Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Beneath the Paternal Gaze: Threads of Community in Black Resistance

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Beneath the Paternal Gaze: Threads of Community in Black Resistance

Article excerpt

The successful restoration of white supremacy in Clarke County, Virginia between 1 865 and 1 879 did not quash African American resistance as local elite white Conservative party leaders intended. Looking back at what we know about the black Reconstruction experience in the South, this might seem counterintuitive. After all, the optimism with which freedmen had greeted the beginning of Reconstruction had waned by its conclusion. The bleakness of the future, Edward Ayers suggested, was on the blank stares of African Americans who were worse off than they had been in 1865. Disenfranchisement, violence, segregation, and poor finances troubled blacks across the South. They resisted, but there was only so much African Americans could do.1 This characterization of the black Reconstruction experience, though valid, undervalues the importance of community-building. This was the one means of resistance that allowed African Americans to overcome social and political inequities, unite together, and build their own flourishing networks. Seen in this light, Reconstruction, at least in Clarke County, was actually a boon for black resistance punctuated by economic success, family development, and property ownership. African Americans paid attention to the factionalism within the Virginia Conservative party and used whites' struggle for cohesion to create space to build their own institutions and communities.

Black resistance during Reconstruction was the product of a multitude of historical factors that make Clarke County unique to the Valley of Virginia. Known as "East Frederick" before it broke away from Frederick County in 1836, Clarke County was one of the few plantation districts in the Shenandoah Valley and the only county west of the Blue Ridge with a slave population of close to 50 percent.2 Like many plantation economies, the disparity in slave ownership between the yeoman farmers and the elite in Clarke County was wide. Slaveholders owning one to ten slaves account for 68 percent of the total number of slaveholders in 1860, yet they owned just 30 percent of the slaves in the county. Unlike its neighbors, Clarke County was home to the later generations of Tidewater elite families like the Carters and Burwells. Edward J. Smith and George H. Burwell, who owned 73 and 97 slaves, respectively, were the largest slaveholders in Clarke County on the eve of the Civil War. Established on large to midsized plantations and often owning several separate properties, Clarke's Tidewater families were mostly self-sufficient. Farmers and planters trained their slaves as artisans and specialized laborers to assist in their day-to-day operations. Local historian Thomas Gold noted that slaves "were taught to do all the work needed on a large farm. Some were carpenters, some blacksmiths, some stonemasons; some of them became very fine fencebuilders."3

The centrality of agriculture to the inhabitants of Clarke County emerges in the statistics. In 1 860, some 87 percent of Clarke County's total population lived on farms and plantations, which was the highest percentage in the Shenandoah Valley. There were no major towns and the three largest population centers in Clarke County - Berryville, Millwood and White Post - had a combined population of less than eight hundred people.4 In contrast, the residents of Frederick County tended to be small commercial farmers descended from Pennsylvania immigrants. They owned few slaves, and usually only hired them as needed. Frederick County life revolved around the bustling town of Winchester, where the farmers went to sell their crops and acquire consumer goods from artisans.5

Many of the institutions African Americans in Clarke County formally developed during Reconstruction had their origins in slavery. Masters tried to exercise absolute control of the labor, sexuality and leisure time of their enslaved people, but despite coercion and the threat of harsh penalties, slaves had found ways to resist. …

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