History and Art History
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Freedom Is Not Enough: African Americans in Antebellum Fairfax County

Curtis Vaughn

Major Professor: Jane Turner Censer, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Cynthia Kierner, Randolph Scully

The Hub (SUB II), VIP 3
November 10, 2014, 10:00 AM to 08:00 AM

Abstract:

Prior to the Civil War, the lives of free African Americans in Fairfax County, Virginia were both ordinary and extraordinary. Using the land as the underpinning of their existence, they approached life using methods that were common to the general population around them. Fairfax was a place that was undergoing a major transition from a plantation society to a culture dominated by self-reliant people operating small farms. Free African Americans who were able to gain access to land were a part of this process allowing them to discard the mantle of dependency associated with slavery. Nevertheless, as much as ex-slaves and their progeny attempted to live in the mainstream of this rural society, they faced laws and stereotypes that the county’s white population did not have to confront. African Americans’ ability to overcome race-based obstacles was dependent upon using their labor for their own benefit rather than for the comfort and profit of a former master or benefactor.

When free African Americans were able to have access to the labor of their entire family, they were more likely to become self-reliant, but the vestiges of the slave system often stymied independence particularly for free women. Antebellum Fairfax had many families who had both slave and free members and some families who had both white and African American members. These divisions in families more often adversely impacted free African American women who could not rely on the labor of an enslaved husband or the lasting attention of a white benefactor. Moreover, families who remained intact were more likely to be able to care for children and dependent aging members, while free African American females who headed households often saw their progeny subjected to forced apprenticeships in order for the family to survive.

Although the land provided the economic basis for the survival of free African Americans, the county’s location along the border with Maryland and the District of Columbia also played a role in the lives of the county’s free African American population. Virginia and its neighbors remained slave jurisdictions until the Civil War, but each government wished to stop the expansion of slavery within its borders. Each jurisdiction legislated against movement of new slaves into their territory and attempted to limit the movement of freed slaves into their jurisdictions. Still, in a compact border region restricting such movement was difficult. African Americans used the differences of laws initially to petition for freedom. As they gained access to the court system, free African Americans expanded their use of the judiciary by bringing their grievances before the courts which sided with the African American plaintiffs with surprising regularity. Although freed slaves and their offspring had few citizenship rights, they were able to use movement across borders and the ability to gain a hearing for their grievances to achieve increasing autonomy from their white neighbors.

No one story from the archives of the Fairfax County Courthouse completely defines the experience of free African Americans prior to the Civil War, but collectively they chronicle the lives of people who were an integral part of changing Fairfax County during the period. After freedom, many African Americans left Fairfax either voluntarily or through coercion. For those who stayed, their lives were so inter-connected both socially and economically with their white neighbors that any history of the county cannot ignore their role in the evolution of Fairfax.   

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