Sunday, January 17, 2021

Just Finished Reading - Family Bonds

Wow! My 2021 reading is off to a excellent start with Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia by Ted Maris-Wolf.

Digging into county court records from across the Commonwealth the author provides a history that few Virginians know today. In the spring of 1806, Virginia passed a law requiring that enslaved people who were freed after that date had to leave the state within a year. Whites feared that free people of color would serve as a bad influence to the enslaved and that free people would ultimately become a burden on White society, resorting to crime when living outside the "correcting" influence of slavery. Demanding free people of color to leave the state of course often separated them from friends and family still enslaved. It also forced them to remove to an unfamiliar place, often with little to get started with. As the author shows, the 1806 law was not enforced that often, but there were times, particularly around events like Nat Turner's Rebellion or John Brown's raid when significant community crackdowns occurred. Also, sometimes enforcement of the law came when Whites became jealous of the success of hard-working, thrifty, and entrepreneurial people of color. During these times free African Americans who wished to stay in the state had to apply to the state legislature for special exemption. These petitions were often ignored in favor of other more "pressing business." It was the uncertainty of being convicted of remaining in the state, and thus being sold away as punishment, that forced some free people of color to take the drastic measure of re-enslavement. Eventually, in 1856, the state passed a law where free Blacks could apply to be re-enslaved to an owner of their choosing. This allowed them to remain in close contact with family and friends and under the ownership of someone they felt they could trust. As the author states, "For a number of free men and women in Virginia, it was the existence of enslaved family members--a spouse or child-- that made exiting the state without them unthinkable and self-enslavement, as a last resort, palatable. Petitions for self-enslavement stand as poignant reminders that free black individuals felt they belonged in their communities and believed that if they were able to explain their circumstances to authorities, their voices just might be heard."
The author shares the stories of several families through an examination of a number of county court cases. All are fascinating. He also shows how White society often tried to use re-enslavement cases to provide evidence for their belief that the just, normal, and natural condition of Blacks is enslavement; of course, not going into detail on the real reasons why they were seeking re-enslavement.
I appreciated that this book brings yet another level of complexity to race in American history. I highly recommend it!

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