Pearson on Maris-Wolf, 'Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia'

Ted Maris-Wolf. Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 336 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2007-7.

Reviewed by Ellen Pearson (University of North Carolina-Asheville)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Robert P. Murray

In 1856, Virginia lawmakers passed “what mistakenly has been considered to be the most restrictive race-based Southern law of the antebellum period,” according to author Ted Maris-Wolf (p. 5). This law paved the way for Virginia’s free people of color to voluntarily enslave themselves to a master of their choice. From a twenty-first-century perspective, we might consider this law one of many attempts to oppress African Americans on the eve of the Civil War. However, in Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia, Maris-Wolf argues that free blacks helped to create this law, and then they used it as a tool to advance their own interests.

Maris-Wolf examines the experiences of a small but critical group of free persons of color, who had long lived with restrictions on their freedom, including a requirement that any black person emancipated after May 1, 1806, must leave Virginia within one year of being freed or reaching the age of twenty-one. They could seek permission to remain in the state, but if they chose to stay without that permission, they risked forcible re-enslavement. State officials seldom brought action against free blacks under this law, and thousands of free people of color ignored the law and continued to live as residents of their home communities, abiding with all other laws of the land. However, the threat of expulsion remained real enough for some that they felt it necessary to take action. As African Americans navigated the treacherous boundary between freedom and slavery, they devised a number of tactics that could help them remain close to friends, family, and familiar places. But, for a few, these measures did not stave off the threat of banishment. At the center of Maris-Wolf’s work is a small number of cases in which free blacks actually petitioned Virginia’s General Assembly to enslave themselves to white persons of their choosing, so that they could remain in their community. Often, these suits for enslavement were a last resort, after all other avenues, including petitions to lawfully remain in their community as a free person, failed. In 1856, Virginia’s legislature took notice of the small but consistent number of requests and passed the law that provided free blacks a streamlined process for self-enslavement.

Two key figures in the creation of the enslavement law were Willis and Andrew Doswell. In 1850, after the Doswells were served with expulsion orders, they enlisted the aid of an attorney to ask the General Assembly to allow them to remain in the state. Although white neighbors signed a petition asking that they be able to stay, the Doswells feared that their request would fail. Therefore, they decided to take the extreme measure of asking the General Assembly’s permission to remain in their community as slaves, provided they could choose their master. The General Assembly’s approval of the Doswells’ petition for enslavement offered a new form of “insurance” for free blacks faced with the possibility of forced removal or sale into slavery. Self-enslavement allowed free persons of color to remain close to home and loved ones. A handful of free blacks took advantage of this new process, and by December of 1855, the number of applicants for enslavement had reached a critical mass. Virginia lawmakers responded to the handful of petitions by passing the first general self-enslavement law in the nation. It allowed any free person of color to apply for enslavement in their local circuit court, as long as they were at least eighteen years of age if female, or twenty-one if male.

Some lawmakers saw this law as a winning solution for all sides. It diverted responsibility for approving self-enslavement from the General Assembly to local circuit courts, while also building in a few safeguards against abuse of the process. Because the circuit courts met only twice a year, self-enslavement was less accessible and more time-consuming for petitioners than it would have been if permitted in monthly county courts. Free persons of color could choose any willing white person to become their owner, but in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of their actions, the new owner had to pay a tax equaling one-half the enslaved individual’s value.

Forfeiting one’s freedom in order to remain with friends and family was a harsh and desperate measure taken by persons who feared losing control of their destiny, but these cases also reveal much about free blacks’ influence in their communities and their ability to preserve some measure of agency. In several instances, Maris-Wolf claims, whites aided their free black neighbors by following appropriate legal channels--and sometimes they helped free blacks by circumventing the law. It was not unusual for whites to sign petitions vouching for their free black neighbors’ reputations and asking that they be allowed to stay. For other whites, the sense of duty went deeper. For example, as executor of his friend’s will, Joseph Dupuy was entrusted with seeing that several slaves were freed and resettled in Liberia. Although he never wavered in his conviction that they should be removed, he worried over their welfare long after they had gone to their new home. Other whites passively resisted their community’s attempts to remove free blacks. Local officials sometimes allowed court cases to drag on for years, while the accused free blacks continued to live and work in their midst. Others simply looked the other way in order to aid their African American neighbors. Maris-Wolf relates one instance in which the court issued an arrest warrant for Thomas Champ, who failed to show at his hearing when he was accused of violating the expulsion law. Local officials could not seem to find Champ to execute the warrant, although census takers easily located him around that same time.

Perhaps the ultimate illustration of interracial community ties, however, occurred when whites agreed to become masters to those free blacks who petitioned for self-enslavement. Maris-Wolf asserts that the law of 1856 “reflects a kind of intimacy between certain whites and blacks” (p. 115). Because they lived, worked, and socialized together and formed unexpectedly strong bonds with their black neighbors, some whites were willing to become masters in order to protect them from removal. Free blacks chose whites whom they knew and trusted, such as close relatives of their deceased owners, neighbors, or fellow congregants, as their masters. Some petitioners for enslavement believed that their reputation in their community gave them leverage not only to designate their new masters, but also to negotiate other protections--they would agree to become someone’s slave only under specific terms and conditions. As Maris-Wolf states, the law “had become in a sense a tool that free blacks could employ to their advantage--to delay, void, or overcome enforcement of the expulsion law by local courts” (pp. 117-118). Moreover, Maris-Wolf claims that some of these African Americans, although nominally enslaved, continued to live in their home communities as if they were free.

Maris-Wolf is careful to note that few free persons of color took advantage of the self-enslavement law. The largest number of known cases (seventeen) occurred in 1859. But, the potential significance of these self-enslavements reaches far beyond their relatively small numbers, and offers us another way to view African Americans’ roles and influence in their communities. Maris-Wolf’s narrow focus on the free black perspective provides part of this picture. But, for a richer treatment of African American influence on the self-enslavement law, we need to know more about the white neighbors, family members of deceased masters, and other good samaritans who tried to help free blacks with their petitions, attestations of character, and assistance with relocation to Liberia, not to mention their willingness to serve as nominal masters when other options for remaining free and in their home communities failed. We are left to wonder why they wanted to help. Did they consider it their duty to a fellow human being; did they feel the pull of friendship--or even family--ties? Or, did they stand to benefit in some way from the unique arrangement? A more thorough treatment of the economic and social networks that connected white and black members of these communities might help us to answer these crucial questions. 

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Citation: Ellen Pearson. Review of Maris-Wolf, Ted, Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


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Fascinating. What about religious beliefs as a reason? In addition to the ones proposed?

Re: "We are left to wonder why they wanted to help. Did they consider it their duty to a fellow human being; did they feel the pull of friendship--or even family--ties? Or, did they stand to benefit in some way from the unique arrangement? A more thorough treatment of the economic and social networks that connected white and black members of these communities might help us to answer these crucial questions."

Or would that be covered under "duty to a fellow human being?" Family lore has it that one grandfather 1) left his church and helped establish another one when the first one decided to be segregated, 2) stood off a neighboring employer whose maid had fled her abusive employer, and 3) allowed her to live in a small place they had by the house (which had to have been small as well since we are not talking plantation--more yeoman farmer lifestyle. I'm suggesting that social networks were more viable than we might think.