The Life of a Free Black in the Early 19th Century


James Woodman, a free black, lives in Washington DC. It is 1814. His father, a black veteran of the American Revolution used the land grant he received for his service to establish a farm in the Pennsylvania frontier, near Gettysburg. James struck out on his own, opening a livery stable in the nation’s new capital.

Journey: The Story of an American Family, a novel by Gary V. Brill, tells of James Woodman and his family over four decades of the early nineteenth century.

Woodman has always been free. As the book opens, he is a man of property. Many neighbors, white and black, respect him for his industry and his judgment. He is a member of the local militia.

Simultaneously, he is denied the full fruits of US citizenship, subject to the increasingly constraining black codes in the Capitol District. He is at risk of being kidnapped by slavers hunting “runaways.” His brother, also free, was taken by slavers in Pennsylvania and sold as a slave in the south, without recourse to law.

Yet James Woodman still believes in the American dream his father fought for. He is willing to fight for it himself. He serves in the militia alongside other DC citizens, including Lieutenant Francis Scott Key, taking part in the Battle of Bladensburg when the British invade the capitol. He also helps spirit official documents, including the original Constitution out of Washington keeping them from being burned. He fights slavers, killing two that attempt to kidnap him while he is in his own stables.

Although the killings were self-defense, the aftermath, along with the increasing restrictions of black codes in the slave-owning district and surrounding states, lead James to sell his business and remove back to Gettysburg in free-soil Pennsylvania.

There he develops his father’s farm and raises a family. He continues his battles for freedom, allying with other free blacks and abolitionist whites. He becomes a prosperous farmer and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Throughout, James Woodman struggles to be accepted as what he views himself as, an American, not what others wish him to be, an African.

The book is meticulously researched and historically accurate. Brill captures the quasi-status of blacks, even in Free States in the antebellum United States. Accuracy does not dull the story; rather it provides both a grounding and spice to an exciting tale.  “Journey” is well-written, exciting, and worthwhile reading.

Journey: The Story of an American Family, by Gary V. Brill, independently published, 2020, 311 pages, $14.95 (paperback), $8.99 (ebook)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is

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  1. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill

    Wow. Just wow.

    • #1
  2. Charlotte Member

    Fantastic. Thanks.

    • #2
  3. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne

    The history of black patriots is always interesting and inspiring. These stories are why I’m a fan of black-American history.

    • #3