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Dividing Line

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It's a past recorded by our courts, as seen in "Virginia Reports," a series of law books documenting decisions of the Virginia Supreme Court. The first sentence of the first case in the first volume, Marston v. Parish, decided in April 1730, reads: "John Williams was possessed of two Negro boys, Arthur and Billy, and two Negro women, Dinah and Nanny, and made his last will the 22nd of April, 1713." The report goes on to explain that Mr. Williams' widow married twice before she died. In the meantime, the four slaves above had three children between them. One of Ms. Williams' heirs brought the case over the issue of who owned which slave.

Slavery, throughout the history of mankind, has taken different forms. In this country slavery was most identified with Africans and the evolving concept of race. What is remarkable about Marston v. Parish is its tone: The matter-of-fact report of the case leaves out even a hint that speaking of human beings as chattel was in any way strange, let alone wrong. Slaves were simply not considered fully human, and when slavery ended, racism continued to assign a "badge of slavery."

Let us consider the history:

  • In 1619, the first African slaves to be sold in the English colonies were introduced at Jamestown. Chattel slavery eventually replaced indentured servitude as the involuntary labor force of choice by the planter class, in part because of their concern of the prospect of a growing population of landless and poor former indentured servants. By 1691 it was illegal in Virginia for a slaveholder to free his slaves unless they left the colony of Virginia.

  • In 1808, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed, Virginia became a "breeding" state for slaves, exporting them to the Deep South for use on the plantations.

  • Two of the most famous slave rebellions in the United States were in Virginia — one in 1800 in Richmond led by Gabriel Prosser, the other in 1831 in Southampton County led by Nat Turner. Prosser's rebellion was put down by the state militia, and he and 24 companions were hanged. Turner's revolt was also put down by the militia. Turner was hanged, and his body was skinned, quartered and beheaded, with various body parts distributed as souvenirs.

  • It took the army of the United States and a brutal civil war before emancipation was won. The conflict informally began in Virginia with John Brown's failed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, where he hoped to inspire a slave rebellion. Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861 after the start of hostilities, and Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. The war ended on Virginia soil at Appomattox in 1865 with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

  • From the time of Virginia's readmission to the United States in 1870 until 1960, the Virginia General Assembly enacted a variety of "Jim Crow" laws that required and imposed racial segregation in schools, public transportation, public accommodations, health care, marriage, residence and athletics. Virginia's 1912 statute authorizing cities and towns to create residential segregation districts became a precedent for many other states that adopted restrictive covenants for real estate.

  • Following the Brown decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, the editorial page of the Richmond News-Leader became the leading propaganda organ for "massive resistance" to school desegregation. In 1956 the Virginia General Assembly passed massive resistance legislation to prevent integration of the schools. When the federal courts ordered the desegregation of four Virginia school districts in 1958, Gov. Lindsay Almond ordered the schools closed.

  • In 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled the state's massive resistance laws unconstitutional and Gov. Almond reopened the schools he had closed. However, when faced with integration, Prince Edward County closed its public schools in 1959 and kept them closed until 1964.

  • In the 1960s and early 1970s, metropolitan Richmond was the scene of parallel racially charged struggles over annexation and school desegregation. The city's political leadership annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield County in an effort to dilute the growing numbers of black voters in Richmond. In the meantime, the city's school board had attempted to prevent desegregation by various means. The federal courts intervened, but the region still bears the scars of the polarization.

    Back to that monument to courage: Near Byrd Park at the point where Boulevard curves around the tennis courts to intersect with Blanton Avenue, there is a flagpole. It was erected in 1926 as a memorial to the Richmond soldiers who died in the World War I. At the base of the flagpole are four plaques. The main plaque reads: "They Gave Their Lives 1917-1918." The three other plaques list the names of Richmond soldiers who died. The names on one plaque are divided by the word "Colored," indicating that the names following were not those of white men.

    Remembering that this memorial was erected in 1926 when Jim Crow reigned in Virginia, perhaps this was the best they could do at the time to honor those fallen soldiers. But it's also important to remember that separation of groups was secondary to the purpose of segregation — its primary purpose was always to define one group as inferior to the other. Eighty years after the erection of that memorial, there is something offensive about dividing those brave men by that word. They died on the same battlefields wearing the same uniforms. The hues of their skin may have differed somewhat, but their blood was equally red.

    The impact of racism assigning the badge of slavery has had a devastating impact on our social order. Racism has created and maintains various levels and degrees of injustice. Traditions die hard because we are the products of the past. Yet we have the intellect to recognize injustice and the power to act. We owe it to Arthur, Billy, Dinah and Nanny. S



    Stephen Retherford is a resident of Richmond and writes a blog at http://hoosierinva.blogspot.com.



    Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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