Week 20: Whose Control?
Minute books provide a historical record of key decisions and actions taken by a business, corporation, or governing body. Shenandoah County's minute books are housed in the Circuit Court Clerk's Office in Woodstock, VA. A plethora of names, numbers, and notes results. As we saw in last week's reflection on racial classifications, the minute books prior to 1865 highlight the racial distinction of Africans and African Americans. Here are some examples:
From Minute Book, 1774-1780, "Order that the Church Warden bind out a Mulatto Girl named Jane in the possession of... untill she attain the age of Eighteen Years" (p. 4). Another binding out occurred for "a mulatto boy, Peter Brown" (p. 21).
Prior to 1864, Overseers of the Poor were responsible for binding out poor, orphaned, or homeless "white" children. The Virginia Constitution of 1864 included African Americans to the responsibilities of that role; however, before that time, the local government designated the act of binding out African American children. In colonial Virginia, which is the time period of these minute book entries, binding out was often done by the Anglican vestryman. This entry doesn't share what the indenture was for; however, boys were usually taught a trade (blacksmithing, shoemaking, masonry, etc) or animal husbandry (a.k.a. farming) and girls were typically domestic servants. The length of a child's indenture was most predominantly ten years. If that is true for Jane, she was at least 8 years old at the time of this recordation, but younger than 18, since that is the end of her servitude.
Our county government knowingly indentured children at this time of our county's history. Since this is before Social Services, accountability was at the discretion of the host family; and, literacy (particularly for girls) was not a required part of any "training."
Another entry in Minute Book 1774-1780 shares: "the Court being informed that Jackson Allen of this County have and made of his Negroes free; And that he be sum[moned] to app[ear] at the next court so the Cause why they should not be sold according to an Act of Assembly in that case made and provided" (p. 19). Later in Minute Book 1781-1785, the court recorder wrote these lines: "Upon motion of Jackson Allen Ordered that Sidney and Dinah two Female Slaves now his property be emancipated and entirely set free agreeable to an Act of Assembly for that purpose made and provided" (p.167).
While we can celebrate that Allen had the wherewithal to emancipate Sidney and Dinah, it's also important to note that not only did the county government question Allen's right to do so, but made him appear in court to explain why they should be made free. In addition, we have to remember that state law would require both women to leave Virginia upon their emancipation. How old were these women? Did they have other family members they would be forced to leave? What happened to them? This is also true for a negro man named Dick, who was emancipated in the 1781-1785 Minute Book (p. 126).
These names and experiences remind us of the introductory letter by Bishop Mallalieu in Bethany Veney's narrative, in which he states: "If we could know perfectly the inner life of almost any person; if we could only know the hopes and fears and loves and heartaches; if we could only know the conflicts, the defeats, the victories of the soul, - we should see that the humblest and most uneventful life is more thrillingly wonderful than any romance that was ever written. All this is emphatically true of thousands upon thousands born and reared in slavery" (1889:2).
The will books and minute books we have been examining were all written by land-owning men, who would mark "White" on any ethnic survey today. They controlled what was preserved and from whose perspective it was preserved. Anyone that deviated from the normal acts of the assembly were questioned, which is one way in which societal standards and expectations came into existence.
And it's equally important to remember for all the names of African Americans mentioned in our county's primary source documents, many more will never be known. Their unmarked graves and once spoken names quietly linger around us as we experience even the most quotidian tasks of the day. They were human beings, worthy of remembrance as much as Thomas Jackson or Robert Lee or Turner Ashby, if not moreso, because they were born in and lived in our county. Many of our community's African American ancestors even died in our beloved Shenandoah, even though our local government saw them first only as chattel property, whose very being could be controlled at will.
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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 seven 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.