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Friday, August 19, 2016

To Be a Slave

The Virginia Herald, June 10, 1829

     Today I write my 160th article for Spotsylvania Memory. By now, those of you who have followed my blog over the past five years, as well as those who have read my book, are familiar with my topics and style of writing. My purpose has always been to share, honestly and dispassionately, what I have learned from my research. I have done my best to avoid editorial asides or sermonizing about this or that. I believe that it is important for my readers to experience original source material as I have found it. In this way, each of you may formulate your own views about our shared past without being obliged to peer through the prism of my opinions.
     Today, however, I have decided to take a different approach. And I am doing so on a subject freighted with many complications and possibilities for controversy: Slavery. Because the history of my native state is heavy-laden with emotional investment, nuance of fact and a blurring of many boundaries, it is almost impossible for me to write about it without making my point of view a part of this story. For the history of slavery in Virginia is also the history of my own family.
     First, let us stipulate here that the 246 years existence of slavery was a catastrophe for this nation and for those unfortunate souls who were snatched from their homes in Africa and brought here to labor and live a life without hope. Some of the core principles upon which this country was established--equality before the law and the freedoms proclaimed in the Bill of Rights--were never intended to apply to enslaved blacks. This fundamental hypocrisy, made possible by the dehumanization of generations of people, was the corrosive fact of our polity that has always hindered the United States from achieving the full potential of its founding ideals. The pernicious effects of this dual standard upon the enslaved Africans and their descendants remain with us to this day.
     I also wish to give my opinion on one other matter that is a perennial source of contention among many. I have always believed that slavery was the proximate cause of the Civil War. Had not slavery existed in the United States, it seems to me unlikely that the other sectional disagreements between north and south would have in themselves been seen as justification for secession. Slavery was such a toxic issue, and the south had so much at stake in its perpetuation as a legally-protected institution, that its existence alone made any political resolution of the other issues virtually impossible.
     I have long been of the opinion that the issue of states' rights as the main cause of the Civil War is simply wrong. "States' rights," as preached by southerners in the 19th century, was merely a screen for advancing the interests of the slaveocracy. Southern demagogues who endlessly brayed about states' rights were interested in the issue only insofar as they could sustain the institution of slavery and enable its extension into new territories and states. They were vehemently opposed to the assertion of the rights of other states to be free from the intrusions of the federal government, when those states were opposed to slavery. Northern states, whose citizens found slavery to be odious and whose governments were loath to assist in the capture and return of runaway slaves, were compelled to do so by federal law. These states would certainly have preferred to offer sanctuary to slaves who sought freedom within their borders. But the slave interests who held sway in Congress made this a difficult proposition by forcing the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. These laws not only required free states to allow slave catchers to operate freely within their borders, they also obliged these same states to actively assist in the apprehension of runaways. States' rights, indeed.

Slave catchers apprehending a runaway

     Slavery in Virginia had its beginnings in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1619, a Portuguese cargo ship, San Juan Baptista, was carrying 350 Angolans to Veracruz, Mexico, where they were to be sold to the Spanish. This ship was waylaid by two English privateers, Treasurer and White Lion. Instead of sailing to Mexico, the English and their captured bounty made for the Atlantic. They sold about 20 of these Angolan men at Jamestown, Virginia and took the rest to Bermuda and other destinations.
     Because this group of Africans had been baptized as Christians, they were treated as indentured servants by the English colonists. This meant that after laboring for seven years, they would be granted their freedom, just like white servants. By 1650 there were about 300 African indentured servants living in Virginia. Some of these black workers, once freed, would buy land and farm. Some would later own black slaves.
     By this time Virginia was experiencing an unhappy transition, whereby the status of black indentured servants gradually changed to that of lifelong slaves. The labor-intensive nature of cotton and tobacco farming led Virginia plantation owners to make the switch from indentured servitude to chattel slavery.
     By 1662, Virginia adopted the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, which held that a child's legal status derived from that of his or her mother. A child born of a free woman--white or black--was a free person in the eyes of the law. If the mother were enslaved, then all children born to her would also be slaves, regardless of whether the father happened to be a free white man. Thus, the illegitimate children of white slave owners and their female slaves were considered to be slaves. The owners were under no legal obligation to emancipate their mixed-race progeny or even to acknowledge their paternity of them.
     Until about 1800, Virginia slave owners were at liberty to emancipate their slaves, if they chose to do so (and many did), with a minimum of government meddling. However, the Virginia legislature passed a series of measures which placed conditions on these freed persons of color. Acts were passed in 1793 and 1803 which required "every free negro or mulatto" to be registered and numbered in a book kept by the county clerk. In 1806, the General Assembly passed a law stating that all freed slaves who remained in the Commonwealth for more than one year after their emancipation would forfeit their right to freedom and be sold by the overseers of the poor for benefit of the individual parishes (Virginians strongly felt that having too many free blacks living near their slaves would put unhelpful ideas into the minds of those not yet freed). Beginning in 1837, freed slaves could petition local courts for permission to remain in the Commonwealth. These petitions would include certificates from free white citizens who could testify to the good character and free status of the petitioner.
     Freed slaves also had the right to petition the legislature so that they might be re-enslaved. And why on earth would they do such a thing, you might ask. It often happened that a master would free a father or mother only, but not the family as a whole. If the General Assembly denied the petition of a freed slave to remain in the state, he or she would be faced with the Hobson's choice of enjoying freedom far from his or her family, or rejoining them as a slave.
     In my earlier writings about slavery in Virginia, especially as a documented reality of my ancestors, I avoided the temptation to speculate on the thought processes that enabled white slave owners to perpetuate the peculiar institution for two and one half centuries. Playing the role of amateur psychologist is a task that I am not qualified to undertake, especially as it pertains to analyzing the psychology and motivations of people now long dead. But today I am willing to give it a shot, if only to clarify in my own mind how an evil such as slavery could survive so long in a country nominally dedicated to individual liberty and the dignity of man.
     In order to justify slavery in their hearts, slave owners were obliged to reconcile a number of contradictory ways of thinking. They were aided in this by the simple fact that both during the colonial era and during America's first 90 years of nationhood, slavery was a legally sanctioned enterprise which--especially in the south--also enjoyed the approbation of the church. Rare was the clergyman who would dare to preach against slavery; indeed, most ministers believed, along with their congregations, that slavery had the approval of God, and their selective interpretations of Biblical scripture reassured them that slavery was beneficial both for the enslaved and their masters. Many preachers of the gospels were themselves slave owners, and saw no irony in that fact when juxtaposed with Christ's teachings.
     Once chattel slavery became an established legal and social institution in the late 17th century, its insidious tentacles reached into every corner of Virginia society. The ownership of slaves was the underpinning of wealth for the gentry and the upper classes. In the example of Absalom Row, my second great-grandfather, the inventory and appraisement of his estate in 1856 showed that 40% of his wealth derived from the value of his slaves.

Absalom Row (1796-1855)

     In addition to being an integral part of Virginia's economy, slave ownership was intimately entwined in the social and family life of white citizens. Among the elites, one's status derived in some measure from their slave-based wealth. In many cases, it was considered a sign of good taste to have house servants whose skin color was lighter than that of the field hands. That some of these domestic servants were kin to the people who owned them was a reality known to all, but spoken of very rarely.
     The white masters of antebellum plantations in the south wielded absolute power over their own families and their enslaved laborers alike. Too many of these men fell prey to the corrupting temptations this power afforded them. The sin that dared not speak its name at that time was the coercive sexual exploitation of slave women. Often, this this took the form of the blatant rape of these poor unfortunates. In other cases, these relationships included an emotional tie between both master and slave. Many men chose to ignore the children born of these affairs. Others would openly provide money, clothing and education to these children and even emancipate them and their mothers. For the long-suffering wives of these men, they had little recourse but to gnash their teeth at the whole sordid business, and ignore the existence of the light-skinned youngsters who bore such a resemblance to their husbands. Some of these wives would take out their frustration and humiliation on the the slaves, whom they tended to blame for these incidents.
     This shadowy world of dual families living together in the same household made for a complicated and highly nuanced domestic situation. Of course, everyone knew what was going on behind closed doors, but no one dared to to confront the master of the house with the obvious truth. Even at the highest social levels in Virginia, white and half-white family members, the one free and the other slave, tacitly adhered to the roles this caste system required them to play without murmuring a word about it. George Washington's wife, the former Martha Dandridge Custis, had a half-sister, Ann Dandridge, who lived with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. Ann was the daughter of Martha's father and a slave woman who was of African and Native American ancestry. No visitor ever had any inkling that this slave woman was a sister-in-law of George Washington. And it got worse from there. Ann Dandridge attracted the attention of Martha's dissolute son, Jacky Custis, with whom she had a daughter, Harriet, and a son, William. The Washingtons were therefore the grandparents of slaves. After Martha's death in 1802, Thomas Law, son-in-law of Martha's granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, emancipated Ann Dandridge almost immediately. [Source: Wiencek, Henry, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003]
     The Custis family also furnished a notorious example of a slave owner who openly acknowledged his paternity of his slave child and lavished him with attention and favors. Martha's first father-in-law, the fabulously wealthy John Custis, had fathered a child, "Black Jack" Custis, by one of his slaves. John doted on this child and sought to free him by extra-legal means so that the boy could inherit property from him. This was done to the detriment of his son by his white wife, Daniel Parke Custis, who married Martha Dandridge, the future Mrs. Washington [Wiencek].
     These types of shenanigans were frowned upon in polite society, not just because they were unseemly, they also posed a threat to the underpinnings of slavery itself. The prospect of large numbers of mixed-race people, whose paternity was openly acknowledged by their white fathers, meant that these people could possibly attain legal status, inherit wealth and move freely in white society. Such a possibility, unlikely though it was, challenged slave-owners' belief systems.
     Another aspect of master-slave relationships that required great mental elasticity among whites was the irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in their connections. Many whites indulged in the fantasy that their enslaved laborers were docile, willingly obedient and even affectionate. And there is no question that long-term friendships developed between the races. But there was never any ambiguity  as to who held the upper hand. And most slaves remained alert to opportunities to gain their liberty. White owners who were particularly delusional misconstrued obedience for loyalty. When these slaves took advantage of those rare opportunities to flee before the Civil War, their white owners would feel genuinely bewildered and hurt that these people, whom they had taken care of, would be so ungrateful.
     But residing just beneath this delusion was the existential reality that never quite left the awareness of slave owners. Two slave revolts, the abortive Gabriel's uprising in 1800, and Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, made very clear to whites that a real desire for freedom lurked behind the docile visages of their slaves, and that there existed within their servants an ever-present potential to use violence to get that freedom. Successful slave uprisings were exceedingly rare, but the possibility that they could be murdered by their own slaves at any time surely must have weighed heavily on the minds of whites throughout the Commonwealth.
     Far more whites were murdered surreptitiously by slaves acting alone or in small groups than did  during the Nat Turner rebellion. For example, Ambrose Madison, grandfather of future president James Madison, was poisoned in 1732 by three of his slaves at his home in Orange County. In 1820, Carlton Row (an older brother of Absalom Row) and his wife Lucy were poisoned by their slaves after Carlton ordered one to be whipped (as family tradition has it). Carlton and Lucy's one-year-old daughter, Rachel, was spared. She was brought to Orange County and raised in the household of her grandfather, Thomas Row.
     Laws were enacted to protect white citizens from their slaves. It became illegal to teach blacks to read and write. Slaves were forbidden to congregate in meetings without a white person being present. Slaves were required to have on their persons passes signed by their masters, giving them permission to do so. Woe to the unlucky slave caught off the plantation without his pass.

Slave patrol schedule for Spotsylvania County, 1853
     The activities of slaves were monitored by slave patrols. These patrols--referred to as "paddyrollers" by the slaves, were comprised of members of the local militia and were appointed and compensated by officers of the court. As a justice of the peace, Absalom Row was one such officer who organized these patrols in Spotsylvania County, and his signature appears on a number of related documents, like the one above. Among those listed was James H. Brock, who was Row's overseer at his plantation, Greenfield. The patrols were empowered to break up any unauthorized meetings of blacks they might come across. They carried firearms for their own protection and whips to mete out summary punishment to any slave caught without a pass.
     Slaves well understood that organized resistance against whites was suicidal, and that even more subtle forms of violence--like putting ground glass in the master's food--would not save them from savage retribution. What resistance they did offer was more subtle in nature. The tempo of work songs, which dictated the pace of communal work, could be slowed down when the overseer's attention was diverted. Handles of tools stored in sheds would be found mysteriously broken. Recently honed axes would turn up dull and rusty. Planters learned that trying to introduce new farming methods or machinery was futile, as slaves would feign incomprehension and new machines could be ruined and new ways of doing things could be easily misunderstood.
     By 1860, many in Virginia understood that the slave system was a wasteful and inefficient way to make money in an overwhelmingly agricultural society. However, slavery was so deeply ingrained into southern life, no one could imagine how things could be done differently. There was no good alternative to  keeping blacks right where they were. More to the point, white southerners were horrified by the thought of over four million slaves suddenly being freed, at liberty to roam at will and to compete with whites as farmers and skilled laborers. Freedom for blacks would mean the annihilation of their world view, their financial impoverishment and the threat of violent revenge from those whom they had victimized for generations. It was unthinkable. As Thomas Jefferson observed in a letter he wrote in 1824, "We have the wolf by the ears and feel the danger of either holding on or letting him loose."

Notice to Judicial Officers, 1861
      In April 1861, the Civil War long desired by the fire-eaters of the south began. It soon became apparent to slave owners in Virginia that their human property would seize upon this golden opportunity to make good their flight from bondage and reach sanctuary within the lines of the invading armies of the United States. As slave owners began to see their labor force and the source of their wealth take refuge with Union troops, it fell to the newly-minted Confederate government to take steps to to try to reassure citizens that something was being done to provide compensation for their loss. Accordingly, in October 1861, acting secretary of state William Browne published a "Notice to Judicial Officers." This proclamation provided instructions necessary to file a claim of loss of slave property. Implicit in this exercise was the hope that some day former owners would receive compensation for their loss. That day never came.

Nancy Estes Row's list of runaway slaves, 1862

     One of those who filed an affidavit of the loss of her slaves was Nancy Estes Row, the widow of Absalom Row. During the summer of 1862, she wrote the list of the names of the "servants" who ran away from Greenfield, shown above. She duly filed her paperwork with the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg in January 1863. She documented the names, ages and monetary values of each of the persons who ran away.
     But not all of her slaves ran away that summer. Some stayed with Mrs. Row, including Horace, Henry, Albert and William, whose names appear in letters and ledger entries after the escape of most of the other slaves of Greenfield. What motivated these few to remain in bondage? It is impossible to know, and each one of them may have had his own reason. Loyalty to Mrs. Row? Perhaps. Fear of the unknown? Also a possibility.

Labor contract with Henry Slaughter

     After the war, Henry Slaughter, one of these men who stayed behind with Nancy Row, continued to work at Greenfield. His name appears on the labor contract shown above, written by Nancy's son, George Washington Estes Row.
     George W. E. Row's daughter, Mabel, was born at Greenfield in 1879 and grew up on the adjacent farm named Sunshine, established by her father that same year. In 1960, Mabel shared her recollections of Greenfield with Spotsylvania historian, Roger Mansfield. She remembered being told by those who had lived at Greenfield, family members and former slaves alike, "The relationship between owner and servant was one of mutual respect. Even after the war, when the negroes had homes of their own, and a former slave died, the body was brought to Greenfield to lie in state in the parlor. They 'belonged.' Their burial ground is near that of their earthly masters."

Sketch of Greenfield, as remembered by Mabel Row Wakeman

     The graveyards of the Estes-Row family and of their slaves are all that remain of the old plantation. The graves of the slaves buried there are unmarked except for the dark field stones that have been scattered by time and circumstance. In my writing, I have done my best to share their names and to tell their stories as I have found them in my family's archive and in the public record. They deserved so much more in their lifetimes, but for now this is all I can do for them.
     And from the shadows, their eyes implore us.

Slave sale at Greenfield, 1832

Here are links to the articles in which I have shared what I know of the slaves and free people of color who were part of my family's history. For a few, I have been able to provide a glimpse into what their lives were like after emancipation.


1 comment:

  1. thank-you for this fascinating and beautifully written article.