In Search of the Promised Land

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger are noted scholars who have written extensively about African American history. In the fascinating In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South, they present the narrative of Sally Thomas, a quasi-free slave in antebellum Nashville, Tennessee. Quasi-free slaves were artisans or skilled workers who were allowed to live independently of their masters, hire themselves out, and retain a significant portion of their earnings for themselves. Thomas operated a laundry and, although she never won freedom for herself, she was able to earn enough money to buy freedom for two of her three sons, all of whom were fathered by white men.

The authors also present the stories of Thomas's three sons, whose searches for the “promised land” took them in very different directions. The oldest son, John Rapier, settled in Florence, Alabama, where he became a successful barber, perhaps the most prestigious line of work available to a free black man. He also raised two different families, one by a free black wife and, after her death, another by a slave wife. The middle son, Henry Thomas, escaped to freedom in the North. He barbered in Buffalo, New York, and farmed in Canada, before settling in Mississippi. The youngest son, James Thomas, spent time in Canada and Central America before becoming a successful barber in St. Louis, Missouri. The authors also trace the adventures of Thomas's grandchildren, who sought their fortunes in the Midwest, West, Canada, and Caribbean. One grandchild, James T. Rapier, became the first African American to represent Alabama in the United States Congress.

While presenting the story of the Thomas-Rapier family's search for freedom and economic security, the authors illuminate an important but little-known aspect of southern history, the situation of free blacks and quasi-free slaves in the antebellum South. Anyone who is interested in black history or southern history will benefit from reading this important work.