The time period following the Civil War was one of finding balance, as families from all across the United States and its territories returned to a new normalcy. In many places homes and barns were burned, crops ruined, but for every American family one thing was true: all were impacted by loss of some kind. Over the next few weeks, we're going to dive into community perceptions and decisions that impacted the African American population in Shenandoah County using primary source documents and newspapers. My focus is on their story. This isn't about shame or blame - and to demonstrate this, I'm not sharing names, unless they are helpful in recognizing how African Americans contributed in positive ways to our community - a community that has not always been hospitable to minority groups, especially after the Civil War and through the Civil Rights period.
Our first image falls to what community members thought about the impact of the Civil War and what is termed in historical primary source documents as "negro equality" from the perspective of Virginia, and especially Shenandoah County. To gain this, we look at examples of their voices through newspaper and letter testimonies from 1865.
In December 1865, the Shepherdstown Registrar, which included information for Shenandoah County as much as the counties immediately west of North Mountain in West Virginia, ran an article entitled, "What Will They Do?" This article was a rumination on the Freedmen in the local communities and demonstrates a sentiment shared by many in the counties of northwestern Virginia. We will be talking about the term freedmen next week. Here is an excerpt: "'Tis certainly a question of great importance to the Agricultural portion of our community to know what reliance can be placed upon the 'Freedmen,' and whether he will make any contract upon any terms whatever, for the coming year; and it is a question of far more vital importance to the 'Freedman' himself to determine what he will do to support himself and those who may be depending upon him for the ensuing year. Hitherto the Freedmen have shown themselves totally void of any honesty in fulfilling their contracts, and have been waiting for Christmas to come for something to turn up, whereby they will be furnished with houses to live in and have rations supplied them, without any thought or labor on their part. This foolish, not to say nefarious idea, has been put into their heads by evil disposed persons, ignorant of the consequences, and doubtless wishing that the property of their more fortunate neighbors might be taken and distributed among the worthless population that now hangs like an incubus upon society.
"The sooner these extravagant and foolish notions are eradicated from the minds of the negro, the better it will be for them. Their very existence and the subsistence of themselves and families depend upon it. Freedom carries with it only the liberty to work for themselves - man must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. They have now new cares and responsibilities, such as they knew not of in a state of slavery. They have their families to cloth and support, taxes to pay and doctor's bills to foot, and they will have to labor harder than they ever did to meet these increased demands.
"The whole community is interested in the welfare of the negro, and his being employed in some capacity by which he can earn a livelihood. It becomes every one's duty to dispel from the mind of the Freedman all false notions about the Government supporting him, giving him land, &c., and instill into his mind that he must work and that he must make contracts for labor for the future and keep them when made. He must show himself worthy of reliance or he can never make a living in this community. He must not suppose that working by the day will keep him constantly employed and secure him a fixed support. Men who need their services cannot depend upon the uncertainty of changing their hands every day.
"We state these things to call attention of the negro to his true condition, in order that he may not be lead away by false teachers, and that the community may look to its own safety, in removing and guarding against the depredations of an idle and vagrant population" (30 December 1865, p. 2).
Similarly, the Staunton Spectator states: "The hardest lesson for the negro to learn seems to be the fact that he incurred new responsibilities, as well as new rights, by the result of the war. One of these responsibilities is the obligation to perform his contracts. The white man has to perform his, and there are laws imposing penalties if he fails or refuses to perform them. - The negro freedman must also be made amenable to laws and penalties, that will make him perform his obligations, else he never will be a useful or reliable member of society" (Vol 42, No 27, 26 Dec 1865, p.2).
In discussion of a congressional action in December 1865, the editors of the Spirit of Jefferson write: "It is evidently the firm determination of the majority of the lower House, to keep back the reconstruction of the Union, for which we were formerly told the war was waged, till such time as the Southern States shall certainly signify their willingness to extend the right of suffrage to the negro, and otherwise put them up on terms of full and perfect political, and may be social, equality with the white race. We can put no trust in men... (that) ...have had, all their lives long, negro on the brain, and the disease is so absorbing in its character, that everything else must be subjected to it - constitutions, laws, justice and the commonest rights, must all be trampled under foot for the purpose of elevating the negro to the standard of the white man. And, in the meantime, while this ridiculous tilt is being made, the Southern States are to remain out of the Union, and the Southern people to be refused any participation in the government of the country - except the right to pay taxes. We, of the South, have met the issues involved in the war in a spirit of fairness, and have renewed our allegiance to the Union in all honesty, and we think we have the right to be treated as citizens of the Union and we look to the President to furnish to us the protecting power of the Constitution, in the sure hope that he will do his duty by us; if he fails in this duty, may God help us!" (19 December 1865, p.2).
The Colonization Society placed this announcement in the November 1865 Sentinel: "The origin of our society... was founded by moderate men, who neither anathematized slaveholders as worse than murderers, nor eulogized slavery as not only morally innocent, and in some respects, beneficent and conservative, but as the source of all true civilization. They neither maintained the entire equality of the negro with the white man, nor his utter and permanent inferiority, as belong to a lower race... Now the condition of the emancipated negro, worse, in many respects, than before emancipation, will be far more calculated to drive him into exile, than that of the Irishman. Should the whites do their best to improve the condition of the blacks, the prejudice of color, the necessary political and social distinctions, will gall more and more the spirit of the negro, who will have learned too well to estimate his rights. His impatience at what he conceives to be injustice will, in many cases, overcome his powerful local attachments. Finding the mortality in his class to be very great in America, he will think he can risk little by going to Africa." The authors of the article continue by proclaiming an exodus of negroes to Africa will not be swiftly accomplished, so as to cause a collapse of labor in the Southern States, but would "make way for another population attracted into the vacuum" (Vol 3, No 91, 28 November 1865, p.2).
The October 1865 Alexandria Gazette shares: "A paper published in the Shenandoah (Va.) Valley, says: On Wednesday morning last, we saw passing our office four small negro children - the largest about 8 years old, carrying an infant in his arms. All were bare-footed, thinly clad, and shivering with cold. We learned that their mother had left their former master in Rockingham, under the delusion which seems to be entertained by many of the negroes, that freedom exempts them from labor - and was strolling about the country. - She came to this neighborhood a day or two previous, and failing to secure shelter for herself and children, left them on the roadside on Tuesday night. The poor creatures were consequently endeavoring to make their way back to that comfortable home from which they had been forced by misguided philanthropy" (Vol 66, No 213, 19 October 1865, p.4).
"A meeting of the conservative citizens of Shenandoah county, was held last week at Woodstock," reads an article in the Alexandria Gazette, "at which resolutions were passed recognizing the Constitutional authority of the U.S.," and "acquiescing in the abolition of slavery" (Vol 71, No 196, 18 September 1865, p.2).
The Virginia Free Press from 1865 shares: "It appears that the rebel soldiers are outspoken. They say: 'We voted for the issues of slavery and State sovereignty; then we fought for them. We have been defeated overwhelmingly at all points. Now we give the contest up like men and like soldiers, and we go in honestly for a common country, for one sovereign nationality, and for universal freedom.' Their only dread and horror is of what they call 'negro equality'" (31 August 1865, p.2).
A Richmond correspondent shared the following about a Virginia riot in 1865: "This case is entirely on a level with the recent outrages in Connecticut and with hundreds of facts that are of almost daily occurrence, not only in the States of the South, but even in those of the North. They all spring from one source - hatred of the negro on the part of the Rebels in the South and their sympathisers in the North. Being unable to keep them longer in bondage they are trying to exterminate the race" (Commercial Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 91, 21 August 1865, p.2).
The Winchester News shares in the August 18, 1865 issue: "As the smoke and dust of the conflict have partially subsided, let us see what has been the result of the late struggle: 1st. Slavery has been exterminated. 2i. The country has been desolated. It now remains to be seen whether or not the country will be benefitted by the changes... Some of the Northern philosophers think that it will, but are giving every particle of sympathy they possess to the negro. There is little reliance to be placed in such men. They are gentlemen affected with negrophobia so badly that they take into small account the real interest of the white man. Their's is surely a funny school of philanthropy; but any doctrine, however fantastical, can always find supporters. Some men in Virginia are gradually giving way to these sentiments; and because the Governor of the State wishes to have a white man's government, take exceptions to his course. It is to be hoped that they may soon see the error of their ways" (Vol. 1, No. 7, p. 2).
In a letter to her brother in 1865, a community member that lived in Mount Jackson, VA, shared news of their ravaged farms in Shenandoah County, Va, after the American Civil War: "you have not the least idea what we have suffered here in the Valley the last eighteen months of the war" (Moore, 4 August 1865, p.1). She continues in sentiment similar to what we have already read in the newspapers above, not without some situational hypocrisy: "help is very scarce although there is a crowd of negros coming back every day, they are idle and good for nothing, no one seems to want them, we still have Margaret, Ferrel & Coraline they have never left us, we are going to moove to the country this fall, and they seem to dislike the idea very much. I would not be surprised if they refused to go, if I lose Margaret I do not know what will become of me, for I feel less able to work now than I ever did in my life, Uncle Ben is still on the farm in Page, doing just as he did before the war, but don't know how long it will be so as all the darkies are demanding wages now that stay with there masters..." (Moore, 4 August 1865, p.1-2).
Not only do these primary source documents share the upheaval of life caused by the Civil War, but most profoundly a resonance of bitterness and hatred toward African Americans. This theme of inequality and lack of acceptance rises again and again in the history of Shenandoah County, VA. It is a theme that serves as a root cause for a backlash by white Americans attempting to assert their dominance and disapproval in often passive aggressive ways that we will come to witness as recurring again and again. These voices are preserved for us to read firsthand and share the truth of the generations following the Civil War. A truth that is captured by African American writer James Baldwin so aptly: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
Do we want our children today to imitate Confederate leaders in what they died fighting against - unity and equality? Do we want our children to imitate the cornerstone of inequality founded by the Confederacy? Do we want our children to condescendingly perceive others as unequal and less than, so much so that they should pick up arms against anyone they label, rather than alter their perceptions born of bias and ignorance? Or do we want them to look toward the American ideals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for a future that inspires our community and cultivates a thriving peace and equality for every single American - not just those with a lower melanin count or with the same political party?
My sons deserve a better example than Jackson, Lee, and Ashby. The daughters in our community deserve to see themselves in our community identity too. And we all deserve a better narrative than what the Confederacy can ever provide.
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over eight years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.
52 / Remembering & Moving On
51 / Integration & Teachers
50 / In Our Own Community
49 / S J H S
48 / Not One Positive Step
47 / Maintaining Public Peace
46 / Brown v. Board
45 / Rebuilding a Pro-Confederate South
44 / An Out-of-area Education
43 / Where's the 'Common Sense Consideration'?
42 / Education Without Heart
41 / Self-Preservation
40 / Free Public Schools
39 / The Mask of Defiance
38 / The Golden Door of Freedom
37 / Prejudicial to our Race
36 / Are We Compassionate?
35 / Community
34 / Need for Radical Change
33 / Bitter Prejudice
32 / Fear of 'Negro Equality'
31 / Rachel, Lashed to Death
30 / The Whim of the Court: A Look at Jacob, Stacy, Lett; March & Peter; Jeffrey & Peter
29 / Ben, Tom, Ned, Clary, & two men from the furnace
28 / The Loss of Fortune
27 / James Scott, A Free Man
26 / The Unremembered, The Unheard
25 / The American Cause
24 / Tithables for the County & Parish
23 / Satisfactory Proof of Being Free
22 / Building Community Takes Trust
21 / Jacob's Case
20 / Whose Control?
19 / Racial Classifications
18 / The Cost of Freedom in 1840
17 / Sale of Children
16 / Bequeathal of Future Increase
15 / The First Annual
14 / From a Descendant of a CSA Soldier
13 / True Americanism
12 / Slavery. A Hot Topic.
11 / Real Character
10 / Real Apologies
9 / Freedom from Fear
8 / 250 Years
7 / The Courage of Christ
6 / Whose Narratives?
5 / The 13th Amendment
4 / Symbolic Act of Justice
3 / Giving Thanks
2 / Confederate Congress
1 / Veteran's Day