Cover image for Free people of color : inside the African American community
Free people of color : inside the African American community
Publication Information:
Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press, c1993.
Physical Description:
ix, 238 p. : illustrations.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 973 HOR 1 1
Book 973 HOR 1 1

On Order



Free People of Color is a path-breaking historical inquiry into the forces that unified and divided free African Americans in the pre-Civil War North, as they dealt with human issues vastly complicated by the racist character of American society. James Oliver Horton explores the social and psychological interior of free African American communities and reveals the diversity and nuances of free black society in such northern cities as Boston, Buffalo, and Washington, D.C. While examining the heated debates within these communities over gender roles, skin color, national identity, leadership styles, and politics, he argues for a complex and pluralistic view of free black society - where disagreement did not preclude cooperation toward common goals, such as ending slavery, obtaining full citizenship, and securing educational and economic opportunities for all African Americans. Horton also discusses relations between blacks and the European immigrants with whom they shared living space and often competed for employment. He finds the association between African Americans and Germans to have been relatively harmonious, particularly in contrast to the violence and acrimony that marked contact between blacks and Irish immigrants. "Black people", observes Horton, "like all Americans, develop communities which reflect the national, regional, and local issues that affect their well-being". The essays in Free People of Color document the complexity of antebellum African American communities and portray their inhabitants as a multifaceted people whose lives were both complicated by restrictive forces and unified by common goals.

Author Notes

James O. Horton was born on March 28, 1943, in Newark, N.J. He received degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Brandeis University. His career as a historian has included teaching at the University of Michigan and George Washington University, and serving as director of the Afro-American Communities Project at the National Museum of American History.

Horton's scholarly interests include equality in America, especially oppression based on race, gender, and social class. His first book, Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, explored the political and cultural atmosphere for African Americans in pre-Civil War Boston.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Noting that successive waves of scholarship have overemphasized both black divisiveness and black unity, Horton, co-author of Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in an Antebellum City, makes a rather dry argument for a more nuanced view as he explores pre-Civil War black society in cities like Boston, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. As opposed to scholars who emphasize the differences between the lives of free blacks and slaves, Horton notes that the shared foundation of black life impelled free blacks to absorb and protect migrants and to work for abolition. Considering gender roles, Horton notes that as black men tried to assert their manhood, the conventions they adopted often marginalized women, and that variations in skin color led to stratification that persists today. The use of the term ``African'' in organizational names while individuals took European names was a hint of ``double consciousness,'' the author states. In a final section, he shows how black relations with German immigrants were more peaceful than their better-known bitter relations with Irish immigrants. Illustrations not seen by PW. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Horton's nine essays (two coauthored with Lois E. Horton and one with Hartmut Keil) provide useful glimpses into the "social interior" of free black life in the antebellum North. Horton, director of the Afro-American Communities Project at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, focuses on three broad concerns: the evolution of black "community" solidarity in the North; the multiple identities blacks assumed based on gender roles, color significance, and national identity; and the effect of race and ethnicity on the free people of color. The essays emphasize variety, complexity, local and regional differences, interregional contacts, and nuances within the black community. Although Horton identifies frictions and fractures within the black community, he emphasizes collective self-help, mechanisms that provided community support, and family involvement over generations. Of the nine essays included in this collection, six are reprinted or drawn from the author's previous publications. Horton's conclusions on mulattoes, for example, are based on his early analysis of data and thus remain "tentative." Scholars must await Horton's broader study of antebellum northern black communities. Undergraduate; graduate.

Library Journal Review

Horton, a Smithsonian director and a professor (history and American civilization, George Washington Univ.), presents a powerful study of the northern African American communities of the United States during the mid-19th century. His research derives from his inquiries and several well-revised and thoroughly researched studies cited in this exceptional resource. The study probes the complexities of some weighty issues still plaguing black society today: shades of color; violence, protest, and identity of black manhood; race, occupations, and ethnicity; and economic and social relationships. It is a progress report, a preview of continued investigation, judging from its content and notes. Highly recommended for the researcher, historian, and sociologist.-- Gayle Leach-Bethea, MHC Correctional Facility Lib., Jessup, Md. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.