James Bowser, a Black man from Nansemond County, came from a long line of free people of color.
During the Civil War, Bowser became an informant for the U.S. army in rebel-held sections of Virginia. When white people who supported the rebellion found out about his activities, Bowser made the ultimate sacrifice to suppress the rebellion against the U.S. government, demonstrating that many Virginians were on the right side of history during the Civil War.
Historian Warren Eugene Milteer Jr. looks at people such as Bowser in his new book, “Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South.” Milteer will speak at the Library of Virginia, in conversation with Greg Kimball, the Library of Virginia’s director of public services and outreach, and Vincent Brooks, senior local records archivist.
Milteer, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, decided to research free people of color in the South while completing a book about free people of color in North Carolina. He felt certain that anyone interested in the topic would want to know if his North Carolina findings applied to the larger region.
“I was also driven to write this book because of my family ties to free people of color in Virginia and North Carolina,” explains the Richmond-born Milteer. “As a descendant of free people of color, I wanted the larger public to have a better understanding of the experiences of this important population.”
Once he began researching --the Library of Virginia was an especially important repository for the materials that shaped his book-- Milteer was surprised at the diversity of free people of color he uncovered. Along with ancestral ties to Europe, the free population of color had various combinations of African, Native American, and even South Asian ancestry.
“Some were born free, while others obtained their freedom through the legal process of manumission, which allowed enslaved people to become legally free people,” he explains. “Many were poor and struggled, others were better off and owned their own farms and businesses and a small group could be described as wealthy: planters, merchants, and heirs to vast fortunes.”
What Milteer found through his research was that the myriad challenges free people of color faced began as early as the Colonial period with discriminatory taxation and criminal penalties. Lawmakers restricted their religious practices and ownership of weapons. White supremacist organizations promoted political and legal attacks on free people of color, targeting them and treating them as economic competitors while developing justifications for the attacks and lobbying to have them implemented.
In some parts of the South, free men of color had the right to vote during the nation’s earliest days, but by the end of the 1830s, they’d lost that right. “Free people of color faced state level immigration restrictions, too,” Milteer says. “When enforced, these laws limited their ability to move freely across state boundaries for long-term visits, work or even to start new lives.”
And it wasn’t only Blacks who were affected. Laws restricting or prohibiting certain marriage arrangements like marriage across racial lines also applied to white people, with some whites facing criminal prosecution for being in relationships with free people of color.
Whites who were parents to free children of color had to deal with their children being targeted. State level immigration laws restricting the movement of free people of color across state lines created challenges for white business owners in border states. White business owners in Virginia who recruited free people of color from Maryland to move to Virginia to work were technically promoting illegal behavior.
Free people of color adapted as necessary. Some simply accepted the situation and tried to survive despite the challenges. Others protested the discrimination by filing petitions, seeking the support of lawmakers, and suing in court. Other abandoned the south, seeking refuge in northern states or abroad where they might find greater opportunity and broader legal rights. Milteer points out that these practices perpetuate themselves even today.
“Clearly, some Americans are still driven to limit the rights and movements of others because they view them as economic competitors,” he says. “Discriminatory application of criminal penalties continues today in many parts of the country.”
As more people try to make sense of the current state of discrimination, the conversations often focus on problems rooted in slavery and Jim Crow laws, leaving out the discrimination of free people of color. To Milteer, it’s through their story that we can see how racial discrimination against them has long been an acceptable part of our country’s practices.
“Discrimination against free people of color didn’t develop because of slavery’s demise,” he explains. “It actually coexisted with slavery and helped shape discrimination in the post-Civil War period, and that includes our current moment.”
Conversation and Book-Signing with Warren Eugene Milteer Jr.: “Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South,” will be held Thursday, June 9 at 6 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. Free, but registration required: lva-virginia.libcal.com/event/8948641