Free Blacks in Accomack County during the Antebellum Period

This post is part of our forum on “The Books, Archives, and Monuments That Shaped Me.

“Slaves Waiting for Sale,” 1861 (Eyre Crowe, Wikimedia Commons)

During the Antebellum period, freed African Americans in Virginia were often summoned to appear in the County Court for violating the General Assembly’s 1806 Act ordering manumitted Black people to leave the state within twelve months or face re-enslavement. However, in Accomack County, many freedmen refused to appear before the court and remained in Virginia, despite the risk of capture, prosecution, and the loss of their freedom once again. One such freedman was Joe Watson.

On June 28, 1819, sixteen-year-old Joe Watson won his freedom after thirteen years of bondage when he was manumitted via the “will and testament” of his enslaver, Arthur Watson, who died that April. According to Virginia’s 1782 Manumission of Slaves Act, enslavers could emancipate their enslaved laborers through a written contract like a will, but if a freedman was above the age of 45 or under the age of 18-21 years old, the General Assembly required enslavers to secure enough funds in their estate to financially “support” and “maintain” the person they were “liberating” from slavery. Following emancipation, Joe refused to leave the state and worked in the county more than twelve months beyond his manumission date. In 1824, Joe was listed in Accomack County’s Free Negro Register, but two years later he was mentioned in a Runaway Slave Record. According to the 1826 Runaway Slave Record, Joe Watson was possibly destitute, temporarily receiving provisions from the county’s poorhouse, and later sold to Virginia resident Polly White for $15.75 as part of the process of re-enslavement in which he soon fled. By March 1830, Joe was summoned by the County Court for remaining in Virginia, however, nothing became of this summons and his case was dismissed the following year. Throughout Joe Watson’s life in Accomack County, he was repeatedly summoned by the court but never arrested. By 1851, Joe Watson was listed in the Free Negro Taxes as owing the government $15.50 in taxes. Beyond 1851, his fate is unknown. Since Joe Watson did not leave a personal record of his life, the County Court could have eventually captured and re-enslaved him or he remained free. Joe Watson was not the only freed African American in Accomack County who resisted Virginia’s laws and remained free in the state, but his story is representative of numerous free Blacks documented in archival collections like Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative at the Library of Virginia that historians should examine more closely.

There are many historical documents available to researchers on Virginia’s free Black population during the Antebellum era. The Isle of Wight, Prince William, and Frederick counties all have court documents indicating that many free African Americans lived in rural areas. In the Isle of Wight County, a woman named Lizzy Harris or Eliza Harris is listed as a free woman of color in 1806. She was freed by her owner Josiah M. Jordan. Lizzy was summoned by the County Court in 1838 and 1839 for remaining in the state. Within the historical court documents, there is a dismissal of Lizzy’s case in 1839. Like Joe Watson, Lizzy had multiple summons to appear in court. However, she could not be found in the free negro registers or in the free negro tax records. Free Blacks may have even traveled to other counties to subvert legal expulsion and re-enslavement. Historians Ira Berlin and Luther Porter Jackson have both examined the possibility that free Blacks did not always stay in the same county or state after manumission. They both agree that free Blacks forged paperwork and or dodged summons due to the inability of the states and counties to meticulously track down the free Black population. By law, free African Americans had to be listed in the Free Negro Registers if they lived in Virginia and freedmen who faced expulsion could submit appeals to the court requesting to remain in the state. However, Joe Watson and many other free Blacks in Accomack County understood Virginia’s laws regarding expulsion after emancipation, contemplated the risks to their personal liberties, and often chose to resist the laws. In fact, Accomack County had the largest population of free African Americans before Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County. Some freed Blacks even remained in Accomack County up until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. According to historian Luther P. Jackson, 12% of Virginia’s Black population consisted of free Black people in 1860. In Accomack County, 43% of the African American population were free people. Furthermore, the 4,380 free Black people who resided in Accomack County comprised 7.5% of Virginia’s free Black population that year.

State laws like the 1806 Expulsion Act kept freed Blacks in a legal limbo in which they were socioeconomically vulnerable to Virginia’s white society and forced to work in an exploitative and capitalistic economy as either an undocumented free wage laborer or slave within the state. Since free Blacks often worked alongside enslaved African Americans, freedmen were a threat to the slavery system because they could be key actors in the covert passing of information to facilitate slave rebellions on plantations and other worksites. However, in some instances, securing cheap labor for farm and industry could have been more important than enforcing and abiding by the law of expulsion. As historian Vanessa Holden explained, the practice of maintaining reserve laborers kept operations at plantations and other worksites efficient: “elite and middling white Virginians relied on the labor of free people of color to supplement their own labor force.” Accomack County possibly summoned freed Blacks as a formality and not something for the county to pursue and rectify. Nevertheless, why were several free Black people like Joe Watson summoned to court, but no real action was ever taken to remove these freedmen from the state? Interestingly, court records are just the legal narratives we have about the free Black experience in antebellum Virginia. As more and more archival documents are discovered and digitized, historians like me will soon be able to thoroughly explain the many ways free Blacks resisted slavery and subverted the law in an era of fragile freedom.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Sabrina Watson

Sabrina G. Watson is a PhD candidate in History at Morgan State University and a History Instructor at Virginia State University’s History and Philosophy Department. Watson earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in History with a research concentration on comparative studies of indigenous women in American history from Virginia State University. She has worked as an Adjunct History Instructor at Reynolds Community College and was a founding faculty member of the Early College Academy at Reynolds Community College that worked with Richmond City Public Schools to prepare high school students for college with undergraduate coursework. Watson proudly hails from Richmond, Virginia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *