Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-Enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia

Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-Enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia

Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-Enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia

Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-Enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia

Synopsis

Between 1854 and 1864, more than a hundred free African Americans in Virginia proposed to enslave themselves and, in some cases, their children. Ted Maris-Wolf explains this phenomenon as a response to state legislation that forced free African Americans to make a terrible choice: leave enslaved loved ones behind for freedom elsewhere or seek a way to remain in their communities, even by renouncing legal freedom. Maris-Wolf paints an intimate portrait of these people whose lives, liberty, and use of Virginia law offer new understandings of race and place in the upper South. Maris-Wolf shows how free African Americans quietly challenged prevailing notions of racial restriction and exclusion, weaving themselves into the social and economic fabric of their neighborhoods and claiming, through unconventional or counterintuitive means, certain basic rights of residency and family. Employing records from nearly every Virginia county, he pieces together the remarkable lives of Watkins Love, Jane Payne, and other African Americans who made themselves essential parts of their communities and, in some cases, gave up their legal freedom in order to maintain family and community ties.

Excerpt

On a warm Wednesday morning in May 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up thirty-three men and women hired to help construct the new federal district court on Broad Street, two blocks from the capitol in downtown Richmond, Virginia. While authorities booked Dominguez Cano, Juan Perez-Hernandez, and fellow “aliens” from Central and South America for working and residing in Virginia illegally, I sat across the street, in the silent sanctuary of the manuscript reading room of the Library of Virginia, discovering a roundup that had occurred 150 years earlier in Frederick County. There, the sheriff had arrested Henry Champ and eighteen other free black men and women in 1857– 58 for continuing to live in Virginia. Unlike the operation unfolding across Broad Street, which targeted the likes of Cano and Perez-Hernandez for living in a foreign land, the Frederick County roundup had ensnared Virginiaborn noncitizens who lived in violation of a fifty-year-old state law that had, by the late 1850s, made thousands of native free blacks “illegals.” Like our current immigration laws, the so-called expulsion measure, which required those freed from slavery to leave Virginia within one year, was only sporadically enforced, but when it was, individuals like Champ could find themselves without a home, their lives turned upside down.

In considering both roundups—in 2008 and 1857– 58—I found myself wondering why these people were singled out. Why them and why then? Using records located in the Library of Virginia and more than fifty county courthouses, I began to map the lives of those African Americans who, because of their color and life circumstances, were targeted by their white neighbors before or during the Civil War for not belonging in their communities. the documentary evidence is incomplete, and we see the lives of individual African Americans only through fragments created by white . . .

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