Teaching Adam Rothman’s BEYOND FREEDOM’S REACH

I am perpetually on the lookout for the perfect monograph to assign in the US survey course (pre-1877). Finding something that disinterested freshman, who have no plans to major in history (at least not yet), would enjoy is a daunting task. I have a number of criteria: it has to be short (ideally less than 200 pages), readable (light on theory), narrative driven (students like a story), and addresses a broad theme that aligns with my lectures. Lately I’ve been rotating through John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive, Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages, Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias, and Tiya Mile’s Ties that Bind. When we get to the Civil War period, I typically turn to Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion, which works exceptionally well because it’s brief (81 pages!) and delivers an ever-important message (that the war was about, well, slavery).

But this year, my first at Sam Houston State, I decided to venture out a bit and try Adam Rothman’s Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard UP, 2015). I’m glad I did, because I loved the book and it worked well with the students. I don’t want to review the book here—I’ll leave the critiquing of methods and arguments to academic journals—but I do want to highlight why the book fits in an undergraduate survey.

Beyond Freedom’s Reach traces the story of Rose Herera, an African American woman born into slavery in rural Louisiana. She is raised on a plantation, but eventually passes through several different owners before landing in the custody of the De Hart family in New Orleans. Once in this big city, where she served as a domestic slave, Rose met her eventual husband, George, and gave birth to five children just as the Civil War commenced. Once union troops took possession of New Orleans, Rose’s master, James De Hart, like many other confederates, fled to Havana. Soon thereafter his husband, Mary, sought to join him. She aimed to bring Rose and her children, as slavery was still allowed in Cuba. When Rose, who was sick and in jail, refused to go with her, Mary took three of Rose’s children. (The youngest child was with Rose in jail, and the fifth would not be born until later.) The remainder of the book follows Rose’s quest to retrieve her children, and the complex and meandering process highlighted the evolving, dynamic, and inchoate legal system in the wake of the Civil War. (See a brief promotional video here.)

I am a sucker for microhistories, and I believe the genre works best in the classroom. Rothman tells a gripping tale, but he’s constantly aware of the broader context. Here’s how he frames the story:

United States v. Mrs. De Hart was not the trial of the century. It was an obscure child custody case that barely made the local papers, eclipsed by the news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. Yet the confrontation between De Hart and Herera in New Orleans over the three slave children in Cuba is significant because it illuminates the ad hoc structure of local justice in the twilight of slavery.” (152)

The book isn’t only a story about Rose Herera, but about Rose Herera’s world. This is especially the case for the chapters that cover her life outside of the kidnapping case, given that she left a limited written record. Rothman reconstructs slavery in rural Louisiana during the antebellum period, and makes smart notes about nuanced topics like our narratives of slavery’s “natural growth.” When Herera moves to New Orleans, Rothman paints a colorful picture of a colorful city, where elite slavers, cosmopolitan businessmen, domestic slaves, and freed people of color intermingle. During the war chapter, we get a glimpse of what the city was like under military rule, as confederates struggled to retain their world even as enslaved men and women increased their fight for freedom. Rothman’s discussion of the kidnapping case itself was my favorite portion, as it captured the ad-hoc nature of governance and the liminality of law at the moment of cultural disruption. And then in the chapter that recounts the eventual reunion, the book provides a powerful discussion concerning the numerous rumors of kidnapping in the American South, especially the role played by Cuba.

Reading the book allowed my students to engage the tedious lived realities of slavery, the importance of slave families, the unreliable nature of the domestic slave trade, the lived repercussions of war, the evolution of emancipation laws, and, especially, the persistence of racist governance and undemocratic rule in the immediate post-emancipation era. Slavery was a difficult institution to give up, and southerners fought tooth and nail to retain their old social structure.

But perhaps one of the lessons that I appreciated the most in the book is the observation that a teleological progression toward freedom was impossible. “For Rose Herera and her children, and many others, wartime emancipation did not follow a straight line from slavery to freedom,” Rothman insists. “The experience was more like wandering a maze” (146). Freedom was not merely granted through Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation, nor even with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It was fought for, tooth and nail, by African Americans were forced to clamor for every inch of liberty they could get from a racial system that sought to oppress them in any way possible.

The message of delayed equality and persistent fighting seems particularly relevant right now.

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