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Shades of Gray: The Life and Times of a Free Family of Color on the Texas Frontier

75 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 8 May 2012

Jason Gillmer

Gonzaga University - School of Law

Date Written: August 13, 2009


This Article unpacks the rich and textured story of the Ashworths, an obscure yet prosperous free family of color in the antebellum South who owned land, raised cattle, and bought and sold slaves. It is undoubtedly an unusual story; indeed in the history of the times there are surely more prominent names and more famous events. Yet their story reveals a tantalizing world in which, despite legal rules and conventional thinking, life was not so black and white. Drawing on local records rather than canonical cases, and listening to the voices from the community rather than the legislature, this Article emphasizes the importance of looking to the margins of society to demonstrate how racial relations and ideological notions in the antebellum South were far more intricate than previously imagined. The Ashworths never took a stand against slavery; to the contrary, they amassed a fortune on its back. In doing so, their racial identity created complications and fissures in the social order, and their story ultimately tells us as much about them as it does about the times in which they lived.

Keywords: race, slavery, legal history, Texas

Suggested Citation

Gillmer, Jason, Shades of Gray: The Life and Times of a Free Family of Color on the Texas Frontier (August 13, 2009). Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, Vol. 29, No. 1, p. 33, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Jason Gillmer (Contact Author)

Gonzaga University - School of Law ( email )

721 N. Cincinnati Street
Spokane, WA 99220-3528
United States

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