Week 28: The Loss of Fortune
Minute Book 1791-1796, reveals that on July 1st, a Shenandoah County enslaver brought his enslaved African American, Fortune, before the court for the murder of Sukey, another enslaved individual he owned. During the trial, Fortune claimed he was "in no wise guilty of the crime" (p. 444) and threw himself upon the mercy of the court.
After Fortune's defense statement and various witnesses came forth, the court found him "guilty of murder" and recorded that he be "hanged by the neck until he be dead... on Friday, the 12 day of August much between the hours of ten and four o'clock" (Minute Book 1791-1796:444).
In the same record, Fortune was valued at 80 lbs, which was payable to the owner for the loss of his slave. That's a buying power of nearly $14,400 today. If the enslaver had not brought Fortune to court, he would not have been compensated. On the one hand, this gentleman in the community deemed one man's death more profitable than his living. On the other hand, our county government, with taxpayers' dollars, bought an African American man, just to kill him.
Public hangings and lashings were common practices of colonial and early American law. That said, disparities in criminal justice have not been uncommon in American history. Thousands of people have been wrongfully convicted and killed by capital punishment or endured overly harsh sentencing in our country, in our state, and in our county. In some of these cases, individuals have been exonerated - such as the Virginian Marvin Anderson who was wrongfully convicted in 1982 and exonerated through DNA evidence twenty years later; or had charges dropped - such as with the pastor in Edinburg, Va, that was wrongfully arrested in 2020 (referenced in Week 21: Jacob's Case).
Thankfully, in 2021, capital punishment was abolished in Virginia; but, that doesn't alleviate the sentences issued in the cases of James Scott or Fortune. While the details to these over 200 year old cases are almost entirely lost to history, it appears that on August 12, 1796, an African American man named Fortune was legally lynched in Shenandoah County, just like James Scott would be on November 11, 1803, through the District Court that served our county. When a community has a history of injustice against minority groups, it's imperative for future generations to make decisions that promote equality for all, not just the majority. What would it mean to James Scott or to Fortune to be an American citizen today? What would they claim for community identity? It wouldn't be related to the Confederacy, not only because the CSA was not a reality for Shenandoah County before April 1861, but also because messages of white supremacy and black inferiority were known all too well to these men, especially in their dying breaths.
What do their deaths mean to us today? Are we as indifferent as our court system was in 1796 and 1803 to their suffering or can we choose to promote a community identity that is truly embraceable by all citizens of this county today? Do we honor African Americans that have lived and died in our communities over the county's many generations when we hold the examples of three Confederate leaders as paradigms for good character and just living? Now, answer that from the perspective of James Scott and Fortune.
Robert M Medley
5/19/2023 07:56:58 pm
Compelling story! Thanks for giving voice to Fortune and others like him.
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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.