Her story reveals how free black women negotiated racial, gender, and familial relationships in the antebellum and post– Civil War South.
On March 2, 1840, sixteen year-old Milly Swan— along with her three brothers (Nick, eighteen; Jim, seven; and Addison, about three) and four sisters (Peggy, twelve; Charity, about eleven; Kitty, about four; and Sally Ann, about one)—was indentured to Tipton County planter Ellen C. “Nelly” Newman. Court records do not reveal the extent of their mother Anna Swan’s involvement in this decision to “bind and put [the children] under the care and management” of Newman, but these sources, along with census data, suggest that the Swan children were already living with Newman and that their indenture only formalized a longstanding relationship and allowed Nelly Newman to keep the Swan children (and benefit from their labor) until each turned twentyone years of age. Once free from her bondage, Anna Swan’s oldest daughter, Milly, carved out a unique place for herself and her family on the West Tennessee frontier.
Before the Civil War, Milly Swan represented herself and her household in her public role as a property owner. Although marriage to Bob Price led to some limitations on this public role, Bob’s death restored some of Milly’s public presence. After the Civil War, Milly faced new challenges brought on by the property claims of Bob’s newly emancipated family as well as her own second marriage. Her struggles mirror those of other women, as African Americans constructed identities as free persons and redefined family roles and responsibilities, property rights, and ideas of proper gender relationships in the post– Civil War South.
By 1860 there were approximately 4 million African Americans in the United States— only about 500,000 of them were free. About half of the nation’s free black population lived in the slaveholding Upper South, but only 7,300 lived in Tennessee, most in East and Middle Tennessee. Few free blacks settled in western Tennessee. In 1830 only 62 of Shelby County’s 5,648 residents were free blacks; 2,149 residents were slaves. Only 17 free blacks lived among neighboring Tipton County’s 5,317 residents, of whom 1,731 were slaves. After 1830 the free black population as a percentage of the total population in western Tennessee declined as farmers and planters increased their dependence on slave labor. Antislavery activity essentially disappeared in the state in the aftermath of the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion and rumors of other insurrection plots, and constitutional changes made it more difficult to free a slave or for the newly freed to remain in the state. By 1860 it was clear that western Tennessee was a region that discouraged free black settlers. Only 788 of the state’s 7,300 free blacks lived in this region.
Milly Swan and several other free black women and men managed to accumulate property in the town. In April 1846 Milly purchased her first lot and put it in her infant daughter Roxana’s name. Milly’s neighbors included several other free black female property holders— Ellen Burton, Maria Batte and Agnes Alexander, Phebe Reynolds, (Martha) Ann Brown, and Harriet Penny. Ellen Burton and her children, Matthew, Mary, Celia, Frances, Martha, and Jane, had migrated to Memphis from Dyer County a few months aft er Milly and Roxana arrived in the city.
We can only speculate on how these free black women got the money to purchase land. Milly lived with and worked for the Rose / Newman family for over a decade before completing her indenture, receiving her “freedom dues,” and coming to Memphis. She may have earned extra money by washing, ironing, and cooking for the Newmans. Once free, Milly put these skills to good use. In the 1850s she and her sister Charity purchased licenses to operate single and double horse drays (wagons). They may have used these wagons to sell vegetables from their gardens, or to deliver clothing that they washed in the yards of their little houses, to clients throughout the town; or they may have purchased the licenses for other free blacks or slaves. Several other free black women (Mary Matine, Alice Whitelaw, Mary Ann Shaw Hunt, Ellen Mayho, Adelia Burnett, and Agnes Alexander) also had licenses to operate drays.
Legal marriage was another way for free black women to protect their families and, to some extent, their property. On January 2, 1855, Milly and Bob were married by Rev. J. H. Gray, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church. This marriage guaranteed that Bob Price would never have to watch the forced removal of his family by their owners. But Milly Swan’s legal identity as an independent person ended when she married Bob Price. By law, married women exercised control over their lives and property only in the absence, abandonment, physical or mental incapacity, or death of their husbands, or in cases where “separate estates” protected property a woman brought to a marriage. For Milly Swan Price, these coverture laws meant that Bob Price assumed control over most of the family’s resources, including what she had acquired through her own labor.
Bob Price sold a three acre plot (adjacent to John H. Stephenson’s) for almost $16,000 to a group of buyers that included several of the men (including John H. Stephenson) who had supported the original charges against Price. Bob then paid $1,000 for a 114 acre farm about four miles outside of Memphis. Bob also paid $1,000 for another slave, a fourteen year- old boy named Green. By 1860, Price’s property holdings had expanded to 250 acres and were worth $6,000, with milk cows, pigs, oxen, and mules valued at $2,500. The farm, on which the Prices produced corn and potatoes as well as butter, bacon, and lard, was located close to the Mississippi River in an area of cypress, ash, hackberry, and gum trees.
Two years before his death in 1860, Bob Price drafted a will dividing his estate between his wife, Milly, and his daughter Harriet. An inventory of the estate provides a rare glimpse into Milly’s world on the eve of the Civil War. Household furnishings included bedsteads and bedroom furniture for six (probably some for the three slaves who lived on the farm); several wardrobes, bureaus, washstands, and tables; a dining room table and chairs; a sofa, divans, and ottomans; a mantel clock, mirror, and ornaments; rocking chairs, lamps, window curtains, pictures; a cedar chest; a set of “Queensware and Glassware” in a sideboard; and kitchenware, stone churns, andirons, and an ironing table. The inventory also included livestock (oxen, mules, cows, and hogs) and horses, two side saddles and a regular saddle, wagons, and a carriage. Price left the property to Milly and Harriet as “life estates” to be enjoyed by the women during their lifetimes, free of the debts of any future spouses, then to be divided either between Harriet and her children, if she survived Milly, or only among her children if she died before Milly.
The events in Milly’s life illustrate many of the issues that confronted African American women in the nineteenth century. As a free woman of color, Milly could never completely separate herself from her enslaved neighbors and relatives. She owned and emancipated some slaves (Harriet and Bob Price), but others remained her possessions until slavery ended during the Civil War. Bob’s family relationships drew Milly into a web of claims and counterclaims to family legitimacy and property. As a single woman, Milly used her initiative and economic skills to acquire property and her status as a femme sole to control it. But she lost much of her economic authority and voice when she married fi rst Bob Price and then George W. Dean. The legal challenges she faced in the 1870s grew out of the convergence of freedom, kinship, and property that confronted thousands of African Americans in the post– Civil War South. More than anything else, Milly Swan Price Dean was an example of the opportunities and the limitations of black women in nineteenth century Tennessee.