December 8, 1995
Caught in the Middle: The Struggle for Identity of the Free Blacks of Antebellum Richmond
On a visit to Richmond in 1853, Englishwoman Marianne Finch stopped in the First African Baptist Church, an all-black congregation, for Sunday services. Given the size of the church and its reputation, Finch was surprised that only 30 people were in attendance at the beginning of the service. Slowly, though, as the white minister progressed through the service, more and more of the congregation filed in. By the service's conclusion, there were over 500 people in the church. Finch later learned that the tardiness of the congregation was neither coincidence nor disrespectful. Instead, it was a symbol of freedom. Most of the free blacks who arrived to church late were free. Unlike there enslaved brethren, they owed allegiance to no master and took orders from no overseer. Instead, they provided for themselves and their families in the same way as Richmond's white citizens. By no means, though, did society grant the free blacks of Antebellum Richmond equality with the whites. Rather, they were caught in the middle of society's standards. On one hand, they were free, but on the other, they were often considered to be inferior by many Virginia laws and social customs. White mandates, which usually served as reactions to major events in Virginia's history, often shaped the role free blacks were allowed to take in society. Whenever they could, blacks reacted to the white mandates and exerted as much liberty as they could. Therefore, on that particular Sunday in the First African Baptist Church, Finch witnessed the free blacks' reaction to a white mandate, a struggle that was prevalent in shaping the identity of the free blacks of Antebellum Richmond.
The creation of the free black community occurred as a result of white reaction to a major event. The American Revolution brought a sentiment of liberty to Virginia. Moreover, Virginians sought to distance themselves from their times as British colonists, times which included slavery. Consequently, many Virginia slave owners granted their slaves freedom. Thus, the free blacks society of Virginia was created. Soon afterward, though, laws were passed in Virginia to limit the growth of this community. In 1793, a law was passed stating that prohibited free Negro immigration into Virginia. Then, in 1806, six years after Gabriel's slave rebellion, a law was passed that required freed slaves to leave the Commonwealth within 12 months or forfeit their freedom. It is no coincidence that such a strict law was enacted only six years after Gabriel's slave rebellion. Several decades later, the white society reacted similarly to Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion of 1830.
In times when white reaction to major events such as Gabriel's rebellion did not play a role in policy making, Virginia laws reflected the ambiguity that plagued Richmond free blacks for the entire antebellum period. Certain laws suggested equality for free blacks, while other laws linked them
to the enslaved members of their race. The laws against rape, written in the Code of Virginia, 1849, provide an example of laws that suggested equality with whites. Chapter 19, Section 15 of the Code says that if a white person commits rape, "he shall be confined in the penitentiary not less than ten years nor more than 20 years." Chapter 200, Section 1, which outlines the punishment for such an offense for a free black states that, "he shall be punished at the direction of the jury, either with death or by confinement in the penitentiary not less than 5 nor more than 20 years." Aside from the capital punishment clause in the latter, the two are worded almost identically, suggesting very little inferiority for free blacks.
However, in that same Code of Virginia, though, laws are present that unmistakably linked free blacks to the slave segment of their race. Chapter 200 Section 8 outlines a series of offense that are punishable by whipping, a common punishment for slaves. Other offenses suggested a distinctly inferior position for free blacks. Such offenses include the use of, "provoking language or menacing gestures to a white person," if he, "is guilty of being in a riot, rout, unlawful assembly, or making seditious statements," and, if he, "attempts to sell or prepare medicine."
White reaction to Nat Turner's slave rebellion of 1830 influenced policy that shaped the free blacks' position in Richmond for the remainder of the Antebellum period. Like Gabriel's Rebellion, Nat Turner's Rebellion brought a rash of reactionary policy from the white Virginia lawmakers. Concurrent with the rebellion was the rise of abolitionist movement. This liberal movement originated in the Northeast but spread throughout the country through literature. Both the rebellion and the abolitionist movement caused the passage of reactionary laws which restricted the freedom of free blacks.
In 1831-1832, the Virginia State Legislature enacted a series of these laws that directly affected the free black citizens of Richmond. A law was passed which prohibited the teaching of Negroes to read or write. This law was a direct response to the influx of abolitionist literature circulating the South. Another law banned Negro preaching. Finally, to curb the potential of any future Negro uprisings, a law was passed in 1832 which prohibited Negroes from possessing firearms .
The ban on education of Negroes hampered the attempts of affluent free Negroes to provide their children with an education. It became obvious to these citizens that the ban would remain in effect after a motion was denied by the State House of Delegates in 1836 for the establishment of a free black school in Fredricksburg. Consequently, many of these affluent blacks sent their children to private boarding schools in the North. To combat this trend, the Commonwealth passed a law in 1838 that stated that any free Negro who leaves the state to receive an education is considered to have emigrated and cannot re-enter the state, as stated by the 1793 law which was still in effect.
The law which prohibited Negro preaching served to further link them to their enslaved brethren. Before the law, free blacks, as well as slaves, often prayed with whites in Protestant churches. In the Baptist churches, many free blacks had become licensed preachers, thus giving those free blacks prominence in the community. These free black became leaders of their community and instructors of morality to their followers. However, with the 1831 law, this changed. When black churches wanted to segregate, they were permitted to, but only if the congregation was to be led by a white minister. Thus, the First African Baptist Church was established in 1841. Yet, it remained under the authority of the First Baptist Church, a white congregation. Blacks could still be elected to positions of non-preaching deacons. However, the white Baptists had greater control over black deacons than they did over white deacons. .
Blacks, however, reacted to the white mandate in a positive way. In the face of segregation and paternalism, the black community created a successful organization in the form of The First African Baptist Church. It provided a strong community for free and slave blacks alike. Moreover, as one of the South's earliest and largest black churches, it provided inspiration for the establishment of such churches elsewhere in the South Furthermore, the First African Baptist Church spawned more black churches in Richmond. It led to the founding of two more African Baptist Churches, the Second and the Third. There were also two African Methodist Churches in Richmond before the advent of the Civil War .
The First African Baptist Church proved to be so successful that it received the respect of the white religious community. On her visit in 1853 to the church, Finch noted the attitude of equality expressed by the white preacher toward his Negro congregation. She said that he gave a "republican sermon," something that surprised her given the attitudes of whites toward blacks she had commonly witnessed on the rest of her visit to Richmond. Moreover, when she asked the Minster for his thoughts about his congregation, he responded, "Many of them are very respectable, reliable people- none more so in the city." As his final offering of respect to his congregation, the minister left the church after the sermon and the Negro congregation erupted into song and dance. That the black church created such a strong community that it got the respect of the very whites who segregated them is a major accomplishment. Consequently, the First African Baptist Church is the best example of black reaction to white decree. This counter-reaction allowed free blacks a small role in the formation of their social position.
White leaders also dictated the position of Richmond free blacks in the workplace. While occupations of free blacks varied from unskilled laborer to store owner, most worked in one of Richmond's many factories. Before large industrial factories were dominant in the Richmond workplace, the role of the free black in the workplace was ambiguous. In some respects, it lowered the status of the free black to a level at or below that of a slave. However, as Richmond industrialized, the value of free black labor increased and the free black laborer took a more defined role in the workplace. At it peak, Richmond industrialism provided free blacks with a valuable role in the industrial process.
The beginnings of industrialism in Richmond of the 1830's brought new jobs to the free black community. Most of these jobs were as unskilled laborers in Richmond's factories, particularly those that produced tobacco and iron. In these factories, free blacks worked side by side with slaves. Therefore, these jobs linked free blacks with slaves in the workplace. However, in terms of job stability, they were below their unfree brethren. When Richmond experienced periods of recession, as in 1857, it was the free blacks, not the slaves, who first lost their jobs. In these times, the slaves always had masters who provided them with work whereas the free blacks were often left to survive on their own. Subsequently, the free black crime rate rose as many unemployed free blacks turned to crime as a way to survive.
As industrialism reached its peak in the early 1850's, though, free blacks saw their value to the Richmond marketplace greatly increase. During this period, free black labor became more conducive to Richmond's highly industrialized economy. When factories employed slaves, they usually did so for large jobs over a long period of time. This type of labor became inefficient for the factory owners. Factories now required flexible labor that could adapt as the market and technological resources changed. Consequently, the value of slave labor decreased. Accordingly, the value of free black labor increased. Free blacks could be employed for short periods of time and were capable of doing small, individual, irregular jobs. Moreover, as factory owners began moving away from slave labor, the free blacks found no competition with unskilled white laborers who wanted nothing to do with work that was typically performed by a slave. Consequently, free blacks found work easily in the period of the early 1850's, at the height of Richmond's antebellum industrial age.
This new value of free Negro labor led to an overall rise of the value of the free Negro in antebellum Richmond. On many occasions, a white citizen or group of white citizens petitioned the state government to allow a particular free Negro, who had recently been freed from bondage, to be allowed to remain in Virginia after the 12 month limit, as stated by the 1806 law, had expired. In many cases, the petitions succeeded and the free Negro became a permanent citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia . These petitions, though, did not alleviate any stereotypes of inferiority affixed to free black citizens Indeed, when the recession of 1857 struck Richmond, the same white industrialists who petitioned to keep the free blacks in Virginia, fired them ahead of their slave employees.
Free blacks of Antebellum Richmond did find work in fields other than unskilled labor in the iron and tobacco factories. Many took up skilled jobs, and regularly competed with whites. The most common skilled occupations for free black citizens were as a blacksmith, shoemaker, carpenter, or barber. Free Negroes also took advantage of the need for transportation as industrialism grew. Working on both land and on water, free Negroes were often found transporting goods and materials to and from Richmond.
When Marianne Finch attended Sunday services in the First African Baptist Church in 1853, she witnessed a small representation of the whole struggle for identity of free blacks in Antebellum Richmond. The church was led by a white minister and under control of the white church. These characteristics reflected a white mandate that blacks must follow their rules in order to have their own place to worship. However, the blacks
made the most of the situation by establishing a strong community and exhibiting many forms of culture within the church. Their tardiness to services, as a symbol of independence, is the most telling free black reaction to white mandate. While the whites paternally linked the free blacks to their enslaved brethren by forcing them to have a white minister, the free blacks stressed their freedom. Such an attitude was exhibited by the free blacks in areas where it was possible. With little access to the Virginia legal system, it was nearly impossible for free blacks to react to any of the laws passed in reaction to the slave rebellions. Therefore, free blacks remained at the mercy of the white law makers when it came to laws concerning them. In the workplace, free blacks had more of a window of opportunity to react to white mandate. Although most of them worked as menial laborers in the factories, many free blacks reacted to the rise of industrialism by taking advantages of new business opportunities such as shops and transportation services. In the church, though, free blacks experienced the greatest ability to react to the white mandate. Because of the community they established in the church, they were able to make some decisions that reflected their independence, such as arriving late to church. Although this gesture was primarily symbolic, it reflected the reaction of free blacks to the white mandates that controlled their lives. Such a reaction was the only way for blacks to play a significant role in their definitions as citizens.
Brown, W.H., The Education and Economic Development of the Negro in Virginia, Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1921.
Finch, Marianne, An Englishwoman's Experience in America, London: R. Bentley, 1853.
Jackson, Luther Porter, Free Negro Labor in Virginia, New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1942.
O'Brien, John T., "Factory, Church, and Community: Blacks in Antebellum Richmond," Journal of Southern History, November, 1978, Volume 4, 509-536.
Raboteau, Albert J., Slave Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Code of Virginia, 1849