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Look Away

Let's see how slaves fared in Chesterfield County.


On May 29, 1771, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the separate court for blacks, slaves Isaac, Abner and Jacob were convicted of breaking and entering. Their punishment? Each was burned in the hand with a hot poker in the courtroom. They were then given 39 lashes each. Jacob got the added punishment of having his ears nailed to the pillory and then cut off.

In 1773, a slave named Bacchus was found guilty of breaking and entering and stealing "wearing apparel." He was hanged. On Oct. 14, of that year. Bob, who belonged to John Randolph, Daniel, the property of William Hall, and Isbell, property of Gray Briggs, were all tried for an unspecified "felony." All three were sentenced to hang. However, the court noted that because "the said Isbell is at present with child[,] It is Ordered that execution of her be postponed til [sic] sixty days after delivery." The court thus protected the unborn property and allowed the mother to nurse the newborn and then hanged her. The owner lost a slave, but under Virginia law, the court for his loss compensated each. Bob was valued at 1,500 pounds, Daniel 1,500, and Isbell 1,750. Plenty to acquire another.

Of course, there were those who chafed at their enslavement. Advertisements for runaway slaves peppered the pages of the Richmond newspapers. When caught, slaves were often subjected to mutilation so they would not run away again. Others were sold down the proverbial river. Mary, a slave belonging to the estate of Daniel Brooks, was described as having "bad carrater [sic] given to running way [sic] and other bad habits." She was jailed, turned over to the slave-trading firm of Pulliam and Davis, and sold for $615.

To protect themselves, white citizens set up county patrols to watch over "all negro quarters and other Places suspected of having therein unlawful assemblys [sic] or such slaves as may stroll from one Plantation to another and to take any Persons found in an unlawful assembly, or any slaves so found strolling before some Justice." On Nov. 22, 1850, Bryan L. Lundie, later a corporal in the 9th Infantry, Company C, of the Confederate Army, appointed D.V. Willson, Charles J. Glover, John Cheatham and William Dance, who also served in the rebel army, to patrol the county. By law, free blacks in the old Confederacy had to carry certificates of freedom and their "registrations" with them at all times. An earlier patrol netted Dolly Valentine, a free woman who had lost her papers. She was jailed and the jailer hired out her and her child "for a period sufficient to pay her jail fees."

In an effort to rid the state of free blacks, by law, no freed slaves could remain in the commonwealth longer than one year from their emancipation. The only way one could remain was by successfully petitioning the General Assembly. Chesterfield resident Richard Gregory petitioned the legislature in 1848 and again in 1850; Arthur and Amy each petitioned in 1848. Amy's plea was particularly poignant. She stated that she knew the provisions of the law were to prevent any descendants of free blacks from staying in the state. "Your petitioner," she wrote, "is now rapidly approaching the end of her mortal career. … No increase but in herself will result to the number of free negroes. She is too old to multiply & have increase."

For those allowed to stay, free life was no bed of roses in the old Confederacy. The annual tax on all white males 21 and over was 40 cents; for black males it was $1. Those who could not pay the tax were considered "delinquent." Delinquent free blacks could be sold until their work covered the tax. In 1855, Sheriff George Snelling provided the county court with a list of 23 blacks who were sold for failing to pay the 1854 tax. Those who had not received permission to stay could be arrested and sold back into slavery.

These laws were apparently not enough for some in Chesterfield. In 1852, B. E. Harrison sent a petition to the legislature praying "that no Negro hereinafter shall be a freeman in this Commonwealth one hour. We have many in the State now, in violation of Law, and they will increase … the Legislature have the power, it will be better to provide by Law, that none shall be emancipated except the person or persons emancipating provided … transport beyond the limits of the United States."

Two years later, well over 100 Chesterfield residents petitioned the General Assembly complaining that the county had too many dogs. "Many are owned by negroes & follow them about at night, and the consequence is that a great many sheep are killed and other mischief done by the dogs, and by negroes with their help. Your petitioners therefore pray the passage of a law authorizing the County Court to limit the number of dogs to each housekeeper, and to prohibit negroes both bond & free from keeping dogs altogether."

Freedom may well have been precious, but family and local ties often were more important considerations. Six months after the start of the "late unpleasantness" so celebrated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and, now, Chesterfield County, one John Green petitioned the court to be allowed "sell himself into slavery to Henry Covington" rather than be sent out of the commonwealth.

Chesterfield, remember how the "other half" lived— and died — while you celebrate. SJim Watkinson is a historian who writes in Richmond.

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

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