Wednesday, January 27, 2016
A Case of Voluntary Enslavement
While searching through issues of the Staunton Spectator for black barber Robert Campbell's obituary, I happened upon the above short notice reran from the Lexington Gazette. I found it intriguing and wanted to share it on this forum to see if anyone wanted to share their thoughts about it. I'll share some of my thoughts, too.
Reading it made a couple things come to mind for me. First, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. television show "Finding Your Roots" aired an episode a couple of weeks ago that featured comedic actor Keenan Ivory Wayans. Gates's research found that one of Wayans's ancestors had the opportunity to escape when his South Carolina master took him to Canada, but the slave made his way back to South Carolina and slavery. Both Wayans and Gates thought it was unusual, but such instances did happen. And the Southern press often made the most of these stories, publishing them over and over in attempt to show the fidelity of slaves to their masters and prove abolitionist attacks against the institution incorrect. However, what did not get as much attention from these period news notices, or from Gates and Wayans in their discussion was the other potential motivations for, what to us in the twenty first-century, seems like a foolhardy move.
Second, reading the notice caused me to remember reading in the book, Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South, by Emily West, that many slave states had laws on their books that required emancipated slaves to leave the state within a certain amount of time after gaining their freedom. Often that meant choosing freedom and then having to leave loved ones behind in slavery. For example, in 1848, Virginia passed a law that made it legal to re-enslave a free person of color if he or she remained in the state for more than a year after gaining their freedom after the age of twenty-one. Therefore, if an enslaved person was freed by the will of their deceased owner, or if they happened to purchase their own freedom, they had to move out of state and leave their family behind.
As this notice mentioned, Virginia passed a law in 1856 that allowed free people of color to go back into slavery voluntarily. Women at the age of eighteen and men at the age of twenty-one could choose a master by petitioning the local court officials. The law also stipulated that: "The value of the Negro shall be ascertained and the individual chosen as master shall pay into court on half such valuation, and enter into bond, in such penalties the court may prescribe, with condition that the said Negro shall not become chargeable to any county or city. . . .[T]he condition of the petitioner shall in all respects be the same as though the Negro has been born a slave . . . the children of any such female free person of color previously born shall not be reduced to slavery."
This short story claims that this was a move by "A Sensible Negro," so, what say you?