In 1793 James F. Brown was born a slave, and in 1868 he died a free man. At age 34 he ran away from his native Maryland to pass the remainder of his life as a gardener to a wealthy family in the Hudson Valley. Two years after his escape and manumission, he began a diary which he kept until his death. In Freedom’s Gardener, Myra B. Young Armstead uses the apparently small and domestic details of Brown’s diaries to construct a bigger story about the transition from slavery to freedom. In this first detailed historical study of Brown’s diaries, Armstead utilizes Brown’s life to illuminate the concept of freedom as it developed in the United States in the early national and antebellum years. That Brown, an African American and former slave, serves as such a case study underscores the potential of American citizenship during his lifetime.
|Publisher:||New York University Press|
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James F. Brown was born a slave in Maryland and died a free man in Upstate New York. More than a free man - he became a Master Gardener, a husband, a voter, a citizen, a respected member of his community at large and the horticultural community of the Hudson River Valley in particular. And he accomplished all of this in the pre-Civil War period. Armstead has painstakingly teased most of his story from his 10-volume diary (covering the years 1829 - 1866.) Admittedly, in keeping with diaries of the period the journals do not reveal "secrets of the heart" so much as matter-of-fact accounts of daily goings on. But when used with other sources - and one can tell Armstead has meticulously combed through them all - the author is able to create a "historically contextualized reconstruction" of his life that makes for a fascinating story. As the author states in her introduction, this is more than one man's story. It is a reflection upon three national struggles during the period "regarding personhood, regarding work, and regarding democratic association." This theme (combined with the fact that so much of the information about Brown is by necessity well-founded conjecture tempered with qualifiers such as "very likely" and "probably") raises the book to a more academic level, and makes me hesitate to recommend it to the general reader with an interest in horticulture. But I can definitely recommend this book for readers interested both in African American or American Studies and horticulture. And it is a Must Read for anyone planning a trip to the Mt. Gulian Historic Site. Though their web site does have a page devoted to Brown, it really doesn't do him justice.