A BRIEF HISTORY OF 400 YEARS: VIRGINIA’S ROLE IN PROMOTING THE LIE OF BLACK INFERIORITY, PART 1 OF 3

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A Note from Enola Aird, CHN Founder and President: 
CHN is leading the 2018-2020 Global Truth Campaign and Tour to sound the alarm about the need for emotional healing across the African Diaspora.  A crucial part of our healing is understanding–and telling–the truth. As we prepare for our next stop on the Tour, Richmond, Virginia, where we will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded forced arrival of Africans on U.S soil, we want to share key truths about Virginia’s role in promoting the lie that Black people are inferior. We thank Professor Stephen Carter, of Yale Law School and a member of CHN’s Board of Advisors, for sharing his time, talent, and treasure by compiling this “Brief History of 400 Years” for CHN.

  1. We don’t know when the first Africans arrived in what Europeans called the New World.  We do know when and where the first recorded forced arrival of Africans occurred: In August, 1619 – exactly four hundred years ago – when some 20 captive Angolans aboard a pirate vessel were sold in Jamestown to George Yeardley, governor of the colony of Virginia. (See endnotes.)
  2. At the time of that first sale in 1619, the colony of Virginia had no laws  permitting slavery – and no laws against it. Already a number of planters had enslaved indigenous people.  But as the invaders decimated the Native Americans, a new source of labor became necessary. (See endnotes.)
  3. Although many of the colonists had come to the New World to escape oppression at home, they justified their enslavement of Africans on the ground that the captives were savages who needed to be civilized.  Captain John Smith, the revered founder of Jamestown, wrote that although enslaved “Negroes” were “idle” and “devilish,” their owners were able to “cause them quickly to bee [sic] their best servants.” (See endnotes.)
  4. By 1630, the mark of the “negro” as inferior had found its way into the law.  That was the year that a Virginia court ordered a white man named Hugh Davis to be publicly whipped “for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro.”  (Carter Woodson would later call the Davis case the beginning of miscegenation law in America. See endnotes.)
  5. The white men of Virginia did not take kindly to being punished.  Ten years later, in 1640, a white man who impregnated a black woman was ordered only to perform public penance in the church.  This time it was the black woman who was publicly whipped. (See endnotes.)
  6. The earliest Africans to arrive to work for Virginia’s planters were held not to slavery but to indentured servitude.  They were presumed by the courts to be “bound in servitude for life” unless they were able to show otherwise. (See endnotes)
  7. At first, these involuntary immigrants were drawn largely from the Caribbean.  But they were soon replaced with captives taken directly from Africa, who brought their own religions with them.  White clergy dismissed these practices as “idolatry and devil worship.” (See endnotes.)
  8. At first, Virginia’s captive Africans could be set free by accepting Christian baptism, on the theory that the slavery had served its purpose:  the “savage” had been Christianized. In 1654, the entire colony was riveted by the case of Elizabeth Key, an enslaved woman who successfully sued for the freedom of her daughter on the ground that the father was a white Christian.  (Key and the father married soon after. See endnotes.)
  9. Virginia planters soon became troubled that too many Africans were escaping into Christianity.  In 1667, the legislature adopted a statute holding that Christian conversion no longer made a slave free.  Wrote a later observer: “It now became possible to be Christian, savage, and slave.” (See endnotes.)
  10. But as the enslaved became culturally more like the whites, the argument that they deserved their condition because they were savages began to wear thin.  In its place, in the words of one historian, “the great planters resorted to claims of inferiority as a defense of slavery.” (See endnotes.)
  11. The claim that a person deserved slavery because of membership in a group designated as “inferior” began to push American slavery away from what was found in other cultures, where slaves were usually drawn from people conquered in wars.  In most of the world, it was the defeat of one’s people in battle, not the status of one’s people as “inferior,” that made a person a slave. As time went on, the law and culture of Virginia as well as the rest of the South would come more and more to embody the idea that black people were of an inferior race. (See endnotes.)
  12. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion forged an uprising of poor whites and enslaved blacks.  The legislature responded by pardoning the white rebels and prohibiting slaves from owning weapons.  The new laws also allowed any Virginian to kill any black person, slave or free, who was in rebellion, and mandated severe beatings for any slave who raised a hand against “any Christian.” (See endnotes.)
  13. By the end of the seventeenth century, half the workers in Virginia were enslaved. (See endnotes)
  14. Virginia clergy rarely preached against slavery.  Instead, they urged the enslavers to use techniques other than violence to control the human beings they owned.  In 1724, a professor at the College of William & Mary wrote that converting the enslaved to Christianity would lead them “to become more humble and better servants.”  In the years that followed, increasing numbers of slaves were baptized. (See endnotes.)
  15. Of course the Africans rebelled.  Sometimes they killed those who claimed to own them.  Punishments were harsh. In 1730, a black man awaiting trial for killing his owner died in a Richmond prison.  The court decreed that he must nevertheless be punished. His body was quartered – literally cut into four parts – and his head was displayed on a pole.  Six years later, a black woman in Virginia who killed her white owner with an ax was burned alive.  In parts of the state where slaves were closely monitored, convictions were often for poisoning whites rather than attacking them physically. (See endnotes.)
  16. The list of executions in Virginia during the early decades of the 18th century is dominated by prisoners identified as “Negro.”  Many were put to death for crimes other than murder.  Most prominent among them were arson and burglary. (See endnotes.)
  17. The severe punishments of rebellious slaves in Virginia seem to have been sparked at least in part by reports of resistance in Africa to the slavers, including the 1727 destruction of Ouidah, a city of black slave traders, by the king of Dahomey, during which a large number of whites were captured or killed.  Rebellion was not consistent with the official belief in racial inferiority. (See endnotes.)
  18. Throughout the early eighteenth century, the Virginia authorities worked to heighten racial consciousness among the whites, spreading the doctrine of inferiority, in part to justify slavery, but also to discourage poor whites and black slaves from making common cause. (See endnotes.)
  19. By the 1730s, Virginia had begun to establish “slave patrols,” authorized to enter “all negro quarters, and other places suspected of entertaining unlawful assemblies of slaves, servants, or other disorderly persons.”  The patrollers had the power to arrest any slaves found off their plantations without passes, and bring them before the justice of the peace, who could order them whipped.  Patrollers sometimes beat the slaves themselves, without legal authority, but were rarely punished. (See endnotes.)
  20. In 1748, the Virginia House of Burgesses – the colonial legislature – resolved a judicial deadlock by declaring that slaves should be “reduced … to their natural condition” as “personal estate” – that is, chattel property. (See endnotes)
  21. That same year, Virginia adopted a statute allowing the owner of a plantation to whip any slave, even the slave of another, found on his land without permission.  The law was swiftly copied by other states. (See endnotes)
  22. In 1768, George Washington was listed as cosponsor of a slave raffle, a common means at the time to liquidate an estate.  A raffle made it highly likely that families would be broken up. (See endnotes.)
  23. In 1772, the General Court of Virginia – at the time the highest judicial body – ruled that the law did not allow the descendants of Native Americans to be enslaved.  By contrast, Africans and their descendants were presumed by law to be slaves unless they could prove themselves free. (See endnotes.)
  24. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, fully one-fifth of the people within its borders were enslaved.  Virginia had more slaves than any other state. (See endnotes.)
  25. During the Revolutionary War, the Virginia House of Delegates adopted a statute – the only one of its kind in the country – that promised a slave to every man who enlisted.  (Due to British invasion, the law apparently was not put into effect.) On the other hand, unlike most other states, Virginia refused to adopt a law freeing any enslaved worker who joined the army. (See endnotes.)
  26. The revolution created a contradiction for the young nation:  were all created equal or not? In 1783, just as the war was ending, James Madison, who later would be elected president, explained that he had to sell his slave Billy out of Virginia, lest others be infected by Billy’s desire to gain for himself “that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood.”  But the contradiction would linger:  were all created equal or not? (See endnotes.)
  27. After the war, the need to explain how a society of free men could keep others enslaved became more urgent.  Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), wrote that blacks were “in reason much inferior” to whites and that “one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid.”  The black mind, Jefferson wrote, “appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”  (See endnotes.)
  28. Jefferson also argued that there could never be a black poet.  Of the famous Phyllis Wheatley, who had so impressed European intellectuals, he concluded:  “The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” (Ironically, Jefferson’s book also called for the gradual abolition of slavery and the return of the slaves to Africa. See endnotes.)
  29. Meanwhile, the ever-present risk of slave revolt led Virginia authorities to adopt extreme tactics.  Gabriel’s unsuccessful 1800 rebellion, which involved a planned march on Richmond to overthrow the government, led to further restrictions on the enslaved, including a ban on their nighttime meetings – first religious meetings, later on meetings of any kind. (See endnotes.)
  30. Following the successful rebellion in St. Domingue, the mayors of Richmond and Petersburg arranged for searching and monitoring of all slaves in nearby communities.  The legislature banned importation of slaves  from the island, fearing that they might spread news of the success. (See endnotes.)
  31. In 1808, Congress banned the importation of slaves.  This meant that henceforth they would have to be bred domestically.  Virginia swiftly became “the number-one supplier” – breeding and raising human beings not to serve its own needs but entirely to sell as chattel to others. (See endnotes.)

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. The sales in August 1619 may not have been the first.  A March 1619 tally listed 32 Africans “in ye service of severall planters.”  Quoted in Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years:  The Peopling of British North America – The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York:  Random House, 2012), p. 86.  Almost three hundred years later, Louis Hughes, in his memoir of his own period of enslavement, would memorably label Virginia “the mother of slavery.”  Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom (Milwaukee: South Side Printing, 1897), p. 11.
  2. For a general account of this history, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom:  The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1975).
  3. Quoted in Karen Ordahl Kupperman, ed., Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 278.  The quotation is from Smith’s 1631 book, Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Any Where, published the year he died.  In the quoted passage, Smith is discussing slavery in the West Indians, and expressing admiration of the “Spaniards” who were able to swiftly to train their “Negroes.”
  4. Re Davis, McIlwaine 479 (1630), reprinted in part in Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases concerning American Slavery and the Negro, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.:  Carnegie Institution, 1926), p. 77.  A similar case is said to have been decided in Virginia the following year.  See James Curtis Ballagh, White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia:  A Study of the System of Indentured Labor in the American Colonies (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins Press, 1895), p. 72, n. 1.  But the supposed second case, which Ballagh neither names nor cites, is not included in Catterall’s authoritative compilation.  (Note that sexual relations between the races were not formally prohibited by Virginia law until 1662. This has led some historians to suggest that Davis was punished not because the woman was black but because the woman was not a Christian.  If this is so, the court’s reference to her race can then be taken as an early mark of the theory of inferiority: because she is black she is presumed not to be a Christian.)
  5. Re Sweat, McIlwaine 477 (1640), reprinted in part in Catteral, ed., Judicial Cases, vol. 1, p. 78.  For a useful discussion of the case, see A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., Shades of Freedom:  Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 22.
  6.  Bailyn, The Barbarous Years, pp. 174-175.
  7. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity:  A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 56.
  8. An excellent account of this well-known case is Warren M. Billings, “The Cases of Fernando and Elizabeth Key: A Note on the Status of Blacks in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (July 1973), p. 467.
  9. Higginbotham Jr., Shades of Freedom, p. 47.
  10.  Anthony S. Parent Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 221.
  11. Quoted in Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie, “‘Their Hoped for Liberty’:  Slaves and Bacon’s 1676 Rebellion,” in William H. Alexander, Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander, and Charles H. Ford, eds., Voices from within the Veil: African Americans and the Experience of Democracy (Newcastle upon Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), p. 80.
  12.  Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, p. 307.
  13.  Quoted in Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning:  The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York:  Nation Books, 2016), p. 74.
  14. Parent Jr., Foul Means, p. 254.
  15. Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 276.
  16. See Philip J. Schwarz, “Gabriel’s Challenge: Slaves and Crime in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia,”  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography vol. 90, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 283, 293.
  17.  Daniel Allen Hearn, Legal Executions in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia:  A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1962 (Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland & Co., 2015), pp. 180-185.  The admittedly incomplete list of executions before 1866 is included in a separate appendix.
  18.  Parent Jr., Foul Means, p. 222.
  19. See Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, pp. 316-337.
  20. Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols:  Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 24-32.
  21. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, p. 69.
  22. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, pp. 196-197.
  23. Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast:  A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (Chicago:  Lawrence Hill Books, 2016), pp. 234-235.
  24. Robin v. Hardaway, 1 Jeff. 109 (Va. Gen. Ct. 1772).
  25. L. Scott Philyaw, “A Slave for Every Soldier: The Strange History of Virginia’s Forgotten Recruitment Act of 1 January 1781,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 109, no. 4 (2001), p. 367.
  26. Quoted in H. N. Sherwood, “Early Negro Deportation Projects,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 4 (March 1916), p. 484.
  27.  See Nicholas May, “Holy Rebellion: Religious Assembly Laws in Antebellum South Carolina and Virginia,” American Journal of Legal History, vol. 49, no. 3 (July 2007), p, 237.
  28. Hadden, Slave Patrols, pp. 148-149.
  29. Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast, p. 3.  The volume powerfully renders Virginia’s history as the center of slave breeding. 

 

 

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