Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Surviving War and the Underground: Richmond Free Blacks and Criminal Networks during the Civil War

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Surviving War and the Underground: Richmond Free Blacks and Criminal Networks during the Civil War

Article excerpt

Tom Charles was one of many African American participants in the Richmond underground during the Civil War. Although criminal networks had always existed in Richmond, providing residents with cheaper goods, the scope of these markets increased after the start of the conflict. In analyzing Charles's life, there was not anything special to note about his involvement in the underground markets. He was not a black-market merchant or retailer but merely a middleman who sold goods to merchants involved in illegal economic activity. As the middleman, he took most of the risks in securing stolen goods the underground consumers desired. However, as a free African American in a slave society, Charles would, if caught, face the unforgiving hand of justice in Richmond. In the end, not only was Charles one of many participants in the underground market, but he was also one of a number of free blacks sold into absolute slavery for theft.1

What led free blacks like Tom Charles to a life of crime, a choice that could result in the loss of freedom? During the war, thousands of African Americans from surrounding areas came to Richmond seeking protection and shelter from the war's devastation. Yet what men and women found there hardly qualified as shelter or refuge. Many suffered from homelessness, starvation, and poverty. Refugees and residents also faced a daily routine of harassment by other inhabitants - black and white - and from often-brutal local authorities. The extreme conditions they encountered led many to participate in the underground economy, a space where hustlers, peddlers, pimps, plain folk, prostitutes, and thieves carved out a precarious existence. On the city's war-torn streets and back alleys, the castaways provided each other with the food, money, shelter, and comradeship they needed to survive.

The lack of attention paid to free African American involvement in the underground, to their responses to the Civil War and its economic dislocations, and to their interaction with local authorities reveals historiographical gaps in the study of the mid-nineteenth century. Civil War scholarship typically has focused on the social, political, and military affect of the war on slaves and whites. No study has yet adequately examined the variables of economic poverty combined with heightened legal scrutiny of their precarious free status that led free blacks like Tom Charles to the underground. Although historians have addressed the loss in status free African Americans experienced after Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, the relationship between this loss of legal and social privileges and how it shaped their increased involvement in underground markets during the Civil War has not been investigated.2

An examination of underground markets will also reveal the affects of social pressures on free blacks and their struggles with hostile competitors. Such a study will also bring to light free blacks' struggles with local police and their difficult interaction with the judiciary for control of markets and city streets. Investigating this aspect of free African American life is important for a variety of reasons. First, free black participation in the development of urban underground markets and the relationships they developed across lines of status, race, and gender demonstrate their tremendous resilience in the face of equally profound legal restraints and social prejudices. Left with few other options for survival, free African Americans entered the underground as active agents, finding there more freedom than they could ever expect to enjoy in open society. Another reason this study of the free black population of Richmond is important is that it demonstrates how the city's authorities understood the inherent dangers of these markets, specifically the power and equality free blacks realized in them. The police, government, and courts believed that if these markets continued to flourish they would threaten the fabric of southern society. …

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