Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Free Blacks in Prince William County Virginia in 1860

 The Robinson Farm

Although only about one tenth the size of the slave population, Virginia had the largest free black population in the Union (some 30,000 plus).  Freedom was the greatest gift a master could bestow upon a slave, but the situation of the free black was only a little better than that of the slave.

Free blacks could not vote in Virginia, they were required to register every three years, and to pay for certificates of freedom.  It was unlawful for free blacks to organize their own schools.  Free blacks were feared and mistrusted.  They were accused of being unwilling to work, of spreading discontent among the slaves, and of causing a disproportionate amount of crime.  Several Virginia governors advocated that all free blacks be forcibly expelled from the state.  The Assembly did not enact this legislation but did pass laws providing for voluntary re-enslavement.

Despite stifling restrictions, many free blacks managed to improve their lot.  A freed slave named Jim Robinson, the illegitimate son of Landon Carter of Pittsylvania, operated a drover’s tavern along the Alexandria and Warrenton Turnpike, near Manassas Junction.  Eventually he was able to purchase his wife and three of his five children as well as buy several hundred acres of land.  He was unable to purchase his sons Alfred and James, both of whom were talented stonemasons, who had been sold south and eventually ended up in New Orleans.  James’ fate is unknown, but Alfred returned to Northern Virginia in 1888.

The Robinson family continued to work their farm after the Civil War.  The farm was sold to the Department of the Interior in 1934 to become part of the Manassas National Battlefield.  Prior to selling their farm, the Robinson family acted as informal stewards of their part of the battlefield, taking Confederate remains to a small cemetery to join an estimated 500 unknown soldiers. The family philosophy was summed up in the phrase, “Just remember, these remains belonged to someone’s son who did not want to die in this manner.”

White Virginians wanted to believe that their slaves were basically happy, to the point that they would prefer to serve their masters rather than to choose their own freedom.  

Slave flight, “running away,” the most common form of slave resistance, called into question the notion of benevolent paternalism and struck particularly hard at the idea that slaves were basically happy.

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