Remembering slavery in Virginia

Our country here is coming up to the 150th anniversary of the act of secession by southern states that launched the extremely bloody civil war of 1861-65. I am very interested in the civil war, for a number of reasons. For American Quakers and members of the other U.S. peace churches, the civil war was far and away the most morally challenging situation in which to hold fast to a position of pure nonviolence– not least because over the decades prior to 1861 the Quakers had done so much to publicize the appalling situation of the four million enslaved persons who lived overwhelmingly in the southern states that seceded in 1861, and to advocate for their freeing.
Also, the fact that since 1993 I have lived and voted in Virginia, which had been the capital of the breakaway “Confederacy”, has brought the agony of both the institution of slavery and the civil war itself home to me in numerous ways both large and small. Just 300 yards from our home in Charlottesville is a confederate cemetery where those graves that are marked bear on them the name, state of origin and fighting unit of each of the deceased– along with the simple notation “CSA”…
The sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the civil war is revealing many interesting things about the attitudes that many Americans hold today about their (our) country’s history of slavery. This post on a NYT blog tells us that in New York state, which is generally regarded as having been a pillar of the pro-Union (anti-secession) coalition back in the 1860s

    earlier this year, the State Senate failed even to authorize a sesquicentennial commission, much less appropriate any money to support commemorations, exhibitions, retrospectives or any other events around the state to mark the start of the Civil War 150 years ago.

The writer there, Sam Roberts, notes that back in January 1861, New York City’s mayor, Fernando Wood,

    unabashedly embraced the South initially because its cotton merchants were financed by New York banks and protected from loss by New York insurers, and it transported its harvest in New York ships.

Luckily, a proposal Mayor Wood launched to have New York City secede from both the state capital in Albany and the national capital in Washington never got anywhere…
In Atlanta, Georgia, meanwhile, the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” organization is currently reported to be hard at work planning,

    a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession… The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.

These days, apologists for the south deny vehemently that what the southerners were fighting for 150 years ago had anything to do with slavery. It was, they claim, all about “preserving their heritage”, “safeguarding states’ rights”, and so on. Numerous scholars have skewered such claims, noting that in the original declarations of secession, the preservation of slavery was front and center among the concerns of the seceders…
So what was American slavery like for those who lived through and survived it? It was unlike just about all the other forms of slavery that have ever existed in human history because of the insistence of the slaveowners and the “legal” institutions that they built (including, I should note, with the drafting help of none other than John Locke, in the case of South Carolina) that the child of a slave would also be a slave, ad infinitum. In other forms of slavery, including those practiced by some native American nations, in early-modern Europe, and in some Muslim societies, the child of a slave would be recognized as having some form of higher legal standing than that of an enslaved person– and very often would simply be assimilated into the broader society. But in American slavery, the children and grandchildren of slaves were nearly always also considered simply the “property” of the mother’s “owner”. There were almost no routes into assimilation either for individual enslaved persons or for the community of enslaved persons as a whole. The only prospect was that slaves and all their issue would continue to be treated as “property” forever.
And as “property”, no human institutions or ties like marriage or the bonds between family members were recognized to have any legal relevance for slaves: A child could be sold to an owner distant from her mother; a brother separated from his sister; a lover from her beloved (if the latter was a slave.) Most importantly, enslaved women had no protection under any law from being subject to the lust of any white man in the master’s family: Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved paramour, Sally Hemings, was almost certainly the half-sister of his wife, Martha, having been owned by (and very likely spawned by) her father before she was “donated” to Jefferson.
Here in Virginia, in the early 19th century, laws were passed criminalizing the act of teaching an enslaved person to read. And of course, helping slaves to escape to freedom was also a serious crime…
Soon after I moved here in 1993, I discovered an amazing book called Weevils in the Wheat, which is a collection of interviews with survivors of slavery in Virginia that were conducted in the late 1930s by African-American interviewers/writers employed by the Federal Writers’ Project. The collection has been edited and re-edited a number of times– including, as the editors of this 1976 edition admit, it has been subject to editorial censorship and bowdlerization of some of the harsher aspects of what was said. But it is still remarkable.
If you click on “Contents” on that Google books page, and then “Interviews”, you can read many of the interviews– though Google has deliberately skipped some pages to try to preserve something of copyright that is held (perhaps not wholly justifiedly) by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Navigate yourself to p. 206, for example, where you can read five pages of the material from the interview that ace FWP interviewer Susie R.C. Byrd conducted in April 1937 in Petersburg, Virginia, with Rev. Ishrael Massie (born 1849)…
You can even hear some (very scratchy) early audio recording of some related interviews, if you go to this page in the Library of Congress audio collections. However, most of the people doing those recording were doing so mainly to record and study the “dialect” of the former slaves, rather than to record their stories. I find the written collection a much richer resource… Go read some of it if you have time…

5 thoughts on “Remembering slavery in Virginia”

    Joseph Glatthaar’s book includes many letters written by soldiers in Lee’s army detailing why they fought. Most of them didn’t survive the war.
    Slavery was the economic lifeblood of the south and many of the soldiers fought to preserve it. Others saw the hated yankees like invaders from a foreign country and were determined to defend their homes, families and “country.”
    I’ve read hundreds of books on the war, but this one really does break new ground.Reading it is like going back in time. Up until the Civil War, the United States was really two distinct and seperate cultures, almost like two different countries.
    The Army of Northern Virginia vs. The Army of the Potomac was like a war within a war.
    Another great book is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book about Abe Lincoln and his cabinet..”Team of Rivals” After reading it, you’ll have no doubt that Lincoln was a creative genius and our greatest president, by far.
    Goodwin is a brilliant historian.
    You won’t be able to put either book down.

  2. thanks for the Weevils in the Wheat link. i could get lost over there. i noticed they cut it off right before you found out what happened w/the the cakes and nannie smith. ‘lemmie see your primer’. maybe they traded in their book for a cake.
    well, i have some stories myself from my family back i the days. maybe i will send you some by email sometime.

  3. I’m glad I took a peek at good old JWN. The history of slavery is crucial to understanding the history of Africa where I live. I do hope more will come out as a consequence of the 150th Anniversary of the US Civil War. I wish there was a good study of the origin and structuring of the invention of slavery as an external institution run by businesspeople. This happened immediately after Henry the Navigator’s ships first arrived in sub-Saharan Africa. It lasted for more than three centuries, which is a lot longer than the capitalism that succeeded it has lasted, to date.
    Compliments of the season to Helena and all the JWN-ers.

  4. The NY Times is running a great series on the 150th Anniversary. As Spock would say…”Fascinating.”
    Today’s entry…”First South Carolina.Then New York?”
    “Much of the South’s cotton exports passed through New York, and the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton through warehouse fees, shipping, insurance and profits.”

  5. Concerning this: “slaves and all their issue would continue to be treated as ‘property’ forever.”
    When you take the whole four centuries of the triangular Atlantic slave-trade system, it relied upon the constant hunting of new slaves from Africa, because the slaves were as a rule being worked to death in a few years and the population of black slaves in the New World was consequently not increasing from its own natural reproduction.
    So, while it was true that the children of slaves were slaves, such natural reproduction was not the overall typical situation of the Atlantic slave-trade system, or even a particularly common situation, until the importation of slaves started to become difficult, and some slave states in the USA became breeders and exporters of slaves.
    It’s quite hard to say which situation was the more abominable.
    The Atlantic Slave Trade shaped the world. What is NATO, if not the inheritor of the power that first arose on the backs of millions of slaves?

Comments are closed.