It is not certain when the first black females came to reside in the mainland British colony of Virginia. In 1619, when a divided parcel of contraband enslaved Africans, probably Kimbundu-speakers from the Kingdom of Ndongo--who had been forced aboard the Sao Joao Bautista in Luanda and were on their way to Vera Cruz when they were pirated by a Dutch man-of-war and the British ship Treasurer--arrived at Point Comfort, thirty-two blacks already were living in the colony. (1) The two cargoes arriving in 1619 added a few women. When the Dutch ship finally docked in Virginia in August, it carried twenty of the original one hundred Angolans taken aboard. Their names bore the marks of their Catholic baptismal. (2) One was called Isabel. The Treasurer landed only one of its contraband in the colony, a female named Angela. Certainly a few others came in those early years of the 17th century. Another ship arrived in Jamestown in 1622, for example, with an African woman called Mary. Yet, unearthed records rarely documented, as did those from 1619, the actual date of African arrivals, their accurate numbers, their places of origin, or their ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
How did these first African women, indentured and then enslaved, survive--culturally and/or communally in the frontier Chesapeake? There are a few clues that point to the broad contours of the lives of Isabel and Angela in Africa that undoubtedly shaped their experiences in Virginia. Evidence strongly suggests that they were Ambundu, taken during a series of violent raids mounted by Portuguese forces between 1618 and 1620. These women, more than likely, came from matrilineal societies in the "royal district" of Ndongo, located on an elevated plateau of about 4,000 feet between the Lukala and Lutete Rivers in present-day Angola. Fifteen of those who arrived in 1619 went to live and work as indentured servants for Governor George Yeardley at his frontier estate at Flowerdew Hundred. The rural nature of early colonial Virginia, with its very thin population, would have been a decided change. Flowerdew Hundred had only sixty residents in 1624. The Ambundu, however, were mostly an urbanized people, living in and around a group of cities of about twenty to thirty thousand residents each. (3)
Since they came from the royal district, Isabel, Angela, and their peers, represented a variety of classes and occupations, including farmers, skilled artisans, royalty, and royal servants. Unless they were of a particularly high class, however, they would have known much about the agricultural work that was required of their Virginia indentureship. In Ndongo, even many urban dwellers grew grains like millet and sorghum. In the more rural areas of their towns, they also raised cattle, goats, chickens, and other livestock. The women were responsible for domestic labor and farming, but also participated in the market. In Virginia, they helped to grow tobacco and in 1624, Yeardley's laborers produced a tobacco crop valued at 10,000 pounds sterling. Most of the Ambundu servants already had been introduced to Catholicism before they arrived in Virginia, and, therefore, would not have found the religious beliefs and practices of the English colonists, relatively speaking, unfamiliar. As historian John Thornton noted, "By 1619, a Kimbundu-speaking Christian community existed in Angola," which "quite possibly" included those who arrived in Virginia in 1619. (4)
The Ambundu had an ethnic identity, based in part on their shared language, political affiliations, and perceptions of themselves as "people of the court" that probably was the basis for the beginning of a community in the mainland British colony. Given that most of those who arrived in 1619 came from the same region of Angola, spoke the same language, and shared other cultural attributes, it is not surprising that there remains evidence of community life. Isabel married Anthoney, a fellow member of the 1619 cargo. By 1624 they had a son whom they had baptized at Jamestown. Years later, their grandson, John Jr., named his farm at Somerset, Maryland, "Angola." (5)
What connection, cultural or communal, did these women--Angela, Isabel or Mary, born and raised in Africa, indentured in Virginia--have to African-descended women of later generations who were enslaved in the American South; to the contemporaries of Fannie Berry, for example? Fannie Berry was born in about 1838, the property of George Abbitt of Appomattox County, Virginia. Her owner was a man of moderate means, a railroad conductor and farmer who owned, in 1850, real estate valued at almost $2,000, and eleven bondspeople, seven of whom were female. George Abbitt had an uncle who lived nearby, his namesake, George Abbitt, Senior. The elder Abbitt was wealthier--he held real estate valued at $15,000 and enslaved thirty-two, twenty of whom were female, nine working age women, ten children, and one elderly slave. (6) Other relations bearing the family name with land and slaves of their own also lived in the recently formed county. Fannie Berry grew up in the antebellum southern world of the Abbitts in a small, rural, southern county in which tobacco, corn, potatoes, cotton, hogs, sheep, and cattle were the farmer's financial mainstay, and land and enslaved workers his most vital resources.
Fannie also grew up in a world occupied by African American women. They comprised the majority of her owner's work force and those of his closest relative. Females were particularly important on the farm in which Fannie lived because her owner hired out most of his male laborers to work on the railroad during the late 1840s and early 1850s. (7) Likewise, when Fannie was hired out as a teenager, she was housed with other black women on the farm to which she went to work. The black female presence--physical, psychological, social, moral, and cultural--dominated the worldview, intellect, and imagination of Fannie Berry who became, in a sense, the chronicler of their lives and of their complex and layered community. Her chronicling, in turn, helped her to create a utopian view of her enslaved female community and the culture they shared that she purposefully passed on to later freed generations through her storytelling.
When interviewed years after she had been enslaved, Fannie Berry had much to say about her life as a youth and then as a young woman in the environs that became the site of Robert E. Lee's surrender, but most of her recollections were about the women she lived, laughed, and worked with, cried for and admired, learned from, and whose stories she taught to others. There were many--Fannie's mother, her maternal An't Ella, Sallie, Jane, Rachel, Sukie, Minnie, Daphne, Mamy Lou, An't Nellie, and Miss Sarah Ann Abbitt, her mistress. Each story still teaches us something of the community relations and values operative in Fannie's world, even though certainly all of the women present did not view or value their community in similar fashion. (8)
But Fannie Berry's community of women was just a snapshot of the world in which she lived, embellished and perhaps romanticized over time, like an old black and white photograph in which some of the background has faded, but the faces of the main characters stare out starkly. Fannie's community emerges from her autobiographical narrative as a depiction of a kind of southern, rural "Amazonia" in which black women fought bravely to have some command of their person and personae in a racist, hierarchical, patriarchal society that placed them squarely at the bottom. Even though her community of enslaved black women changed dramatically over time, particularly marked and marred by losses due to sales through the domestic slave trade and divisions to heirs, she clung to the memories of those friends and associates long after they had been forced to depart.
In her idealized description one comes to understand much about the cultural ethos of the community in which she lived, even if some, or most, of the slaves did not live up to that ethos. For Fannie Berry, her female community was a collection of individuals brought together through the external forces of a slave society and those who controlled it. In her estimation, these women often acted as individuals, but their actions reverberated through the community, some (those she tended to emphasize) for the good of the community. There was, for example, Mamy Lou, who helped to hide a local man named John from the patrollers by covering him up with her quilt while he crouched between her legs. There also was An't Nellie who starved herself to death rather than permit her owner to repeatedly abuse her. And of course there was Sukie, the woman whose actions kept Master Abbitt from sexually abusing other enslaved women. (9) Even Sarah Ann Abbitt, the mistress, moved in and out of her envisioned community of women, but certainly not with the same kind of heroism or emotional "presence" as Fannie's African American peers. The women in slaveholding families, however, certainly were part of the larger society that black women occupied, just as were white and black men. Given the operative racial and gendered meanings and distinctions of the colonial and antebellum South, a constant theme for enslaved women was overlapping communities and cultures. (10)
These overlapping structures of interaction were not just the experience of African American women in the antebellum South. As descendants of Africans enslaved in the Atlantic system that moved millions of women and girls like Angela, Isabel, and Mary, mentioned above, from various African worlds to other worlds of the Americas, Fannie Berry and the women of her community were experiencing a social, cultural, and ideological phenomenon, which had so long existed, in one form or another, as to be quite customary. The development of communities among the enslaved was crucial to their functioning, both within and outside of that community, as well as in the sites where their community overlapped with others. Central to their community life were their cultural identities and practices. This essay considers the term "community," which has become a fixture in our discussions of slave life, the "founding" cultures of slave "communities," and the place of enslaved women in both.
PART ONE: COMMUNITY
The notion of "communities" of enslaved Africans and African Americans in the southern colonies was not one that was born with the revisionist scholarship of the 1970s. It is a theme, however, that became exceedingly popular at that time and has remained a fixture in the historiography ever since. One early notation regarding community, for example, is found in the 1940 publication of The Negro in Virginia, compiled by researchers for the federal Works Projects Administration. It is there in the discussion of the famed Anthony Johnson clan of 17th-century Northampton County, Virginia, that the authors noted: "Here, on the shores of the Pungoteague River, Anthony Johnson assembled perhaps a dozen native Africans in what was the first Negro community in America." (11) Johnson, of course, was not a "slave." Neither were his family members. They are the family of …