History is in the eye of the beholder. 

Whose History?

Recent events here and elsewhere have made it painfully clear that many — mostly white — folks still don't get it. In South Carolina, the Confederate flag continues to fly over the state capitol. Closer to home, the Sons of Confederate Veterans continue to press the General Assembly to allow that same flag to be displayed on their license plates. I say nothing of the recent and continuing brouhaha regarding the Canal Walk. The Confederate history that many revere holds nothing but painful memories and associations for most black people. It matters not whether one believes the Civil War was fought over slavery (although the C.S.A.'s Vice-President, Alexander Stephens specifically said it was). What matters is that Virginia chose to fight on the side of the South in order to maintain its legislative and socioeconomic independence. And slavery was an integral part, perhaps the most important part, of the social and economic makeup of the South. While many wish to celebrate the Confederacy and its heroes, what's on the other side of the coin? What was the nature of slavery? In 1733 in Goochland County, a slave named Champion went on trial for the murder of Robert Allen. It's one of the earliest examples of slave insurrection. For the crime, he was tried in the separate court for African Americans, the Court of Oyer and Terminer. He was convicted and hanged, drawn and quartered. The pieces of his quartered body were put on display at strategic points of the county as a grim message to others who chafed at their enslavement. Lesser crimes did not necessarily mean lesser sentences in slave "justice." In 1771, in Lancaster County, Virginia, Daniel and Anthony, slaves belonging to a William Dyer, were found guilty of stealing "six pieces of bacon weighing sixty pounds." The court sentenced them to "be hanged by the Neck for the same till they are dead." Six years later, a slave named Daniel belonging to Sally Simmonds was caught stealing 12 yards of cloth. He, too, was hanged. Other thieves got off more lightly. In October 1784, "Moses" was tried for theft. Found guilty, the court ordered him "to be burnt in the hand which was immediately performed in open Court." In July 1787, less than two months before the ratification of the Constitution, "Will" was also tried for theft in Lancaster. He, too, was found guilty and sentenced to be "Burnt in the hand and receive on his bare back at the publick [sic] whipping post thirty nine lashes, and have his ears cut." In addition to being burned in the hand and flogged, it was not unusual for an offending slave to have his ears nailed to the pillory. If a pregnant slave woman received a flogging sentence, the sheriff would dig a hole in the ground for her to lay her bulging abdomen in. Then he would administer the lashing. This, of course, was to protect the fetus, the unborn property on the way. Slaves were property and were treated as such by law. Thus, in 1796, Humphrey Ellis of Orange County, in return for a billiard table, could demand from James Baily "the Sum of Ten pounds or furnish him with a [Negro] house Wench for the term of one year." As property, slaves were also used as collateral for loans or as surety for debt. Joseph Eskew of Rockbridge County used "one small negro boy" to secure a debt of $52.83 and "One negro Girl named Jinny" for a debt of $44.82. Joseph Eskew "signed" his name with an "X." Eskew was illiterate, unable to read or even write his name. But because race slavery was legal, the illiterate, white Eskew could own black human beings, as well as buy, sell and trade them like so many cattle or horses. Others without the wherewithal to purchase their own slaves could and did rent them. Such was the case when Joshua Reynolds, also of Rockbridge County, rented George for the year 1828 from Elizabeth W. Anderson for $75. Reynolds, too, signed his name with an "X." The buying and selling of slaves tore families apart. Few whites cared and the law didn't recognize slave marriages anyway. But marriage and intimate relationships mattered mightily to most slaves. In 1839, Martin Cromwell, a "free man of colour," was required to post bond to keep the peace for one year in Rockbridge County on the complaint of the Rev. Allen Metcalf. The warrant read, in part, "Martin Cromwell did on this morning use threatening language to . . . [Constable] William Figgatt where he was warned . . . to leave the plantation of the revd Allen B. Metcalf where he was using threatening language against him the Said Metcalf threatening to Send him to Hell for having Sold his Wife &c." Even the act of freeing one's slaves was not always the wonderful act many would believe. Virginia law forbade any freed slave from remaining in the state more than 12 months. Those who wished to remain in the state, perhaps with loved ones, had to petition the General Assembly for permission. When Hugh Adams Sr. of Rockbridge freed his slave Joshua Johnston in September 1857 he did so only on the condition that Johnston "be removed to Liberia." In order to stay with his family and friends in the state and country where he had lived all his life, Johnston was forced to "voluntarily enslave himself" to Robert Hutcheson. Many, including my grandfather, Virginius Dabney, argued that slavery wasn't always this bad. And perhaps it wasn't in some cases. But that ignores the fact that the laws of Virginia and other Southern states were set up to protect a system which allowed such vicious behavior. And the South fought for four long years to keep the right to make their own laws, including those regarding their human property. Is that really worth "celebrating"? James D. Watkinson is a historian who lives in Richmond. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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