorbing, impeccably researched account of "blacks who [have] only received passing notice-the free and quasi-free persons of mixed racial ancestry." Through this uncommon but not unique family, Franklin and Schweninger compress vast strata of slavery studies into an awesomely compact monograph, treating the reader to enough material (and drama) for a door-stopper; if the book were not so gemlike in size (it's 4 1/2" x 6 1/2"), style and substance, one could call it a page-turner. From Tennessee, Thomas-Rapiers travel widely (sometimes as slaves), and there is a panoramic quality to their immersion in American historical events: one attends a Jenny Lind concert; one seeks gold in California; one escapes to Buffalo and later settles in Canada; one is involved with the filibusters in Nicaragua. They become entrepreneurs and adventurers, gamblers and teachers, churchmen and a congressman. They talk politics; they worry about their children. The brutalization endemic in slave culture is ever present. The authors bring it all to life with startling clarity, using documents, letters and diaries with such judiciousness that the scholarly apparatus enlivens rather than deadens. A genealogy that keeps the family connections clear, maps that trace their peregrinations and the fully informative captions that accompany the illustrations supplement this remarkable text. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Coauthors of Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, 1790-1860, Franklin (history, emeritus, Duke Univ.) and Schweninger (history, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro) here present a compelling narrative of African American lives by tracing the history of the Thomas-Rapier family during the antebellum and Civil War eras. Starting with matriarch Sally Thomas, born a slave in 1787, the book enables readers to distinguish the various complex modes within which slavery operated. The resulting family history also traces the evolution of race relations in diverse locations from New Orleans to New York City, Canada, Minnesota, and the Caribbean. Using primary sources, including letters, diaries, legal records, reminiscences, and newspaper clippings, as well as the autobiography of Sally Thomas's son James, the authors have presented an account unique in its archival richness, further illuminated by images and maps. This is a distinguished contribution to American history and social sciences. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.-Edward G. McCormack, USM Gulf Coast Lib., Univ. of South Mississippi Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195160888
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 2/23/2006
  • Series: New Narratives in American History Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 630,994
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 4.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet 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.

Duke University (Emeritus)

University of North Carolina-Greensboro

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Table of Contents

The Descendants of Sally Thomas
1. Sally Thomas: A Life in Bondage
Virtual Freedom
Sally's Children
Sally's Son James
Sally's Grandchildren: The Rapier Boys
2. From Slavery to Freedom
The Domestic Slave Trade
James Thomas: The Boyhood Years
3. Travels in the North and West
Nashville's Black Community
The Changing Attitudes of Whites
A Fugitive Slave in the North
The California Gold Rush
The Epidemic's Shadow
4. In Search of Canaan
Bound for Nicaragua
The Dilemma of John Rapier Sr.
The Minnesota Territory
Canada West and James Thomas Rapier
5. The Midwest, Haiti, and Jamaica
Into "Bleeding Kansas"
Steamboating on the Mississippi
John Rapier Jr. in the Caribbean
6. The Mighty Scourge of War
James Thomas in St. Louis
John Rapier Jr.'s Continuing Odyssey
The War's End
Afterword: Through the Prism of a Black Family
About the Sources
Appendix 1: Petitions of Ephraim Foster and James Thomas to the Davidson County Court, 1851
Appendix 2: John Rapier Sr. to Richard Rapier, April 8, 1945
Appendix 3: John Rapier Jr. to James Thomas, July 28, 1861
Selected Bibliography on Slavery

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