restricted access 4 “I’ll Show You What a Free Negro Is”
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4 “I’ll Show You What a Free Negro Is” Black-on-White Violence in Albemarle So far, this study has examined the life experiences of a number of people of color in Albemarle, men and women, young and old. Whether male or female , light-skinned or not, all of these people successfully navigated the social system in a rural antebellum southern county. None acted as if they lived in a police state that saw their presence as a threat to the racial and social order. They did not hide; they participated openly in the community. Their face-to-face interactions with area whites often displayed a fairly high level of familiarity and even intimacy and at times even demonstrated a rough sense of practical equality. These free people of color rarely complied with residency and registration laws. Yet they did not act as recluses, avoiding whites and community institutions. All saw the judicial system as a useful tool for settling disputes. They did not live impoverished and pathetic lives in semi-seclusion from the white and slave communities. Yes, the racially based slave system of the antebellum South was predicated upon a racial and social hierarchy, and free people of color found themselves located near the bottom end of that scale. But they did not live quiet and marginal lives avoiding white surveillance. Though denied the vote and unable to serve on juries, Albemarle’s free people of color participated rather fully in the social and economic aspects of county life. They often visited the same bawdy houses as whites. The two races mingled at houses of entertainment, engaging in gaming and drinking . They shopped in local mercantile establishments and attended estate auctions throughout the county. Free people of color had credit extended to them by neighbors and businesses and occasionally themselves acted as creditors. They entered into contracts with neighbors, both black and white. 114 Freedom Has a Face They demonstrated great freedom of movement within and without the immediate vicinity, traveling to Charlottesville and hamlets throughout the county, as well as locations as far away as Richmond, Lynchburg, and even other states. And they also routinely bought and sold land. Clearly, property was seen as a very important tool to protect freedom and ensure that freedom’s benefits were passed on from generation to generation . Most of the people this book has examined managed to chart an upward trend in property ownership over a two- or three-generation period , some with much more success than others. But property ownership was not the only key to a secure and comfortable life in the slave South. Indeed , for all of the people examined so far, property may have been of secondary importance. Most vital for a secure existence in Albemarle was being known, preferably as someone who was hardworking and respectable. In such a local and personal environment, avoiding contact with whites would have constituted a self-imposed, self-reinforcing imprisonment. Participating in the community and developing a respectable reputation, by contrast, helped ensure that free people of color would live safely and comfortably in the community. The Battles, Goings, and Barnett families endured and even succeeded in Albemarle because they were not strange free blacks living on the edges of society. They were community members who in public behaved appropriately . They were cognizant and respectful of the social hierarchy. They worked hard and deported themselves properly. Respectability was defined by a diverse group of social qualities. One need not demonstrate every characteristic to achieve respectability. These qualities included being known in one’s neighborhood (having a name attached to a face), working hard, living publicly as a family (husband, wife, and children), behaving with discretion, and faithfully honoring financial and personal obligations. As highlighted in chapter 1, the lives of the Revolutionary War veterans Shadrach Battles and Charles Barnett demonstrate that a free person of color could lack one or more of those qualities and still fare well. Other free black Battles and Barnett family members were commonly known as hardworking and faithful community members. All honored financial and personal obligations. Their personal qualities enhanced by enduring ownership of real and personal property, these free people of color managed to exist comfortably in the slave South. Here, “being known by your neighborhood” refers to the ability of community members to identify an individual by both name and geographic “I’ll Show You What a Free Negro Is” 115 location. For example, county records sometimes make just such an...


Subject Headings

  • Free African Americans -- Virginia -- Albemarle County -- History -- 19th century.
  • Free African Americans -- Virginia -- Albemarle County -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Albemarle County (Va.) -- Race relations.
  • Albemarle County (Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
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