Freedom's Mirage

Virgil Bennehan's Odyssey from Emancipation to Exile

By Sydney Nathans

Freedom's Mirage

Approx. 208 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 25 halftones, 4 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-8265-5
    Published: November 2024
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-8264-8
    Published: November 2024

Paperback Available November 2024, but pre-order your copy today!

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Freedom's Mirage traces the exceptional life of Virgil Bennehan, born in bondage in 1808 in Piedmont North Carolina, who rose to become an enslaved doctor on one of the South's largest plantations and to view himself as a friend to Blacks and whites alike. Emancipated in 1848 but required to leave the state to be free, he was sent to Liberia. Though richly endowed and royally welcomed, he found himself subject to new rulers and mired in the worst medical catastrophe in Liberian history. Recrossing the Atlantic, he boldly returned to North Carolina to warn slave owners that Liberia was a death trap. Yet again exiled from his native state, he declared in March 1849 his intention to go to gold-rush California, the one place at midcentury that seemed to offer an open field, even to a man of color.

Intrepidly researched and grippingly told, Virgil Bennehan's story reveals the complexity and fragility of human relationships within bondage. Once liberated, Bennehan led a tumultuous life that dramatized the fleeting promise and pervasive limits of Black freedom in the era of slavery—and foreshadowed the future for generations that followed.

About the Author

Sydney Nathans is emeritus professor of history at Duke University.
For more information about Sydney Nathans, visit the Author Page.


"A gripping tale that rides the sweet spot between narrative and analysis. In uncovering a fascinating story of one man's life, Nathans portrays the limits of Black freedom and furthers a broader commentary on race relations in US history. "—Beverly C. Tomek, author of Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania

"This elegantly crafted book is as improbable as the extraordinary life of its subject. That Nathans succeeds in piecing together the fragments of Bennehan's biography into a coherent and beautifully written narrative is an achievement; that he has done so in a way that reveals little-known aspects of life in slavery and freedom is truly remarkable."—Ted Maris-Wolf, author of Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia