Myne Own Ground:
Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676
T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, Oxford Press, 1980
T.H. Breen’s book “Myne Owne Ground” brings about a different perspective of what living in the south and being black was like. It shows how a black was capable of great things and able to amass wealth equal to that of wealthy white gentlemen but is never recognized for it. Unlike other history books this one doesn’t go on about slavery and it cruelty but instead offers a few examples of the accomplishments blacks were capable of. One such example was that of a man named Anthony Johnson who was able to escape slavery and establish himself as a hard working man and then later on as a land owning free black. He was able to raise a family and run a plantation sized farm but never gained the respect he deserved. I would have never known blacks were capable of such feats had I not read this book which brings about the issue of an authors opinion being present in his writing. Most other history books stay along the lines of describing how horrible slavery was from the beginning to the end, but rarely do they mention the lives of free blacks.
Free blacks often had to work twice if not more times harder then whites to get the same amount of pay. For that same reason many free blacks lived a horrible life that could even be said to be worse then some blacks that lived in slavery. Different slave owners would treat their slaves differently. For example, some slaves would live in the house with their owners and eat the same food their owners ate. While others would sleep in the barn and eat table scraps that in today’s society would not even be good enough for pets. Some slaves were able to buy their freedom and leave their owner’s comfortable house only to have to work 12 hours a day and regret ever leaving the life they once had. This of course did not happen to all blacks that received their freedom back. Some were able to surpass many obstacles with a great amount of hard work and attain a comfortable living, while other were still able to reach a higher level and might even be considered wealthy.
Anthony Johnson was one such man that was able to rise from a life of slavery to a life even I would enjoy living. During this time in Virginia, he had to face many pressures both socially and politically; luckily he was able to overcome them both. Slavery was not a bad life for him but not having his freedom was, so he worked very hard to attain it and then worked even harder to make something of himself. Anthony Johnson was able to marry, have a healthy family and still own the land he always wanted. New to the concepts of free blacks existing in early America I was both excited about his being able to escape poverty and disappointed with the fact that he was not well known even in the state he lived in. Simply stated Anthony Johnson established himself in seventeenth century Virginia only to never reap the rewards any white would get in that same situation.
Breen implies that Anthony Johnson’s accomplishments were great but held no place in a predominantly white colony and I will have to agree with his assumption. The making of black gentlemen in the seventeenth century would have to take a back seat to the white’s self centered ideals. It was obvious that whites held most of the power and with that power were able to decide much of a black man’s life especially his status in society. That status would hover above black slaves and indentured servants but still stay beneath any white regardless of how poor they were. In a society where wealth meant everything, the color of one’s skin would still take precedence and see ignorance as the prime reason for this. Some prior knowledge of slavery has to be known before reading this book so that you don’t finish it thinking that blacks were just persecuted. The reader must know of all the difficulties blacks faced while in slavery so that they can read this book and see all the difficulties they faced outside of slavery also. The author allows you to see the unfairness blacks faced even when freedom is finally attained.
The first portion of the book convinced me of the dedication it took to create a life worth living in that time. However it was the explanation of how property and other possessions decided one’s position in life that influenced me the most. Anthony Johnson was above most free blacks of that time for the sole reason of having a good deal of wealth. I believe that any white of that time should have looked at that and at the least given him some amount of respect instead of looking down at him as they all did.
“Myne Owne Ground” was a good book for showing the different lives free blacks lived, especially when someone does not know of the hardships of freedom. Slavery was not a good thing and can even be said to be the most embarrassing thing that has ever occurred on American soil. Just thinking about all the things blacks went through to be where they are at now make me have a great deal of respect for them. Throughout the book I experienced a good many up’s and down. First I went up when I read about Anthony Johnson’s rise to wealth but I was just as quickly shot down with the knowledge that his life had ended incomplete since his status had never risen above any other free black. It still took many years for free blacks to achieve anything whites would appreciate, but the good thing is that it happened. I feel as though the society we live in today although very different still has some reminder of the past. It’s true that no matter how rich you are no matter how many friends you have there will always be some lack of appreciation if your skin color is black. The longer it stays that way the more, people like Anthony Johnson will be forgotten.