This past week we vacationed in Virginia, taking in Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Why mention this on a blog dedicated to celebration of the Church of Jesus Christ? It is because the Church’s history is inextricably related to the larger national setting in which the Church emerged.
I remember going to these sites as a kid, when it was not yet popular to talk about any but the heroic white men who had settled a new land and birthed a nation. As a person of mixed race, born when it was still illegal for my parents to marry in the state of their residence, I accepted this white-centric, male-centric narrative. But I did feel marginalized by this world where I was not the “right” gender or race.
Going to Jamestown and Williamsburg now, however, is very different. The tour guides and docents are open about the many different peoples involved in the founding of first a settlement, a colony, and then a nation. They explain how Virginia’s red clay soil wasn’t filled with the gold and silver the Virginia Company expected. Attempts to profit from the expedition failed time and time again.
Until they happened on tobacco.
I am told tobacco is a filthy crop to cultivate, requiring extensive manual labor in the humid, overheated Virginia summers (summers I usually spend in air-conditioned comfort). Key to a successful crop was picking slugs and other bugs off the plants, along with topping any nascent blooms to force growth into the green leaves. A moderately prosperous farm of 200 acres would require roughly 10 laborers.
Slavery wasn’t new to Virginia, but the seemingly desperate economic situation drove Virginia to pass laws that made new world slavery more difficult than traditional slavery. Virginia passed laws making it difficult to escape from slavery without great cost. Laws were passed to make it so a slave’s children were enslaved because of her slavery, irrespective of the status of the father. It became common for enterprising owners to engender children on their female slaves, making their own children into property.
It is from this new, Virginian, practice that a theory arose and was reinforced that a single drop of black blood could damn a person to a life of slavery.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, Virginia had far more slaves than any other colony. So Virginia was at the forefront of establishing precedent in the ways to reinforce slavery.
One such law required any freed individual to leave the state. This meant the price of freedom was to start new without any support from friends or family. I have written about this in the past, as illustrated by the story of William Williamson, who sold himself and his farm back to a local white man so Williamson could stay with his wife and children.
Other laws required that individuals qualify for freedom, once it even became legal to manumit a slave. This was a time-consuming process. While I am not familiar with the details, it required extensive planning on the part of an owner to free his slaves. In the case of Robert Carter III, whose large home stands right next to the Governor’s palace in Williamsburg, it would take decades before he was able to free the several hundreds of slaves he had inherited. For his willingness to free his slaves, Robert Carter III earned the hatred and hostility of family and former friends.
One good thing Virginia did, if selfishly, was to advocate for the slave trade to be abolished in the States of the new Union. Northern colonies, now states, had benefitted greatly from the slave trade. The abolition of the slave trade reduced New England’s reliance on a thriving commerce in human flesh, reducing incentives the rich and powerful of the North would otherwise have had for maintaining slavery. And Virginia profited, having their “resource” in human flesh able to retain and gain value without competition from importation.
Trade in tobacco was booming at the time of the Revolution, making Yorktown a thriving commercial center. Even today, one can see the “tobacco road” leading to the York river, a rounded rut caused as teams rolled barrels, each packed with up to a thousand pounds of tobacco leaves, down the ravine to the river for export. It was Yorktown’s importance as a tobacco port that enticed Britain’s General Cornwallis to use this port city on the York River as his base. Through thousands of acts of bravery, combined with luck, the American colonists were able to defeat Cornwallis and establish a new nation.
Physical evidence of the prevalence of slavery and pre-industrial tobacco culture can be seen throughout Pittsylvania County, where a grant was obtained to preserve the log cabins chinked with red clay that had been used to dry tobacco. To drive through Pittsylvania County is to see tobacco barn after tobacco barn in their dozens. Each such barn, and the ghosts of such barns throughout the south, stand as mute witness to the hundreds of thousands of Black individuals who were forced into a new and ‘improved’ form of bondage so that Virginia and eventually the United States could attain some semblance of economic prosperity.
Ironically, Williamsburg and Jamestown had fallen into ruin, overgrown by the deciduous jungle that thrives in Virginia. In the early 1900s, a time when white privilege was arguably at its peak, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was persuaded to fund a massive reconstruction of a 300 acre area as Williamsburg would have existed in the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War. One of my favorites, the Jamestown glassworks, was actually a failed experiment from 1618 that had entirely disappeared, only to be reconstructed as part of the mid-1900s efforts to recapture the ingenuity and desperation of those earliest English settlers on American soil, fueled by a desire to present a fitting memorial for the 350th anniversary in 1957 of the founding of Jamestown, an event even Queen Elizabeth II made a point of attending.
Another day I will talk about how this larger slavery narrative relates to the story of Green Flake, a Black convert who entered the Salt Lake valley on July 22, 1847, a man about whom an award-winning movie has now been produced.