NLCC speaker: We must know more about free blacks

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

NATCHEZ &045; It was a group that, under the rules of its day, wasn’t supposed to exist.

But to better understand race relations today, we have to know more about free black people who lived in the days of slavery. That’s according to Dr. Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland professor who has written entire books on the subject.

Berlin spoke Wednesday at the convention center as part of the opening day of Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, whose focus this year is the lives and times of free black people in the South.

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This year’s celebration is tied to the grand opening of the William Johnson House, once the home of one of the area’s most famous free black people of the period.

Berlin has studied Johnson, a entrepreneur and prolific diarist, so much that he called Johnson &uot;an old friend.&uot;

Most people don’t know there were 250,000 free black people prior to the Civil War, including notable businessmen, inventors and even Revolutionary War figures.

Nevertheless, a mini-boom of books have been published on the subject in recent years, and Berlin thinks he knows the reason.

&uot;We feel a connection to it: the question of race and the contradictions of a black man in a white society, one who was a slave owner himself,&uot; Berlin said of Johnson. &uot;This was a man who, under the rules of antebellum society, should have never existed.

&uot;He called into question the entire Southern society &045; if a black person could live as a free man, exactly why were they slaves?&uot;

It’s not the first time such a fascination has surfaced over the subject. It also happened in the 1830s, with the debate for abolition, and in the days of civil rights.

But it resonates today, in part, because American society is becoming more segregated, Berlin said, adding that the few truly desegregated institutions that exist are the military and universities.

So, he said, &uot;we see William Johnson emerge.&uot;

Knowing more about black and white societies in the antebellum South can help us better understanding race relations today, Berlin said.

And to better understand those societies, we must know more about the people &uot;on the margins, that set the boundaries&uot; for them, from poor white farmers and to successful free black people.

&uot;We already know abut the people who lived in the big houses and in the yards behind the big houses,&uot; Berlin said. &uot;But the people on the margins tell something about the people in the center.

&uot;We can’t have a complete history of society without information on everyone.&uot;

Free black people also held an important role in post-Civil War black history because, due to their previous education and connections, they had a running start to success after the war, Berlin said.

&uot;They ended up at the top of black society,&uot; he said.