How many Americans know that the first slave owner in America was a black tobacco farmer? How many Americans are aware that thousands of free blacks in the South were, themselves, slave owners?
Answer: Very few.
Embedded in the minds of Americans is a grand distortion of black history.
Our perception depends largely on activists in Hollywood and revisionists in academia. Add those who parrot Hollywood and academia and you have a broad swath of ignorance prevailing in America.
DailyKenn.com is here to set the record straight; at least in part.
Did you know the following about black history in America?
â€¢ The first slave owner in American history was black.
Anthony Johnson came to the American colonies in August, 1619 as an indentured servant. In 1623 Johnson had completed his indenture and was recognized as a free negro. In 1651 he acquired 250 acres of land in Virginia, later adding another 250 acres; a sizable holding at the time.
John Casor, a black indentured servant employed by Johnson, became America’s first slave after a legal dispute with Robert Parker. Parker was a white colonist who employed Casor while Casor was still indentured to Johnson. Johnson sued Parker in Northampton Court in 1654. The court upheld Johnson’s right to hold Casor as a slave on March 8, 1655. The court found:
The court seriously consideringe and maturely weighing the premisses, doe fynde that the saide Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly keepeth the said Negro from Anthony Johnson his master … It is therefore the Judgement of the Court and ordered That the said John Casor Negro forthwith returne unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson, And that Mr. Robert Parker make payment of all charges in the suit.
Five years later, in 1670, the colonial assembly passed legislation permitting blacks and Indians the right to own slaves of their own race, but prohibiting them from owning White slaves. [source]
â€¢ Free blacks commonly owned black slaves in the antebellum South.
There were thousands of black slave owners in the South.
“In 1830 there were 3,775 such slaveholders in the South who owned 12,740 black slaves, with 80% of them located in Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. There were economic differences between free blacks of the Upper South and Deep South, with the latter fewer in number, but wealthier and typically of mixed race. Half of the black slaveholders lived in cities rather than the countryside, with most in New Orleans and Charleston.”
Historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger wrote:
“A large majority of profit-oriented free black slaveholders resided in the Lower South. For the most part, they were persons of mixed racial origin, often women who cohabited or were mistresses of white men, or mulatto men … . Provided land and slaves by whites, they owned farms and plantations, worked their hands in the rice, cotton, and sugar fields, and like their white contemporaries were troubled with runaways.”
Historian Ira Berlin wrote:
“In slave societies, nearly everyone â€“ free and slave â€“ aspired to enter the slaveholding class, and upon occasion some former slaves rose into slaveholdersâ€™ ranks. Their acceptance was grudging, as they carried the stigma of bondage in their lineage and, in the case of American slavery, color in their skin.”
To write extensively about blacks who owned slaves in the antebellum South would require a library of full volumes. Black slaveowners: free Black slave masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 By Larry Koger is one such volume.
Koger tells of Richard Holloway, Sr., a black carpenter who purchased his African cousins as slave labor. Cato was the name of one of his slaves. Cato remained in Holloway’s possession throughout the 1830s and ’40s, according to Koger, until he was sold to his son, Richard Holloway, Jr., in 1845. Cato died in 1851 and the younger Holloway replaced him with the purchase of a 16-year-old black male.
Koger says there were ten black slave owners in Charleston City, SC in 1830.
In 1860 the largest slave owner in South Carolina was William Ellison, a black plantation owner.
Again, to account for all black-owned slave in the South would require a volume of books.
â€¢ Blacks owning black slaves was even common in the pre-war North.
Nor was black-on-black slavery unique to Southern states.
Koger informs us that in 1830 New York City recorded eight black slave holders who owned a total of 17 black slaves. The total number of slaves owned by blacks in 1830 was more than 10,000 according to the federal census of 1830; and that includes only four states: Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia. In addition there were “black master in every state where slavery existed,” Koger says.
There is no record, to my knowledge, of a slave ship disembarking in a Southern port. All blacks slaves from Africa were delivered to ports in the North and transported to the South.
â€¢ Without black African slave owners there would have been no slavery in America.
Henry Louis Gates of the White House ‘Beer Summit’ fame enraged his base in 2010 by strongly opposing repartions to blacks. According to Gates the slave trade was almost wholly the result of black slave owners selling their human wares to Europeans.
“While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of todayâ€™s Congo, among several others.”
“The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.” [Emphasis added]
The notion of White European raiding parties descending on unsuspecting African villages is a gross distortion of reality. Not only does the historical record argue against White raiding parties, but such parties would have been costly and inefficient compared to purchasing Africans already held in slavery. White slave traders would not endure the risk related to such incursions. Furthermore, Africans already held as slaves would be less willing to resist, particularly among those whose African owners were brutal enemies.
[Source: Ending the Slavery Blame-Game, Henry Louis Gates, The New York Times April 22, 2010]
â€¢ Beating black slaves in the South was extremely uncommon.
In 1838 Harriet Martineau visited New Orleans where she heard tales of a particularly abusive slave owner. At issue was slave owner Delphine LaLaurie who resided in a mansion at 1140 Royal Street. “Martineau reported that public rumors about LaLaurie’s mistreatment of her slaves were sufficiently widespread that a local lawyer was dispatched to Royal Street to remind LaLaurie of the laws relevant to the upkeep of slaves.” The attorney found no evidence of wrong doing.
Nonetheless, LaLaurie was forced to forfeit nine slaves after a subsequent investigation found her guilty of slave abuse.
It was later rumored that one of LaLaurie slaves intentionally set fire to the mansion to draw attention to ongoing abuse. Bystanders forced entry to squelch the fire and discovered “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.”
Tale of the abuse quickly spread throughout New Orleans. An angry mob of White residents descended on the mansion and “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands.”
LaLaurie fled the mob violence, escaping to Mobile, Alabama and then to Paris.
What we learn from the historical LaLaurie episode is that:
- Laws protecting slaves from abuse were enforced.
- White residents did not tolerate owners who abused their slaves.
â€¢ Mutiny by black soldiers occurred in the U.S. military.
The two most notorious black mutinies were in Houston (1917) and Townsville, Australia (1942).
The latter mutiny was marred by black soldiers turning machine guns on their commanding officers. Australian troops were summoned to quash the rebellion. When serving in the U.S. Congress, Lyndon Johnson was sent to Townsville to investigate the uprising. The Townsville mutiny remained censored from American history until early 2012 when papers of the late president were reviewed.
â€¢ About one-third of lynching victims were white.
There were 4,743 victims of lynching between 1882 and 1968. Of those 1,297 were white and 3,446 were black.
Lynchings occurred in 44 states. There were more whites than blacks lynched in 25 of those 44 states.
The Department of Justice informs us that each year there are an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 black-on-black homicides. Using 8,500 as a mean, there are as many black-on-black homicides every five months as there were blacks killed during the 86-year lynching era.
Did Black People Own Slaves?
100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Yes
Editor’s note:Â For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historianÂ Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 bookÂ 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
(The Root)Â — 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 21:Â Did black people own slaves? If so, why?
One of the most vexing questions in African-American history is whether free African Americans themselves owned slaves. The short answer to this question, as you might suspect, is yes, of course; some free black people in this country bought and sold other black people, and did so at least since 1654, continuing to do so right through the Civil War. For me, the really fascinating questions about black slave-owning are how many black “masters” were involved, how many slaves did they own and why did they own slaves?
The answers to these questions are complex, and historians have been arguing for some time over whether free blacks purchased family members as slaves in order to protect them — motivated, on the one hand, by benevolence and philanthropy, as historian Carter G. Woodson put it, or whether, on the other hand, they purchased other black people “as an act of exploitation,” primarily to exploit their free labor for profit, just as white slave owners did. The evidence shows that, unfortunately, both things are true. The great African-American historian, John Hope Franklin, states this clearly: “The majority of Negro owners of slaves had some personal interest in their property.” But, he admits, “There were instances, however, in which free Negroes had a real economic interest in the institution of slavery and held slaves in order to improve their economic status.”
In a fascinating essay reviewing this controversy, R. Halliburton shows that free black people have owned slaves “in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery,” at least since Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary went to court in Virginia in 1654 to obtain the services of their indentured servant, a black man, John Castor, for life.
And for a time, free black people could even “own” the services of white indentured servants in Virginia as well. Free blacks owned slaves in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783; by 1790, 48 black people in Maryland owned 143 slaves. One particularly notorious black Maryland farmer named Nat Butler “regularly purchased and sold Negroes for the Southern trade,” Halliburton wrote.
Perhaps the most insidious or desperate attempt to defend the right of black people to own slaves was the statement made on the eve of the Civil War by a group of free people of color in New Orleans, offering their services to theÂ Confederacy, in part because they were fearful for their own enslavement: “The free colored population [native] of Louisiana â€¦ own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land â€¦ and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana â€¦ They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815.”
These guys were, to put it bluntly, opportunists par excellence: As Noah Andre Trudeau and James G. Hollandsworth Jr. explain, once the war broke out, some of these same black men formed 14 companies of a militia composed of 440 men and were organized by the governor in May 1861 into “the Native Guards, Louisiana,” swearing to fight to defend the Confederacy. Although given no combat role, the Guards — reaching a peak of 1,000 volunteers — became the first Civil War unit to appoint black officers.
Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African American senator in 1870. Â Born in North Carolina in 1827, Revels attended Knox College in Illinois and later served as minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Â He raised two black regiments during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi. Â The Mississippi state legislature sent him to the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction where he became an outspoken opponent of racial segregation. Â Although Revels served in the Senate for just a year, he broke new ground for African Americans in Congress. Â (Photo: Library of Congress)
Blanche K. Bruce
Born into slavery in 1841, Blanche K. Bruce spent his childhood years in Virginia where he received his earliest education from the tutor hired to teach his master’s son. Â At the dawn of the Civil War, Bruce escaped slavery and traveled north to Â begin a distinguished career in education and politics. Elected to the Senate in 1874 by the Mississippi state legislature, he served from 1875 to 1881. In 2002, the Senate commissioned a new portrait of Bruce, now on display in the U.S. Capitol. Â (Photo: Library of Congress)
British North America referred to the colonies and territories of the British Empire in continental North America. The term was first used informally in 1783, but it was uncommon before the Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839), called the Durham Report.
In 1775 the British Empire included 20 territories north of New Spain. These were Newfoundland, Rupert’s Land, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Thirteen Colonies (which later united to become the United States after independence from the United Kingdom), East and West Florida, and the Province of Quebec.
Nova Scotia was split into modern-day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1784. The part of Quebec retained after 1783 was split into the primarily French-speaking Lower Canada and the primarily English-speaking Upper Canada in 1791.
After the War of 1812, the Treaty of 1818 established the 49th parallel as the United Statesâ€“British North America border from Rupert’s Land west to the Rocky Mountains. Britain gave up Oregon south of the 49th parallel, which was part of the Hudson’s Bay Company‘s Columbia District, under the Oregon Treaty of 1846.
On July 1, 1867, an Act of the British Parliament called the British North America Act formed the Dominion of Canada from the Province of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The former Province of Canada was split back into its pre-1841 parts, with Canada East (Lower Canada) renamed Quebec, and Canada West (Upper Canada) renamed Ontario. These were the original four provinces of Canada.
In 1869, Rupert’s Land was annexed to Canada as the Northwest Territories (NWT), and in 1870 a part of the NWT, Manitoba, became a province of Canada. The west-coast British colony north of the 49th parallel, British Columbia, joined Confederation in 1871, and Prince Edward Island joined in 1873. The boundary of British Columbia with Washington Territory was settled by arbitration in 1872, and with Alaska by arbitration in 1903. In 1905, large parts of the Northwest Territories became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In 1907 the sole remaining British North American colony, Newfoundland, was granted Dominion status, although starting in 1934 it was administered by the non-representational Commission of Government, a body chaired by British officials. In 1949 the island of Newfoundland, and its associated mainland territory of Labrador, joined Canada as the tenth province.
Although internally autonomous from 1867, and a separate kingdom with the Statute of Westminster 1931, the last vestiges of Canada’s constitutional dependency upon the United Kingdom remained until Canadians agreed on an internal procedure for amending the Canadian Constitution. This agreement was implemented when the British Parliament passed the Constitution Act of 1982 at the request of Parliament of Canada and the Legislatures of the provinces except Quebec (which objected to the terms to which the others agreed).
Early Settlements of the Virginia Company
Virginia (named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen) at first included in its lands the whole vast area of North America not held by the Spanish or French. The colony on Roanoke Island, organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, failed, but the English soon made another attempt slightly farther north. In 1606 James I granted a charter to the London Company (better known later as the Virginia Company), a group of merchants lured by the thought of easy profits in mining and trade. The company sent three ships and 144 men under captains Christopher Newport, Bartholomew Gosnold, and John Ratcliffe to establish a base, and the tiny force entered Chesapeake Bay in Apr., 1607. On a peninsula in the James River they founded (May 13, 1607) the first permanent English settlement in America, which they called Jamestown. It soon became clear that the company’s original plans were unrealistic, and the Jamestown settlers began a long and unexpected struggle to live off the land.
By 1608, despite the firm and resourceful leadership of John Smith, hunger and disease had reduced their numbers to 38. The company responded by sending supplies and men as well as new leadership in the person of Sir Thomas Gates, who was to take charge as deputy governor under the authority of a new charter (1609). Gates arrived in 1610 to find that only a handful of settlers had survived the terrible winter (the “starving time”) of 1609â€“10. He decided to take them back to England, but as they were about to abandon the colony in June, 1610, his superior, Governor Thomas West, Baron De la Warr, ordered them to reoccupy Jamestown. Although sickness and starvation continued to take a heavy toll, the settlement at last began to make headway under the harsh regimes of Sir Thomas Dale, De la Warr’s successor in 1611, and later under that of Sir Samuel Argall.
Tobacco, first cultivated by John Rolfe in 1612, gave the company new hope of a profitable return on its investment. To encourage settlement and improve agricultural productivity it granted colonists (still technically employees and shareholders) the right to own private gardens, then, at the urging of Sir Edwin Sandys, promised to give 100 acres (40 hectares) of its land to purchasers of stock and 50 acres (20 hectares) to settlers who brought over other settlers at his own expense (the “head-right” system). The company also set up smaller joint-stock companies to settle vast tracts known as “colonies” or “hundreds.” In 1619, at the instruction of the company, Governor George Yeardley provided additional incentives to settlers by forming a house of burgessesâ€”the first representative assembly in the New Worldâ€”and in 1620 by beginning to send women to the colony.
Although these various expedients did succeed in attracting new settlers and strengthening the colony, the company itself failed to prosper. Rolfe’s marriage (1614) to Pocahontas, daughter of chief Powhatan, secured good relations with the Native Americans for a time, but in 1622 Powhatan’s son Opechancanough led the Powhatan Confederacy in a surprise attack on the colony, killing 350 settlers (about one third of the total community). English retaliation effectively ended Native American resistance, except for a final uprising of the Confederacy in 1644. However, the 1622 attack had delivered a fatal blow to the company, and in 1624, beset by internal dissension, it surrendered its charter to the crown.
A Royal Colony
After almost two decades as a private enterprise, Virginia became a royal colony, the first in English history. Partly because the English kings were occupied with affairs at home, the Virginia house of burgesses was able to continue its functions and won formal recognition in the late 1630s. Thus representative government under royal domain was assured. By 1641, when Sir William Berkeley became governor, the colony was well established and extended on both sides of the James up to its falls.
Three fourths of the European settlers (about 7,500 in 1641) had come as indentured servants or apprentices, but many of them became freemen and small farmers. In 1641 there were also about 250 Africans (the first had arrived in 1619 on a Dutch ship), most of whom were indentured servants rather than slaves. The freeholders, together with the merchant class (from which were descended most of the “first families of Virginia”), controlled the government. Only white males were enfranchised, and property-owning qualifications for voting continued during and after the colonial period.
Most of the white settlers were Anglicans, and during the civil war in England, many well-to-do Englishmen (mainly Anglicans and supporters of Charles I, if not actually Cavaliers) came to Virginia. The colony was understandably loyal to the crown until 1652, when an expedition sent by Oliver Cromwell forced it to adhere to the Puritan Commonwealth. With the Commonwealth busy at home, Virginia was practically independent until 1660, engaging in free trade with foreigners, especially the Dutch, and enjoying the profits of the expanding tobacco and fur trade. This prosperous era came to an end with the Restoration in 1660.
The Navigation Acts forced the tobacco trade to use only English ships and English ports, which were at first insufficient to handle it; tobacco piled up in Virginia and in England, and prices plummeted. The wealthy planters weathered this depression, but the small farmers faced ruin. Serious discontent spread and was aggravated by Governor Berkeley’s high-handed policies, by his favoritism toward the wealthy tidewater planters, and by his refusal to sanction a campaign against the Native Americans who had been attacking frontier settlements. These grievances brought the eruption of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The unfortunate death of Nathaniel Bacon left the yeomen leaderless, and they were put down so ruthlessly that Berkeley was recalled to England.
Tidewater Plantations and Westward Migration
Expansion of the plantation system was made possible only with the use of slave labor (first recognized in law in 1662), and tens of thousands of Africans were being imported every year by the end of the century. Small, independent cultivators, unable to compete with the plantation-slave system, formed the nucleus of a poor white class that drifted southward or pioneered to the west. Also contributing to westward settlement were the French Huguenots, who came to Virginia by the end of the 17th cent. and began to settle the Piedmont.
Westward movement was stimulated under Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who himself discovered (1716) the Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mts., leading into the Shenandoah valley. Spotswood also imported (1714â€“17) Germans to work his iron furnaces in the Piedmont area, and numerous others followed their countrymen. They helped settle the Shenandoah valley (beginning c.1730) as did many newcomers from Pennsylvaniaâ€”German Lutherans, English Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and a lesser number of Welsh Baptists.
Soil exhaustion from continuous tobacco cultivation hastened the westward march, as did the settlement activities of land speculators like Spotswood and William Byrd (d. 1744). Many of these speculators were indebted eastern planters attempting to salvage their fortunes. The Ohio Company grant (1749) furthered exploration beyond the Allegheny Mts. but brought conflict with the French.
The activities and interests of the new frontier settlements contrasted sharply with the plantation life of the tidewater region, where the lavish material life of the planter aristocracy was complemented by high cultural accomplishments and by the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The last of the French and Indian Wars, in which Virginiansâ€”notably Col. George Washingtonâ€”were prominent, ended the French obstacle to westward migration. After the war many indebted planters were disturbed by England’s own limitations on westward settlement.
The American Revolution
Along with Massachusetts, Virginia was a leader in the movement that culminated in the American Revolution although, despite the burning oratory of Patrick Henry and the enlightened political writings of Thomas Jefferson and other brilliant native spokesmen, Virginia was never as politically discontent or radical as Massachusetts. In 1773 the burgesses at Williamsburg (the capital since 1699), led by Richard Henry Lee, formed an intercolonial committee of correspondence. The Virginia leaders proposed (May, 1774) a congress of all the colonies, delegates were chosen at the First Virginia Convention (Aug.), and in September Virginia’s Peyton Randolph was elected president of the First Continental Congress. The next year, in June, George Washington was made commander in chief of the Continental Army.
After the patriots forced the royal governor, John Murray, earl of Dunmore, to flee, the Fifth Virginia Convention (May 6â€“June 29, 1776) declared the colony’s independence, instructed the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress to propose general colonial independence (resulting in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson), and adopted a declaration of rights and the first constitution of a free American state, both drawn up by George Mason. Patrick Henry was elected the first governor.
Although the British had burned Norfolk in Jan., 1776, they did not invade the state in full force until 1779, when they took Portsmouth and Suffolk. Continentals under Lafayette came to Virginia in 1780, and the British cause was lost as American land forces and a French fleet combined to bring about Cornwallis’s surrender (Oct. 19, 1781) in the Yorktown campaign. Meanwhile, George Rogers Clark and his Virginians had wrested (1779) the Northwest Territory from the British, and in 1784 Virginia yielded its claim to this area to the federal government.
Virginia’s Role in the New Nation
During the Revolution a degree of religious freedom had been instituted in Virginia under the lead of Jefferson. Other reforms had removed entail and primogeniture from land tenure, liberalized the legal code, and abolished further importation of slaves. A liberal law for formal emancipation of slaves was passed in 1782 and remained in force for more than 20 years. In 1786 a statute for religious freedom, championed by James Madison, completed the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and established complete religious equality for all Virginians.
In replacing the unsatisfactory Articles of Confederation with the Constitution of the United States, Virginians, especially James Madison, again played leading roles. Other leaders such as Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, and Edmund Randolph at various times opposed the document, but the state ratified it (June 26, 1788) with both tidewater and western support. Later, another Virginian, Chief Justice John Marshall, later gave the document much of its strength. The Old Dominion ceded (1789) a portion of its Potomac lands to the United States for the creation of the District of Columbia. In 1792, Kentucky, a Virginia county since 1776, was admitted to the Union as a separate state. After Madison and Jefferson raised an opposition to the financial program of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Virginia supported the emerging Democratic-Republican party’s struggle against the Federalists and became a hotbed of states’ rights sentiment (see Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions).
Of the first 12 Presidents of the United States, seven were Virginiansâ€”Washington, Jefferson, Madison, James Monroe (these four comprising the “Virginia Dynasty”), William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Zachary Taylor. Later, in the 20th cent., the name of Woodrow Wilson was to further lengthen the generally distinguished list of Virginian presidents.
The native sons who led the country during the 1800s sometimes expanded national power and national development to an extent that many states’ rights Virginians deemed unconstitutional. However, Virginia itself, stimulated by western complaints, embarked on a vigorous policy of internal improvements in the second and third decades of the 19th cent. The tidewater majority made few concessions to western demands for male suffrage and other reforms in the constitution of 1830. Economically, however, the whole state benefited from transportation improvements, from the growth of scientific agriculture and the spread of wheat cultivation, and from the growth of such industries as tobacco processing and iron manufacture.
Slavery, Insurrection, and Civil War
As the cotton economy grew in the newer Southern states the tidewater became a breeding ground for the slaves they needed. Elsewhere in the state, especially in the west, antislavery sentiment was strong in the early 19th cent., and following the slave insurrection (1831) led by Nat Turner the house of delegates voted down a bill to abolish slavery by the narrow margin of seven votes. The insurrection did result in harsher laws and more conservative policies regarding African Americans. The constitution of 1851, granted suffrage to “every white male citizen,” and thus effected reapportionment of representation.
For the most part Virginians labored to avert conflict between North and South. But “fire-eaters” such as Edmund Ruffin and abolitionists such as John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame, shaped the course that led to the Civil War. Secession came (Apr. 17, 1861) only after all attempts to keep peace had failed. Virginia joined the Confederacy, and Richmond became the Confederate capital. Robert E. Lee entered the military service of the South’s new government, but not a few Virginians such as Winfield Scott, George H. Thomas, and David G. Farragut remained loyal to the Union. Most Virginians who lived west of the Appalachians also opposed secession, and on June 20, 1863, this section was admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia. As the conflict progressed, Virginia emerged as the chief battleground of the Civil War.
In the beginning the Union armies repeatedly suffered setbacksâ€”at the first battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), in the Seven Days battles of the Peninsular campaign (April-July, 1862) after the Monitor and Merrimack had clashed in Hampton Roads, and in lesser but related campaigns such as the triumph of Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson in the Shenandoah valley. The second battle of Bull Run (Aug., 1862) was a smashing victory for Lee, but in the Antietam campaign (Sept., 1862) he fared no better than Union Gen. George B. McClellan in invading enemy country. However, in the battles of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 2â€“4, 1863), the Federals under Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and then under Gen. Joseph Hooker were again repulsed.
Thus encouraged, Lee and his lieutenantsâ€”James Longstreet, R. S. Ewell, A. P. Hill, and J. E. B. Stuartâ€”undertook another invasion of the North but failed against George G. Meade in the Gettysburg campaign (Juneâ€“July, 1863). That campaign marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, although it took considerable bloody pounding by Gen. U. S. Grant in the Wilderness campaign (Mayâ€“June, 1864) and the siege of Petersburg (1864â€“65) before Lee surrendered what remained of his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse (see under Appomattox) on Apr. 9, 1865. President Jefferson Davis had already fled Richmond, and the Confederacy soon collapsed.
Postwar Political Reform and a New Economy
The war left its marks on the land and the people. The Shenandoah Valley was particularly desolate after the campaigns of Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early and Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in 1864. But poverty-stricken as it was after the war, the state, under Gov. Francis H. Pierpont, escaped the worst aspects of Reconstruction. Radical Republicans were but briefly in power. On the recommendation (1869) of President Ulysses S. Grant, Congress allowed Virginia to vote without coercion, and the state passed the essential clauses of a constitution that the Radicals had drafted (1868), providing for free public schools and heavy taxes on land. More importantly, Virginia was allowed to elect to office its own moderate party, the “white Republicans,” led by Gen. William Mahone. Radical sway was ended. In 1870, after the Virginia assembly had ratified the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the state was readmitted to the Union.
The abolition of slavery and the hard agricultural times of postwar decades ended the plantation system in Virginia and brought some increase in farm tenancy, but the economy benefited from diversification as fruit farming and the tobacco industry became important. To offset declines in demand for dark Virginia tobacco, the bright-leaf variety was increasingly grown.
Politics and Industry in the Early Twentieth Century
In 1902 a new state constitution demanded rigorous literacy tests for voters, thus completing the long process of reducing the black electorate. During the years preceding World War I, Virginia’s prosperity grew as dairy farming in particular gained importance. During the war agriculture boomed, as did industry. Especially prosperous were the important shipbuilding works at Hampton Roads.
In the mid-1920s, Harry Flood Byrd assumed direction of the state’s powerful Democratic organization, formerly headed by U.S. Senator Thomas S. Martin and Methodist Episcopal Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Byrd, governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. Senator from 1933 until 1965, became the most influential figure in the state. As chief executive he initiated a sound reorganization of the state government, brought about the passage of the first antilynching law adopted by any state, and improved the highway system. However, the organization’s chief boast was that the state was entirely free of debt due to a rigid “pay-as-you-go” policy. Liberals criticized this financial policy for scrimping on public education and welfare.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s Virginia fared better than many states. Its industries had not been overexpanded, and, more important, the state’s economy was built around consumer goodsâ€”foods, textiles, and tobaccoâ€”that remained in relatively high demand. Farmers benefited from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, but conservative Virginians resisted some of the economic policies of the New Deal. In World War II Virginia was the scene of much military training, and the shipyards at Hampton Roads and other industries again aided the war effort. In the prosperous postwar period the conservative Byrd organization maintained its power.
Desegregation and Growth
After the 1954 Supreme Court decision on public school integration, attempts at desegregating Virginia’s schools proceeded slowly. After Virginia courts and federal courts ruled illegal the order by Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., to close public schools in nine counties, a lame compromise of “local option” was adopted. With the exception of Prince Edward County, where schools remained closed from 1959 until 1964, all parts of Virginia had accepted at least token integration by the mid-1960s. In 1989, L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, became the first African American elected governor in Virginia.
Virginia has benefited in recent decades from increased federal spending. In the 1980s the Hampton Roads area saw a naval shipbuilding boom. The greatest growth, however, has come in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where expanded federal offices and hundreds of quasi-official and private organizations engaged in lobbying, communications, and other businesses that owe their existence to proximity to the seat of the government have in turn spawned trade and service hubs like Dale City and Tysons Corner.