VIRGINIA was the Negro's first home in the British Colonies of North America. Anthony, one of the Negroes in the shipload that arrived in 1619, married Isabella, and the son born to them in 1624, of whom there is record, was the first native Negro of Virginia. The infant was taken from his home in Kecoughtan to Jamestown in 1625, and there christened William in honor of Captain William Tucker.
Another Anthony, who probably came in 1622, and his wife Mary were bound servants in 1625; but by 1651 Anthony Johnson had secured his freedom and accumulated enough funds to import five servants, on whose headrights he acquired 250 acres on the eastern shore. First free Negro and first Negro landowner of Virginia, Anthony Johnson perhaps has the added distinction of being the first person in the colony, white or black, to hold as a lifetime servant a Negro who had committed no crime. Johnson petitioned the court of Northampton County in 1653 for the return of one John Casor, a runaway Negro whom he claimed for life. Although Casor protested that he had already been held 'seven years longer than he should or ought,' he was returned to his master for life. As far as is known, this was the first judicial sanction in the English colonies of life servitude where crime was not involved.
A court decree of 1661 that runaway Negroes were 'incapable of making satisfaction to their masters by the addition of time' to their terms of service gave legal recognition to a system already in general application. As an increasing supply of Africans became available, Virginians learned to do without white indentured servants. In 1672 the Royal African Company, with the Duke of York at its head, gained exclusive rights to the African slave trade; and in 1698 the trade was thrown open to the public. Slavers traveled the 'middle passage' to Virginia, their holds packed with African captives.
For the great majority of Negroes in Colonial Virginia, the 'sun-up to sun-down' routine in the tobacco fields was a lifelong ordeal from which there was no escape. Far more fortunate than these field hands were the slaves who worked in and around the 'big house.' Here the Negro played an important role. Many owners provided special uniforms for their house-servants, and planters vied with one another in presenting before their guests the best appareled and most courtly butlers. In the kitchen the Negro cook was supreme, and the slave nurse or 'Mammy' helped to rear the children of the 'big house.'
Many mansions owed much of their beauty and durability to slave artisans, and Negroes were sometimes encouraged to develop their other talents or unusual gifts. An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette in 1760 offers for sale 'a young healthy Negro fellow who has been used to wait on a gentleman and plays extremely well on the French horn,' and another solicits the return of a runaway slave who 'can play the violin and took his fiddle with him.' Sy Gilliat, slave to Lord Botetourt in Williamsburg, was a fiddler at official State balls. Also skilled as a violinist was Robert Scott, free Negro of Charlottesville, who with his wife and three sons-all accomplished musicians-entertained La Fayette when the Marquis visited Monticello in 1825. Thomas Fuller, 'African calculator' of Alexandria, won fame for himself and bets for his master by his ability to answer 'all questions of time, distance and space.' Thomas Jefferson's servant, Henry Martin, became in later years bell ringer at the University of Virginia.
About 3oo Negroes were in the colony in 1650, about 6,000 in 1700, and about 30,000 in 1730. By 1776 there were 270,262 slaves and 297,352 free persons (several thousands of whom were Negroes). From the beginning many Virginians opposed the traffic in human beings; while others, like Patrick Henry, were 'drawn along by ye general Inconvenience' of living without slaves. Thomas Jefferson voiced the sentiments of both groups when he inserted into the first draft of the Declaration of Independence a severe indictment of the English king for having 'waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred right of life and liberty in the person of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.' This clause was struck out, wrote Jefferson afterwards, 'in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who . . . still wished to continue [the trade]. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures.'
Ignoring northern and southern interests , the Virginia legislature during the Revolution barred all slave importations into the State after 1778,This action antedated by 30 years a similar ban imposed by the National Government. In 1782, Jefferson prevailed upon the legislature to legalize the manumission of slaves. Although a wave of freedom grants swept the State, the provision that the master must continue to support the slaves he freed was a serious deterrent to emancipation. Virginia delegates to the National Constitutional Convention of 1787 fought valiantly for the immediate prohibition of the slave traffic and the gradual abolition of slavery. But the slave traders of New England and the cotton planters of the Deep South forced a compromise that continued the traffic until 1808 and failed to provide constitutional relief for the slaves.
Several mass uprisings, both before and after the Revolution, revealed the extent to which doctrines of the rights of man had penetrated 'slave row.' In September 18oo two frightened slaver, reported to a white storekeeper of Richmond that Gabriel Prosser, a free Negro of the city, was plotting to capture Richmond and kill all who resisted, 'except the French inhabitants.' When a slave named Scott 'astounded his master by accidently pulling 10 dollars from a ragged pocket,' the conviction grew that a conspiracy was afoot. Prosser was captured in a vessel about to sail for Norfolk and later was hanged without having implicated a single confederate.
Other slave deliverers were to come, foremost among whom was Nat Turner. The Negro son of a mother who attempted to kill her baby rather than have him grow up a slave, and of a father who 'never accepted' slavery, Turner with a small band of followers cut a wide swath of death across , Southampton Count y in August 1831. Two months later, Governor John Floyd recommended to the State legislature that all laws be revised to 'preserve in due subordination, the slave population.' While hundreds of petitioners urged that the 'black menace' be dispelled, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of Thomas Jefferson, offered the proposal that all slave children born after a certain year be purchased by the State and hired out until sufficient funds were accumulated to remove then, from the United States. By a vote of 65 to 58, however, the legislature declared it 'inexpedient' to attempt to abolish slavery at that time, and laws were passed that forbade reading and writing among slaves and that banned all Negroes, slaves or free, from preaching or holding religious meetings unattended by a licensed white minister.
Of the 517,105 Negroes in Virginia in 1830 less than 10 per cent were free. Although the charge was made in the slavery debates of 1831 to 1832 that free Negroes 'incited slaves to rebel,' the records reveal that many of the free Negro class in Virginia were industrious and law-abiding members of the community. Most slaveholders encouraged the American Colonization Society in its efforts to transport free Negroes to Liberia on the west coast of Africa, and about 3,000 of Virginia's 50,000 free Negroes were thus colonized. In Petersburg, according to Dr.Luther P. Jackson, in 1830 there were 503 free Negro heads of families who owned property of considerable value, including numerous slaves. Free Negroes would purchase their slave relatives for the nominal sum of five shillings each-an amount that was written into the deed of manumission but was seldom paid. By holding these relatives ostensibly as slaves, free Negroes evaded the legislative act of 1806, banishing from the State within 12 months an Negroes thereafter emancipated.
After 1808, when Negroes could no longer be legally imported from Africa, Virginia became a breeding place for slaves needed in the cotton country. Exhausted tobacco lands and curtailed foreign markets had made slaves a liability in Virginia. But Eli Whitney's revolutionary cotton gin and the acquisition through the Louisiana Purchase of a vast area suitable for cotton cultivation had created a demand for slave labor in the Deep South and Southwest. 'Dealing in slaves has become a big business,' noted the editor of Niles' Register; while Thomas Jefferson Randolph asked the legislature in 1832, 'How can an honorable mind, a patriot and a lover of his country, bear to see this ancient dominion . . . converted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for market like oxen for the shambles?'
In the decade from 1830 to 1840, when slave trading was at its height, Virginia's Negro population dropped from 517,105 to 498,829, although Frederic Bancroft assumes that the natural increase of slaves during the decade must have been about 24 percent. Bancroft places the yearly exportation at 11,793, a figure that checks closely with Thomas Marshall's estimate in 1830 of an exportation from Virginia of 10,800 Negroes.
'Nigger-traders' roamed the countryside and added slaves to their coffles at every stopping place. 'Dammit, how niggers has riz!' a planter is said to have exclaimed at a Richmond slave auction, when one Negro was 'knocked down' for $2,000. Robert Lumpkin's slave jail in Richmond was better known to the Negroes of the city as the 'Devil's Half-Acre.'
While thousands of Virginia slaves were on their way to the Deep South, hundreds of others were setting their course by the north star. The Fugitive Slave Law, enacted in 1850, was first invoked in the case of a fugitive from Norfolk, named Shadrach, who was arrested in Boston. While prominent lawyers of that city prepared a defense, 'a crowd of sympathizing colored persons, at broad noon day . . . surrounded the prisoner . . . fled with him pell-mell . . . and placed him beyond reach of his pursuers.' Boston was draped in mourning by protesting citizens when Anthony Bums, fugitive from Alexandria, was carried back to Virginia in chains. In Richmond, crowds visited Lumpkin's slave jail to see the 'nigger who wanted to be free.' Sold by his owner for $goo, Bums was later redeemed by A Virginia-born abolitionist for $I 3oo and allowed to return North. In 1856, James A. Smith, a shoe dealer of Richmond, fastened Henry Brown in a box two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide, and three feet long, containing 'a large gimlet, a bladder of water and a few biscuits.' Supposedly filled with shoes, the box was labeled 'This Side Up With Care.' When the lid was pried off in Philadelphia and Brown stepped out, contemporary newspapers made much of the case, and the fugitive became famous as 'Box Brown.' His benefactor, caught preparing two other Negroes for similar shipment, was imprisoned.
In 1860, when war clouds were fast gathering, there were 548,907 slaves, 53,042 free Negroes, and 1,047,299 whites in Virginia. Although Virginia slaves knew the great hope offered by 'Marse Lincum's boys,' during the war many continued to work faithfully at home, and to guard the women and children of the plantation. At the front, Negro servants tended masters, eased the latter's last moments, brought sorrowful news back home, and served in the Confederate army-cooking, digging redoubts, building fortifications, and caring for horses.
When United States troops first invaded Virginia soil at Alexandria, Negroes of the city cheered and prayed as soldiers released 'an old man, chained to the middle of the floor by the leg' in Kephart's slave jail, and turned the building into a prison for captive Confederates. When General Benjamin F. Butler moved into Fortress Monroe and declared homeless Negroes contraband of war, thousands of refugees flocked to 'de freedom fort' at Old Point Comfort. On an expedition along the North Carolina coast, one gun carriage of the U.S.S.Minnesota was manned by contraband volunteers, and General Butler reported that 'no gun in the fleet was more steadily served than theirs, and no men more composed than they when danger was supposed to be imminent.'
Negro soldiers participated in two major battles in Virginia. During the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, after three white divisions of the Federal forces had failed to advance through the breach in the Confederate lines, a Negro division was sent in. A gallant charge, in which more than 1,000 Negroes were killed, wounded, or captured, resulted in failure when Federal support was not forthcoming. On September 29 of the same year, 3,000 of General Butler's Negro infantry marched up the slope toward Fort Harrison at New Market Heights into a withering fire from the Confederates. When the first line of defense was reached, the column broke ranks and captured the fort, thus breaking Lee's line around Richmond for the only time before the Confederacy's final collapse.
On a Sunday morning in April 1865, after a solemn-faced orderly had interrupted Jefferson Davis's worship at St.Paul's Church in Richmond, the news spread like wildfire that the city had to be evacuated. Negro soldiers marched in the next morning and, singing 'John Brown's Body,' paraded through rows of flaming buildings. To the resounding cheers of Richmond's Negroes, they halted without command at Lumpkin's slave jail to pay a moment's tribute to the throng that packed the windows, while the joyous strains of 'Slavery Chain Done Broke at Last' rang through the bars.
After Lee's surrender, the Freedmen's Bureau began systematic efforts to provide food, clothing, and homes for about 100,000Negro refugees. Efforts also were made to educate the ex-slaves. Stories are told of prayers and 'schoolin's' under 'Emancipation Oak,' a towering tree that still stands on the pike between Hampton and Old Point Comfort. In 1866, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, director of the eastern district of the Freedmen's Bureau, envisaged Hampton as 'the strategic spot for a permanent and great educational work' and suggested to the American Missionary Association that a school for freedmen be established there as the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute. This later became the scene of Booker T. Washington's early labors. Close by the spot where Mary L. Peake, a free Negro woman, had taught the first contrabands, a plot of land was purchased and in April 1868 classes were begun. When the Reverend Richard Colver of Boston sought in Richmond a building in which to start a school for Negroes, Mary Jane Lumpkin donated the use of the slave jail that had made her husband famous.
The earning of a living was the chief concern of freedmen. Rumors of re-enslavement caused Negroes to distrust white bosses. In Virginia, moreover, the scale of wages was for a decade lower than in any other Southern State except South Carolina. In 1869, when the Virginia Freedmen's Bureau reported 'an excessive supply of laborers with a small demand,' a State commission was set up to encourage foreign white labor to migrate to Virginia.
While the masses struggled for a livelihood, their leaders were fighting for the rights of citizenship that the Federal Government was promising. At the State convention called in 1867 to draft a new constitution, 25 Of the 103 delegates were Negroes. The election of 1869, by the largest vote in the State's history, placed 21 Negroes in the house of delegates and 6 in the State senate. Dr.Thomas Bayne, who had escaped from slavery in 1858 and returned to Norfolk as a dentist in 1865, was the leader of the Negro group. He was 'one of the shrewdest politicians of his day, whose ready tongue enabled him easily to turn aside the ridicule that met any Negro representative who rose to speak.' The Norton brothers-Daniel, a physician of Yorktown, and Robert, a merchant of Williamsburg, both educated in New England-were outstanding members of the legislature. James Bland, reputedly the son of old Pompey Bland, gaming-house proprietor of Farinville, displayed in the senate 'every characteristic and mannerism of the gentlemen who in pre-war days had patronized his father's establishment.'
Negro legislators had their greatest success in the session of 1880-82, when their support helped to repeal the poll tax and establish a Negro insane asylum at Petersburg. But perhaps the most important achievement was the passage of a bill establishing a college for Negroes. Sponsored by A.W.Harris, Negro representative from Petersburg, the act authorized the expenditure of $100,000 for the erection of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute and provided $20,000 annually for its support.
The climax of the Virginia Negro's brief political career was reached in1888 with the election of John M. Langston to Congress, from the Fourth District. Although his opponent was seated, Langston contested the election and was finally declared victor when only a few months of the term remained. On September 23, 1890, he took the oath of office as Virginia's only Negro representative in Congress. In the final decade of the century, fraud and intimidation were rife at elections, and violence was not unusual. John R. Holmes, a Negro candidate for State senator in 1892, was shot to death by a white man in Charlotte County. This act, described as 'a very extreme example of intimidation,' solved the dilemma for the district, since no other Negro candidate presented himself .
With the turn of the century came the virtual elimination of the Negro from Virginia politics. Delegates to the State constitutional convention of 1901 adopted a poll tax and 'understanding' requirement for prospective voters, and wildly cheered Carter Glass when he declared: 'This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years . . . The article of suffrage . . . does not necessarily deprive a single white man of the ballot, but will inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the Negro voters.' The Lynchburg News found in 1905 that of the 147,000 Negro voters qualified under the former constitution, Only 21,000 were registered and of these less than half had 'paid their poll taxes and qualified.' But, in the words of the Richmond Planet, the Negro had 'long since abandoned the field of politics for the field of finance and industrial endeavor.'
Fraternal insurance offered the most lucrative field for the Negro entrepreneur, and in 1890 some 200 companies were operating in this field in Virginia. As deposits multiplied, few of the companies resisted the temptation to enter fields of higher finance, particularly banking. Richmond in 1902 had three Negro banks-W.W.Browne's Savings Bank of the True Reformers, John Mitchell's Mechanics Savings Bank, and Maggie Walker's St.Luke's Penny Savings Bank. Of 25 Negro banks organized in the State but three have survived: the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company (formerly the St.Luke's Penny Savings Bank) of Richmond, the Crown Savings Bank of Newport News, and the Savings Bank of Danville.
Richmond at the beginning of the century was the religious, as well as the economic and political, center of Negro Virginia. James H. Holmes, whose First African Baptist Church had 5,000 members, held the world's record in baptisms-847 converts in a single hour. John jasper preached the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church out of debt with his famous sermon, 'De Sun Do Move.' Throughout the State the church has been the Negro's most successful institution. According to the 1926 Federal religious census, 378,742 Negroes in Virginia were members of religious bodies in that year. Of the 2,261 Negro churches, 1,900 were in rural areas, and 70 Percent of all the church members were in rural sections. The rural church is the common meeting ground for the Negro community, where young and old gather to chat, to pray, and to be inspired by 'that old time religion.'
Although all orthodox sects exist in Virginia, with Baptists and Methodists predominating, numerous 'messiahs' have large followings. The waters of Virginia rivers have 'washed the sins' from many Negroes, whose strong belief is that baptism 'takes' best in open water. At Newport News, Elder Lightfoot Michaux established the Church of God, with mass baptism in the James River as an important part of its ritual. 'Daddy' Grace, dynamic Portuguese 'Bishop,' also has a 'mission' by the James and conducts spectacular baptizings.
The charge that Virginia Negroes put church building ahead of home building is dubious. Whereas Only 23.9 per cent of all Negro homes in the United States were owned by their occupants in 1930, in Virginia 43.6 per cent of the Negro homes were owned by those who lived in them. Yet in the low-rent districts of every city thousands of Negro tenants live in rickety tenements and squalid shacks. Near Newport News, Aberdeen Gardens, a housing project sponsored by Hampton Institute and the Farm Security Administration, is a notable example of the attempts to provide for Negroes better homes in more healthful surroundings.
Notwithstanding extensive migration to the cities, farming is still the principal economic activity of the Negro in Virginia. In 1935 the State had a Negro farm population of slightly more than 269,000, and 43,211 Of its farms were being operated by 27,662 Negro owners, 37 managers, and 15,512 tenants. While the number of Negro tenant farmers increased by Only 364 from 1930 to 1935, the number of owner-operators increased by 3,214 in the same period.
Although various Federal, State, and private agencies have labored to improve conditions in the rural sections, a low standard of living still prevails. A recent study reveals that 50 percent of all rural families in Virginia and 60 percent of the Negro rural families in the State have gross incomes of $600 or less, and 25 percent of the Negro rural families have gross incomes Of $259 or less. Such marginal and submarginal populations, according to William E. Garnett of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, represent a 'human erosion' far more costly than the 'soil erosion which occasions extensive programs.' It is among such groups that health standards are lowest and mortality rates highest. In 1930 the death rate for Negroes in Virginia was 17.8 per thousand as compared with only 10-4 per thousand for whites, while the infant mortality amounted to I 1 .5 deaths per thousand births for Negroes, and 5.9 deaths per thousand births for whites.
In Virginia, as throughout the South, the relatively heavy concentration of Negroes in the larger cities gives rise to many acute problems. From 15.4 per cent of the total Negro population in 1870, the proportion of Negroes in Virginia cities had increased to 32.8 per cent in 1930. Richmond with 52,988 Negroes and Norfolk with 43,942 have the largest Negro populations.
Life is especially hazardous for Negro youth in the cities. With public parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields 'traditionally prohibited,' Negro children haunt city alleys and dumps. Richmond, Lynchburg, and Norfolk have taken the lead in providing community, centers or recreation fields for Negro boys and girls. Since 1910, when Negro reformatories were authorized by the State legislature, the Industrial School for Colored Girls under Janie Porter Barrett and the Hanover Manual Labor School for Colored Boys under S.B.Layton have achieved remarkable results in rehabilitating delinquents.
While the rate of illiteracy among Virginia Negroes has dropped in the decade from 1920 to 1930, it is still far higher than the figure for the State's white citizenry. In 1920, 23.5 percent of the Negro population and 5.9 per cent of the white population 10 years of age or over were unable to read and write. By 1930 illiteracy had dropped to 19.2 per cent for Negroes and to 4.8 per cent for whites. Of the 162,588 illiterates in Virginia in 1930, more than 50 percent were Negroes, nearly two-thirds of whom lived in rural sections.
In Virginia, as in the entire South, the children of unskilled workers do not go far in school, and uneducated Negroes find only unskilled occupations. Virginia municipalities universally exclude from public positions all Negroes except teachers. In Richmond, the largest center of Negro population in the State, all street cleaners, garbage collectors, and elevator operators in municipal buildings are white. The State's industry has been traditionally open shop, although in recent years labor union affiliation is growing among both Negro and white workers. Negro school teachers, laundry employees, railway freight workers, truck drivers, motion picture operators, and station and service employees are partially organized in various trade unions. The Hampton Roads port area has 5,ooo dock workers who are enrolled in the International Longshoremen's Association, an American Federation of Labor affiliate, with George W. Millner, a Negro of Norfolk, as its international vice-president. The State Federation of Labor, however, preserves segregated unions. Since 193S thousands of Negro tobacco, fertilizer, peanut, and candy workers have joined unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
While rural Negroes are migrating to the cities, lack of jobs has in recent years prompted wholesale migration to Northern industrial centers. Whereas the State's total population increased from 2,309,187 in 1920 to 2,421,851 in 1930, the Negro population declined from 690,017 (29.9 per cent of the total) to 650,165 (26.8 per cent of the total). In the 10-year period, 259,317 Negroes left Virginia, while Only 72,644 Negroes born elsewhere moved into the State. The ratio of loss of Negro population is greater than that of any other South Atlantic State. Estimates indicate that the decline of Negro population in Virginia will be revealed as even greater when the census figures for 1940, are made available.
Migration has taken Virginia-born Negroes to positions of prominence and responsibility in other States. The presidents Of 21 Negro academies and colleges, the editors of five leading Negro newspapers, many prominent Negro lawyers, ministers, and scholars were born or reared in Virginia. Robert R. Moton, Carter G. Woodson, Charles Sidney Gilpin, Leslie Pinckney Hill, William R. Valentine, Charles S. Johnson, Anne Spencer, Eugene Kinckle Jones, Salem Tutt Whitney, and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson are a few Virginia Negroes whose names are widely known. Within the State, achievement is occasionally recognized. William M. Cooper of Hampton Institute and Lutrelle F. Palmer of the Huntington High School in Newport News were named, in 1938 and 1939 respectively, as distinguished Virginians on the 'honor roll' of the Richmond Times Dispatch ; and William H. Moses, Jr., of Hampton Institute, submitted the successful design in a contest for a plan of Virginia's exhibit at the New York World's Fair of 1939.
The lure of the crowd is strong among Virginia Negroes; every city and town has a 'street' that serves as the social and business center of Negro life. Here Negroes from every walk of life congregate to purchase from Negro merchants, to ply their trades, to discuss the latest developments in Negro America, or simply to see who else is abroad. Here race pride is triumphant; drug stores, cafes, barber shops, pool rooms, grocery stores, theaters, beauty parlors, and garages are operated by and for Negroes. To the uninitiated, the crowd is a group of idlers wasting time in meaningless banter. That banter, however, is the Negro's escape from a day of labor in the white man's world. No matter how carefree the outward appearance of Negroes may be, behind their happy dispositions is the imprint of poverty, disease, and suffering-birthmarks of a people living precariously, but of a people wholly Virginian.