Second Time a Slave: Family, Community, and Networks of Freedom in Virginia, 1806–64

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 9:10 AM
Huron Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Ted Maris-Wolf, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
In October 1831, only weeks after Nat Turner led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, the Superior Court in Accomack charged forty-two free black women and men with violating a rarely enforced state law that had been passed in the wake of another planned insurrection, a quarter-century earlier.  Virginia’s expulsion law of 1806 required individuals who were subsequently freed from bondage to leave the state within one year of their twenty-first birthday.  Daniel Hickman, a forty-three-year-old man who had recently been freed by a provision in his deceased master’s will, found himself one of perhaps several hundred Virginians prosecuted under the expulsion law, from its passage to the end of the Civil War.

This paper examines various family and community networks through which free Afro-Virginians navigated through the Civil War.  Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Afro-Virginians forged their freedom locally, through personal relationships with those in their neighborhoods and communities.  By the 1850s, free men and women had devised various strategies to overcome—or at least stymie—the occasional efforts of white citizens to enforce the expulsion law, which had been reinforced by a revised state constitution in 1851. 

In 1854, two free black brothers helped to craft a countermeasure to Virginia’s expulsion law—a measure that would allow dozens of Afro-Virginians to petition their courts for the right to remain in their home communities as legal slaves.  By enslaving themselves to masters of their choice, some free blacks succeeded in slowing or overcoming prosecution under the expulsion law.  Moreover, a few individuals legally bound themselves to white masters whom they knew well or whom they considered friendly.  For a few individuals, petitioning for self-enslavement became a way to claim greater freedoms within a society legally empowered to expel or forcibly return them to bondage through sale.

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