A BRIEF HISTORY OF 400 YEARS: VIRGINIA’S ROLE IN PROMOTING THE LIE OF BLACK INFERIORITY, PART 2 OF 3

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In the first part of this brief history (facts numbered 1 through 30), we traced the history of Virginia’s attitudes toward black people from the first forced arrival of Africans in 1619 to the first decade of the nineteenth century, when Virginia began its tragic transformation into a state that bred slaves to be sold elsewhere in the South. 

    1. Federal assistance was required to complete Virginia’s evolution into a slave-breeding state, where instead of simply holding black men and women for labor, the planters began raising them to be sold into the other slave states. In particular, had the American military not guarded the coast to keep slave ships from landing, the economy of the state might well have collapsed. 1
    2. Shockoe Bottom in Richmond was the nation’s second-largest slave market behind New Orleans. An enslaver named Robert Lumpkin owned the largest slave jail in the city, known as the Devil’s half acre, because of the tight and unsanitary conditions in which his prisoners were confined (and sometimes tortured). 2More than 300,000 human beings were sold there. 3
    3. Many of the big slave traders who traveled the South selling their wares established large “slave pens” in Alexandria, Virginia, where they stored their human property pending shipment elsewhere. 4
    4. Meanwhile, the planters had begun to worry about the influence that the growing class of free blacks might have on their enslaved workers.  For three years beginning in 1813, Virginia levied a special tax on all free black males aged eighteen or older. As no similar tax was imposed on whites, the legislature clearly expected the tax to induce the freedmen to leave the state.  The legislature must have been surprised when some 90 percent or more of the state’s free black men paid the tax. 5
    5. As the number of free blacks continued to grow, the worried slaveocracy clamored for their removal from the state.  A petition filed in 1831 by the citizens of Hanover County argued that “Slaves while kept in subjection are submissive and easily controlled,” but warned that when surrounded by the free, “they reject restraint and become almost wholly unmanageable.” 6
    6. Christianity, too, increasingly had Southerners worried.  In 1831, Virginia governor John Floyd warned his South Carolina counterpart that Northern preachers had to be kept away from the enslaved, lest they come to believe that “God was no respecter of persons” and “the black man was as good as the white.”7
    7. Southern preachers responded to Christian abolitionists by trying to sanctify the relationship of master and slave.  This process, one Virginia clergyman wrote, would require granting to the enslaved “those rights which are a part of our essential humanity,” even while maintaining their fundamental status. 8 The state’s leaders maintained the status but did not grant the rights.
    8. Instead, the state increased the legally imposed marks of inferiority.  In 1842, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the owner of a female slave was entitled to the children she bore while in possession of another owner, because the same rule should apply to slaves as applied to “cows and sheep.” 9
    9. At the same time, Virginia’s role as a breeder of slaves continued to grow.  A Northern visitor wrote in 1858 that the selling of slaves to be taken out of the state and put to work elsewhere had become “a settled trade.”  He added: “As it is, slaves are raised here more as a marketable and money-returning commodity than for their productive labor.” 10
    10. Perhaps needless to add, the enslaved were still not human beings under the law.  As late as 1858, the Supreme Court of Virginia refused to enforce the will of an owner who left it to her slaves to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be freed upon her death.  Justice Allen held that the will was invalid because slaves were mere property, and as a result they did not have the legal capacity to choose their own status. 11 Thus they remained enslaved. 
    11. And still this human property was expected to remain submissive.  In 1859, a slaver explained his decision to sell “a really troublesome negro” as being “done for the good of others or discipline & good management will disappear from the estate.” 12
    12. By this time, badges of inferiority were written deeply into local law. Richmond city ordinances forbade any black person, slave or free, to be inside or even in the vicinity of City Hall or the city’s parks “unless to attend a white person.”  The ordinances also prohibited black but not white residents from smoking in public, and required black residents, slave or free, to stand aside to allow whites to pass on the sidewalk. Punishment for failure to comply with any of these rules was a public whipping. 13
    13. Meanwhile, as abolitionist sentiment grew, worried Virginia authorities ordered the patrollers to break up all gatherings of slaves.  The patrollers took the command literally, shutting down even worship services 14
    14. As to the Abolitionists, Virginia’s pastors increasingly took the view that the demand for an end to slavery on Christian grounds violated the separation of church and state. 15 The influential Virginia pastor George D. Armstrong explained that the church should not be in the business of trying to “wage war against every human ill,” but should instead concentrate on saving souls – including the souls of those the state enslaved. 16 (Armstrong, a Presbyterian, might simply have been echoing the view of his denomination, which took the position that a “kindly and benevolent” slavery was the “natural condition” of black people. 17)
    15. Small wonder that the whites were worried:  In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Virginia had more slaves than any other state:  490,865, almost a third of the state’s population. More people were enslaved in Virginia alone than in any single country in the Western hemisphere, with the exception of Brazil.
    16. Virginia was among the last states to secede.  By joining the rebellion, the state brought the South’s largest and wealthiest population, as well as “the only plant in the South capable of manufacturing heavy ordnance. 18 
    17. In July of 1861, the capital of the Confederacy was moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia.
    18. Ironically, Virginia’s secession carries a reminder of how deeply the belief in inferiority was imbued in the minds of black folk.  By one historian’s estimate, some 25 percent of the state’s 58,000 free blacks and 10 percent of the state’s nearly half a million slaves supported the Southern cause. 19
    19. Nevertheless, Virginians knew full well that they could not expect support from those they had oppressed, and whom they had so long claimed were happy with their lot.  “The chief source of information to the enemy,” admitted rebel commander Robert E. Lee, “is through our Negroes.” 20 Despite the execution of Union spies, the so-called “Black Dispatches,” passed along by a network of slaves and free blacks, continued to make their way northward. 21 
    20. The Richmond newspapers insisted that those the state had so long enslaved would support the rebellion.  Frightened owners disagreed. “What will happen to our cause if a few Nat Turners crawl out?” moaned one.  “Can we really expect the Negroes to stand with us?” Slaves overheard predicting a Union victory were whipped. 22 
    21. Shortly before the end of the war, the Confederate government agreed to enroll slaves in the army.  But the enabling legislation made clear that their service would not be sufficient to set them free. The handful who actually joined the army seem to have been drawn almost entirely from Virginia.  Although they fought for Southern independence, they were insulted, pelted with mud, and whipped by their white colleagues.  Some were arrested for being away from their plantations without passes. 23 
    22. When Richmond fell, it became clear that the claims of the South to the affection of the black community had been nonsense.  “Nothing can exceed the rejoicing of the negroes since the occupation of this city,” wrote a black reporter who entered the city with the Union troops.  “Everyone declares that Richmond never before presented such a spectacle of jubilee.” 24  
    23. But the celebration was met by crackdown.  Soon after the war ended, Virginia joined other Southern states in adopting a “vagrancy” law aimed at the free black population.  The law permitted a judge to force any “vagrant” to work and even to choose the new employer. The worker would be paid, but if he ran away, he had to return to work for no wage, and could be chained to prevent another escape.  Essentially, the worker would be re-enslaved. 25  (The statute seems to have been applicable only to males.) 
    24. Even though slavery was gone, Richmond reestablished a pass system much like the one that existed during the era when slavery was legal.  The Union troops sent to occupy Virginia assisted in enforcing the pass law. 26  A black stable-keeper who had been free since before the war was thrown into jail by Union troops for not having a pass, and then, when he finally obtained one, was forced to show it upon demand several times a day. 27 
    25. The oppressions continued.  In March of 1866, in the municipal election in the city of Alexandria, black voters outnumbers white voters – but their votes were left uncounted. 28 
    26. By the 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan had become active in Virginia.  True, historians report that the state “saw little Klan violence.” 29 Nevertheless, newspapers outside the South reported that the Klan wielded a strong influence throughout the state. 30
    27. The Southern papers, meanwhile, mocked Virginia’s free black population.  One popular story insisted that they had been struck by a “religious frenzy” so widespread that it amounted to an “extraordinary hallucination.” 31 In this way, the editors were able to suggest the unfitness of the black people to govern themselves without ever actually saying so.
    28. The Northern papers were scarcely better.  In 1886, the Washington Post published a supposed account of several black “field hands” from Virginia who visited New York City and decided that the smoke and noise were not for them:  “We wants, massa, ter get home to old Virginny and raise corn and cotton.” 32 
    29. The Virginia authorities were quick to exploit these attacks on the intellect and common sense of their black population.  New laws were adopted restricting the franchise. As a result, the number of black voters in Richmond fell from 6,427 in 1900 to 760 in 1902. 33 The restrictions were in part a response to the election of John Mercer Langston, a black man elected to Congress from Virginia in 1888, who served a single term. 
    30. In 1904, the Virginia legislature adopted a law allowing but not requiring racial segregation on streetcars.  A Richmond company accepted the invitation to separate black from white, but a community boycott drove the company into bankruptcy.  Rather than changing its mind, the legislature two years later passed a new measure requiring rather than simply permitting racial segregation on streetcars. 34

The final part of this compilation, to be published in August, will complete our journey through Virginia’s tortured racial history, up to the present day.

Compilation by Stephen L. Carter, who is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, and a member of the advisory board of Community Healing Network, Inc.

Endnotes

  1. Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2016), p. 521.
  2. Abigail Tucker, “Digging up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009, link here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/digging-up-the-past-at-a-richmond-jail-50642859/
  3. Sandy Hausman, “Richmond, Va., Wrangling Over Future Of Historic Slave Trade Site,” npr.org, link here: https://www.npr.org/2014/05/06/306249298/richmond-va-wrangling-over-future-of-historic-slave-trade-site
  4. Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul:  Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 47-48.
  5. John Henderson Russell, The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1913), pp. 114-115.
  6. Quoted in Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made(New York: Pantheon, 1974), p. 51.
  7. Edward Bartlett Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation:  The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War(Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 2008), p. 109.
  8. Quoted in Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), pp. 78-79.
  9.  Martin v. Martin, 39 Va. 495 (1842).
  10. Quoted in Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast, p. 17 .
  11. Williamson v. Coalter’s Executors, 55 Va. 394 (1858).
  12. Quoted in Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis(Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 176.
  13. The Charters and Ordinances of the City of Richmond(Richmond:  Ellyson’s Steam Presses, 1859), pp. 195-196.
  14. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas(Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 108-109.
  15. See Stephen L. Carter, God’s Name in Vain:  The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics(New York:  Basic Books, 2000), pp. 83-98. 
  16. George D. Armstrong, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery(New York:  Negro Universities Press) (undated, probably 1850s), pp. 124, 131-134.
  17. Quoted in Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, p. 187.
  18. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era(New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 280.
  19. For the 25 percent figure, see Ervin L. Jordan Jr., “Afro-Virginians’ Attitudes on Secession and Civil War, 1861,” in William C. Davis and James I Robertson Jr., eds., Virginia at War, 1861(Lexington, Ky.:  University Press of Kentucky, 2005).  For the 10 percent figure, see Katherine Calos, “Black soldiers in the Civil War: Who did they fight for and why?,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 14, 2015 (quoting Jordan and other historians).  Available here: https://www.richmond.com/news/special-report/the-civil-war/black-soldiers-in-the-civil-war-who-did-they-fight/article_317568c2-1ba4-5f88-a18a-45d24a900a22.html.
  20. Quoted in P. K. Rose [pseudonym], “The Civil War:  Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence,” Studies in Intelligence(date not given), available here: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/black-dispatches/index.html.
  21. See Theresa McDevitt, “African American Women and Espionage in the Civil War,” Social Education, vol. 67, no. 5 (2003), p. 254.
  22. See Jordan, “Afro-Virginians’ Attitudes.”
  23. Katherine Calos, “Black soldiers in the Civil War: Who did they fight for and why?,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 14, 2015 (quoting historians).  Available here: https://www.richmond.com/news/special-report/the-civil-war/black-soldiers-in-the-civil-war-who-did-they-fight/article_317568c2-1ba4-5f88-a18a-45d24a900a22.html.
  24. Quoted in James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union(New York:  Pantheon, 1965), p. 67.  (Note that the 2008 reissue subsittiuted “Blacks” for “Negroes” in the subtitle.)
  25. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America(New York:  Free Press, 1998) (originally published 1935), pp. 173-174.
  26. See John T. O’Brien, “Reconstruction in Richmond: White Restoration and Black Protest, April-June 1865,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 89, no. 3 (July 1981), p. 259.
  27. Hadden, Slave Patrols, pp. 192-193.
  28. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, p. 538.
  29. Elaine Frantz Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2015), p. 7.
  30. See, for example, “The Ku-Klux Klan in Virginia,” New York Tribune, Sept. 18, 1868, p. 2;  “An American Secret Society,” Manchester Guardian(U.K.), April 23, 1868, p. 6.  Some historians believe that the Klan followed the models and methods of the dreaded patrollers.  See, for example, Hadden, Slave Patrols, pp. 208-216.
  31. “A Violent Religious Frenzy Attacks the Virginia Negroes,” Courier-Journal [Louisville], May 4, 1874, p. 3 (reprinting a story from the Petersburg News).
  32. “Virginia Negroes Disgusted with New York,” Washington Post, April 5, 1886, p. 2 (reprinting a story from the New York Herald).
  33. Andrew Buni, The Negro in Virginia Politics: 1902-1965 (Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1967), pp. 16-18.
  34. The Richmond boycott was just one of many instituted by black communities throughout the South.  See August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, “The Boycott Movement Against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900-1906,” Journal of American History, vol. 55, no. 4 (Mach, 1969), p. 756.
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