Book Reviews -- Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen, and Africans on the Eastern Shore during the Seventeenth Century (Studies in African American History and Culture) by J. Douglas Deal
Hughes, Sarah S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen, and Africans on the Eastern Shore During the Seventeenth Century. By J. DOUGLAS DEAL. Studies in African American History and Culture. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993. xxii, 452 pp. $96.00
IN 1980, when T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes published "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676, they seemed to tell the whole story of "a brief moment" when free black Virginians almost became a peasantry in Northampton County (p. 5). J. Douglas Deal was the finishing a dissertation at the University of Rochester that, when published thirteen years later, reveals many other fascinating and problematic stories teased from the tangled bits of personal data recorded by the county courts. Deal argues a less optimistic view of the niches available to blacks lucky enough to escape slavery; they faced a "hardscrabble life," and few rose from "the lowest ranks of free society" (p. 209). If persistent racism left little likelihood that freed people would gain foothold among prosperous peasants, neither, he finds, did they disappear after 1676, as some historians have supposed.
Deal's complex, multigenerational portraits of individual African Americans and their families add a dimension rare in colonial Virginia history. What he calls "skeletal life histories" (p. 208), mainly of free blacks (for slaves seldom left enough traces in county records to reconstruct their lives), constitute the most significant part of the book. Two examples indicate how Virginia's social structure emerges from personal narratives. Discussion of how race left even Anthony Johnson, successful enough to possess land and a slave, vulnerable to white harassment ends with the 1670 decision] of an Accomack County jury that fifty acres given to his son should escheat to the crown because the father "was a Negroe and by consequence and alien" (p. 228). But the Johnson family continued. Some of his children and grandchildren can be traced into the early eighteenth century, as they married black, white, and Indian spouses, acquired land, quarreled with neighbors, occasionally committed crimes, and migrated to Maryland and Delaware. …