I often hesitate when reading a book about slavery, especially slavery within the United States. This can be a very emotional subject for many of African-American descent. I wish I could say that All Different Kinds of Free by Jessica McCann wasn’t an emotionally-charged read, but it was . . . in a very good way. Ms. McCann provides a poignant bordering on tragic fictionalization of the life of Margaret Morgan and family.
Margaret was born to freed slaves of Mr. Ashmore and grew up free in Maryland. She was taught to read by Mrs. Ashmore. She marries Jerry Morgan, a freed slave, and they have three children — Sammy, Johnny and Emma. When tensions rise in Maryland due to an attempted slave revolt, they move to Philadelphia where Blacks are treated with humanity and a sense of respect. Margaret is an accomplished seamstress and quite happy with her life in Pennsylvania. Jerry works as a teamster and earns enough to keep his family clothed and well fed. All is well with the Morgans until the day Edward Prigg comes to Philadelphia. Prigg asserts that he is a bounty-hunter looking for a runaway slave of Mrs. Ashmore, Margaret Morgan. His quest is thought to be thwarted when the Pennsylvania courts rule that since he doesn’t have papers showing ownership the Morgans remain free. However, Mr. Prigg doesn’t like to be told no and mounts a late-night capture of Margaret Morgan and her children. Before they know it, they are back in Maryland with the intent of being sold to offset Mrs. Ashmore’s debts. Thus begins a fight between the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland on state rights. Pennsylvania in 1835 is a state that presumes a Black man or woman is free and since the state doesn’t recognize slavery, goes out of its way to protect the rights of these men and women. Maryland is a slave state and presumes that any Black man or woman seen out and about is a slave or a runaway and the only rights to be protected are those of the slaves’ owners. While Margaret and her children languish in a jail cell, Maryland and Pennsylvania launch a battle that is taken all the way to the Supreme Court. Margaret even tries to sue Mrs. Ashmore to prove that she was born free, but she isn’t allowed to question anyone in court, have an attorney protect her interests or present evidence on her behalf so she loses. What follows is heart-wrenching. Margaret and her children are prepared for sale and her sons are sold to two different slave owners. Margaret and Emma are sold together to a slave-owner from South Carolina that has started his own “breeding” program.
Although Margaret is intended to be a house slave, her attitude gets her beaten and raped on the first night at the plantation. She does eventually find her “place” acting as a nurse to the other slaves. She and Emma are permitted to grow foods that supplement the allotted foods to the slaves as well as herbs used to treat their sicknesses. Meanwhile, back in Maryland, Mrs. Ashmore is starting to have a change of heart. She has become “friends” with her one remaining slave, Jim. Jim finds a way to get messages to Margaret using the Underground Railroad. Later when he is freed, Jim leaves Maryland for South Carolina to purchase the freedom of Margaret and Emma, with the blessings of Mrs. Ashmore. The results are less than spectacular.
All Different Kinds of Free is not light-hearted but it is a well-written and thought-provoking read. The characters endure harshness and strife that we can only imagine, but they do endure. Margaret is completely believable as a Black woman that has never been a slave. She has a quickness of mind and the unguarded tongue of someone that has never been whipped or feared being whipped for speaking her mind. She does guard her behavior in public but it is her tongue that gets her into trouble time and time again. Margaret eventually learns how to appear subservient while getting her way. She teaches her daughter to read and throughout all of their woes and struggles as slaves they endure and remain hopeful. I think it was their enduring hope that made this a good read for me.
Disclaimer: I received this book free for review purposes from the publisher through netGalley. I was not paid, required or otherwise obligated to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”