Thursday, January 21, 2016

"No Pass" = "Well Flogged"

Here in the twenty-first century we often take for granted the rights and liberties we are afforded as citizens. We can go pretty much any place we please at any time we want. That was obviously not the case for enslaved people in the mid-nineteenth century. I found some evidence of the repercussions for being off of a slaveowner's property without proper documentation in the September 26, 1854, issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch

In one of the many short notices which were common to newspapers at this time, it was reported that two enslaved men, Horace and Dick, who belonged to James Thomas, Jr. were caught in Richmond's city streets without passes. For their indiscretion both men were sentenced by the city's mayor to be "well flogged."

Along with slave patrols, travel passes were another means for attempting to control the enslaved population. At this time African Americans were assumed to be enslaved. If free, it was a requirement to keep one's free papers on their person. If a slave, a travel pass, such as the example above from 1843, was required. Without these forms of documentary proof, harsh treatment, as that received by Horace and Dick, could be expected.

This system of control makes it easier to comprehend why most slave states had laws against teaching bondsmen and bondswomen to read and write. If able to write, with a little practice, a travel pass could easily be forged that could potentially allow movement toward freedom. Owners understood that this loss of control could lead to chaos and their cherished system of racial order and therefore could not be tolerated. Examples were made of those, like Horace and Dick, to ensure compliance.

Pass image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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