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Becoming Free in the Cotton South

Becoming Free in the Cotton South

Susan Eva O'Donovan

ISBN 9780674045651

Publication date: 04/10/2010

Susan Eva O’Donovan

Becoming Free in the Cotton South challenges our most basic ideas about slavery and freedom in America. Instead of seeing emancipation as the beginning or the ending of the story, as most histories do, explores the perilous transition between these two conditions, offering a unique vision of both the enormous changes and the profound continuities in black life before and after the Civil War.
This boldly argued work focuses on a small place—the southwest corner of Georgia—in order to explicate a big question: how did black men and black women’s experiences in slavery shape their lives in freedom? The reality of slavery’s demise is harsh: in this land where cotton was king, the promise of Reconstruction passed quickly, even as radicalism crested and swept the rest of the South. Ultimately, the lives former slaves made for themselves were conditioned and often constrained by what they had endured in bondage. O’Donovan’s significant scholarship does not diminish the heroic efforts of black Americans to make their world anew; rather, it offers troubling but necessary insight into the astounding challenges they faced.
Becoming Free in the Cotton South is a moving and intimate narrative, drawing upon a multiplicity of sources and individual stories to provide new understanding of the forces that shaped both slavery and freedom, and of the generation of African Americans who tackled the passage that lay between.


  • Susan O'Donovan details the major changes for the slave and free black population of Southwest Georgia in the years of settlement, of the Civil War, and of the economic and political adaptations to emancipation. Of particular importance are the different impacts these changes had upon black men and black women, and upon the relations between belief and behavior in slavery and then in freedom.

    —Stanley L. Engerman, University of Rochester


  • 2008, Winner of the James A. Rawley Prize


  • Susan O'Donovan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 5-1/16 x 7-7/8 inches
  • Harvard University Press