Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Melvin P Ely

Committee Member

Hannah Rosen

Committee Member

Robert T Vinson

Committee Member

Martha S Jones


Free people of color living in Petersburg, Virginia between the American Revolution and Civil War exercised more control over their lives than their enslaved counterparts but were also subject to restrictive laws and social customs meant to reinforce and propagate ideas of racial inferiority. as African Americans leveraged the rights they had and navigated through and around coercive measures, two important goals drove their actions: the desire for bodily autonomy and family integrity. to the extent possible, African Americans made choices that resisted white control and the hardening definitions of race that came to justify slavery, even as they claimed belonging in the southern social order. We cannot understand free black actions, use of the courts, participation in the economy, or methods of obtaining freedom without examining what was at stake, and the evidence shows that intimate and family relationships drove those decisions. Local government records, church minutes, and family papers reveal both shared and contested values among African Americans and between African Americans and whites. Some people of color conformed to prevailing gender and sexual ideals while others blatantly rejected them, and many recognized a range of gender behaviors and sexual relationships as legitimate. Occasionally, private conflicts became public concerns, and the resulting interactions revealed the fault lines of gender expectations. Protecting children, in contrast, was an almost universal value among African Americans. Children of color were not isolated from whites or the white-run world, but parents, extended kin, and the greater black community attempted to insulate them from the worst effects of racism and white control, prioritizing liberty for their children and protecting enduring family legacies of freedom. Not all households and families looked alike among Virginia's free people of color, but studying how free blacks built and protected them, including negotiating race, gender, and sexual identities, helps us understand why, even when it was imperfect or incomplete, freedom mattered.



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