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British Association for American Studies


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 2


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 3, Spring 2003: Special Conference Edition

African American Responses to Crime in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia

James Campbell
© James Campbell. All Rights Reserved

In August 1852, a slave named Isaac Simms appeared before the mayor of Richmond charged with throwing stones at the house of Joseph Signiardo, a white Italian immigrant. Mayor William Lambert found Simms guilty and sentenced him to receive thirty-nine lashes at the public whipping post. [1] The following month, Simms again found himself under investigation, this time by a quorum of black deacons from the First African Baptist Church to whom it had been reported that he had been fighting with his wife. The deacons determined that the evidence upheld the accusation and ruled Simms should be excluded from membership of the church. [2] Neither of the offences committed by Isaac Simms in the summer of 1852 was exceptional in its own right; cases of damaging property and domestic violence occurred frequently in late-antebellum Richmond. Nonetheless, it is highly significant that the church records made no mention of Simms’s encounter with the municipal justice system and, more significantly, that although the fight between Simms and his wife violated state law as well as ecclesiastical codes, there is no evidence that Simms ever appeared before a lay magistrate on an assault charge. Had he done so his case would not have been unusual, as in 1852 alone seven slave men and one free black man were found guilty in the Mayor’s Court of domestic violence and many more were convicted of fighting. [3] What is more, in at least three of these cases there is evidence to suggest that the black, female victim herself had instigated the prosecution. Isaac Simms’s wife evidently chose not to follow the example of the black women who reported their husbands to white authorities, yet her alternative course of action was itself far from unique. On the contrary, African American victims of crime routinely sought justice and protection in African Baptist church courts in the mid-nineteenth century.

Social and legal historians of the Old South have largely neglected the events that occurred at the pre-trial stage of the criminal prosecution process and in the region’s lower criminal courts. [4] This represents a significant omission in the historiography of Southern criminal justice, as it was in the immediate aftermath of crimes being committed, long before suspects were put on trial, that slaves and free blacks could exercise most influence over the judicial process. [5] Acknowledging the diversity of black interaction with legal processes has important implications for understanding the relationship between African Americans and the law in the antebellum South. A. Leon Higginbotham and Anne F. Jacobs have argued that one of the key underlying precepts of the law of slavery was the powerlessness of enslaved people. [6] The development of a secondary system of justice that denied black defendants basic due process protections including trial by jury, the right of appeal and the right to testify against whites, as well as subjecting them to stricter criminal laws and harsher judicial punishments than whites, gave legal sanction to the notion of black racial inferiority that permeated Southern society. [7]

However, as plaintiffs in cases involving other African Americans, blacks in Richmond demonstrated that, at times, they were not just subject to the law but active participants in legal processes. It is therefore evident that in this specific urban locale the precept of black legal powerlessness does not adequately describe the complex relationship between slavery, race and the judicial process. In antebellum Richmond, the development of an urban-industrial slave society resulted in a relationship between African Americans and the law that was distinct from that found in much of the rural South. As was common in urban areas throughout the South, large sections of Richmond’s black community lived in varying states of quasi-freedom. By the mid-nineteenth century, Richmond was one of the largest Southern cities as well as the foremost industrial centre in the slave states. In response to the labour demands of manufacturers and industrialists who were disinclined to purchase large numbers of slaves to man their operations because of the economic investment required and the problems of slave management, thousands of white slaveholders hired out enslaved workers to labour in the tobacco factories and iron works that lined the banks of the James River. Some of these hired slaves earned cash for additional labour performed when the day’s set-tasks were completed and others lived away from their owners and hirers, often in neighbourhoods populated by free blacks and impoverished white immigrants. [8]

In this urban context, as historians including Marianne B. Sheldon and Stephen Elliot Tripp have argued, ‘there was more extensive intrusion of administrative and judicial machinery into the master-slave relationship’ to compensate for the breakdown in paternalistic relations between whites and blacks brought about by the rhythms and demographics of the black community in the city. [9] In most instances, the role of the municipal justice system was to control and discipline African Americans. As the cases involving Isaac Simms demonstrate, however, African American victims were at times able to act with an unusual degree of autonomy that could profoundly affect the fate of criminal suspects. Most importantly, slaves and free blacks could seek justice in two very different institutional settings: the Mayor’s Court and the African Baptist Churches. By contrasting the experiences of black victims in these venues, this article will argue that African Americans were not only subject to the repressive functions of the law, but were also active agents who exercised discretionary influence over the course and outcome of criminal cases in at least two distinct ways. First, in spite of the discrimination they faced at every stage of the judicial process, slaves and free blacks reported crimes, instigated prosecutions and appeared as witnesses in criminal investigations that protected their person and property. Second, on many occasions black victims bypassed the municipal courts altogether and sought an alternative form of justice in the black controlled environment of the African Baptist churches. In these ways, African Americans resisted the precept of black powerlessness and racial inferiority and set limits on the legal hegemony of the slaveholding elite. [10]

African American Victims and the Richmond Mayor’s Court

The Mayor’s Court was the initial arena of judicial examination for all suspected criminals in Richmond and each year hundreds of African Americans appeared before the mayor as defendants. Although there are no extant official records of the proceedings of the Mayor’s Court, evidence of magistrates’ rulings is contained in a docket book kept by Mayor Joseph Tate between 1836 and 1839 and the daily court reports published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch from 1852. Throughout the antebellum period, Richmond mayors treated black defendants in a swift and summary manner and with little regard for common law due process. Moreover, both slaves and free persons of colour were consistently more likely than white defendants to be convicted. In 1838 for example, African Americans were more than ten percent more likely to be convicted of assault and stealing than whites, and by 1860 this figure had more than doubled so that, on the eve of the Civil War, over ninety percent of African Americans, but just fifty-six percent of whites accused of stealing were convicted in the Mayor’s court. [11] The most probable explanation for this temporal shift was the heightened sectional tension of the late antebellum years and, more specifically, the increased fear of rebellious slave behaviour that this engendered in the urban white community. This fear was reflected further in the increasingly harsh punishments inflicted on African Americans convicts at the end of the antebellum period. In 1838, less than fifteen percent of slaves convicted of non-felonious stealing were sentenced to the maximum penalty of thirty-nine lashes but, by the early-1850s, more than seventy-five percent were so punished. [12]

Qualitative evidence from cases involving enslaved and free black defendants in the Mayor’s Court supports the contention that examinations of African American defendants were characterised by a lack of concern with legal due process and rules of evidence. Maria Ann Fortune, a free black woman arraigned for stealing a counterpane sheet, a frying pan and a skillet from Sterling Logan was sentenced to ten lashes despite the fact that ‘the evidence did not directly implicate her’, while the slave Archy Page received twenty lashes for transporting stolen goods on the basis of evidence ‘amounting almost to proof’ and his having ‘always borne a doubtful character’. The slave Reuben received ten lashes simply for being in possession of ‘a piece of leather not accounted for and supposed to be stolen’ and Daniel Batley, a slave arrested in possession of bacon that was supposed to be stolen was ordered twenty-five lashes, ‘[t]he accused failing to prove his innocence of the charge’. [13] The burden of proof in these cases rested with the enslaved defendants rather than the white prosecutors. As slaves were not permitted to own property and because whites generally believed that African Americans were naturally inclined to stealing, the court assumed that black defendants charged with theft were guilty until proven innocent. [14]

However, even as the municipal courts subjected black defendants to a swift, summary and discriminatory form of justice, slaves and free blacks appropriated legal processes as one of the means by which they responded to criminal attacks on their person and property. I have analysed the race of defendants and victims in every Mayor’s Court case that was heard in three sample years: 1838, 1852 and 1860. There is every reason to believe that the docket book and newspaper reports recorded all of the cases that came before the Mayor’s Court. [15] However, the reports in these cases do not always provide a racial description of the victim, and although in the majority of cases the implication was that the victim was white, it should not be assumed that this was necessarily the case. As such, the number of recorded cases in which the victim was positively identified as black should be interpreted as a minimum figure.

The overwhelming majority of cases involving black victims that were brought to the attention of the mayor concerned violent assaults that were committed by free and enslaved African Americans. In 1838, the accused was charged with a violent crime in twenty-five out of the twenty-seven cases that involved African Americans as both victims and defendants. The remaining two defendants were charged with stealing. A similar pattern was evident in 1852 when only twelve African Americans were accused of property crimes against black victims while sixty-one slaves and free blacks were charged with violent crimes committed against other blacks. Little had changed by 1860 when thirty-three blacks were charged with perpetrating violent assaults on other African Americans and only nine were examined for stealing the property of a slave or a free black. [16]

It was rare that white defendants were investigated in relation to crimes involving African American victims and the number of white on black crimes reported to the mayor declined during the antebellum period. Again, this was probably symptomatic of increasing racial and sectional tensions in Richmond. In 1838, white men appeared as defendants in almost forty percent of cases in which the victim was black. What is more, three-quarters of these cases resulted in the conviction of the white defendant. [17] A significant shift had occurred by the 1850s. In 1852, white men were defendants in only twelve of the ninety cases in which the victim was positively identified as African American, although the conviction rate in these cases was, at seventy-five percent, the same as it had been in 1838. [18]

The available court records only hint at the events that brought cases involving black victims to the attention of white legal authorities, and it is consequently difficult to assess accurately the significance of African American agency at this early stage of the prosecution process. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between blacks as victims and as complainants in Mayor’s Court cases, as it is probable that many crimes committed against African Americans were reported not by the black victim, but by white police officers or slaveholders who were not concerned with securing justice for the enslaved. Although Richmond’s police provisions remained limited in the decade before the Civil War, the police played a far more important role in the administration of criminal justice in the city than in the rural South and the main intention of police instigated prosecutions was to demonstrate and reinforce the power that white authorities could exert over all aspects of African American conduct [19]. By the late-1850s, the streets of Richmond were patrolled by eight police officers during daylight hours and forty night watchmen. Significantly, however, most of the individuals arrested as a result of police vigilance were charged with victimless offences such as drunk and disorderly conduct or violations of municipal ordinances. [20]

When police officers arrested individuals suspected of more serious crimes against person and property, they relied heavily on the cooperation of victims and witnesses. The evidence is limited, but it was not unknown for African Americans to assist police officers in making arrests. The events that led to the apprehension of James Meredith, a free black man who attempted to steal a hog from the slave Patrick Wingfield, are illustrative. One evening Richard Singleton, also a slave, spotted Meredith acting suspiciously in the vicinity of Wingfield’s yard. Singleton alerted Wingfield and together the two slaves watched Meredith’s actions from a nearby stable. When Meredith leapt upon one of the hogs, the slaves pounced on him and tied him up until the nightwatch arrived to take him into custody. [21] These slaves were apparently willing to use legal avenues to protect their property without the encouragement of their owners and in spite of the discrimination that they would endure in the courtroom on account of their race.

Although slaves could not appear as complainants in Mayor’s Court cases, therefore, they were still able to exert considerable influence over the prosecution process. Indeed, with so many slaves hired out in Richmond, the owners of enslaved victims might not even know that a crime had been committed against their slaves until the matter came to court. A case of domestic violence involving an enslaved married couple suggests that prosecutions involving enslaved victims were not always rooted in slaveholder interests, but concerned issues internal to the black community. Although slaves could not legally marry, it was not uncommon for the Dispatch to refer to an enslaved female victim as the wife of the accused. In January 1852, Henry Robertson was charged with cursing and abusing his wife Caroline Robertson, an accusation that he did not deny, but sought to excuse on the grounds that Caroline had been sleeping with other ‘gmmen of color’. [22] Although Henry’s owner, Mr. Drew, was referred to in court, there is nothing to indicate that any whites were instrumental in bringing this case before the mayor and, most significantly, no reference is made to Caroline’s owner or any other individual who may have acted as a complainant on her behalf. Perhaps the mayor was unaware or unconcerned by the issues of legal procedure, not to mention social and racial order, raised by one slave bringing legal action against another. Alternatively, it might have been the case that despite the implication of the article, Caroline was, in fact, a free woman of colour rather than a slave. Finally, the mayor may not have been satisfied that a legally valid complaint could be made in this case and it could have been for this reason that he took the unusual decision to dismiss the case on the condition that Henry refrain from visiting his wife in the future.

Evidence from other cases involving slave victims indicates that in certain circumstances slaveholders appeared as complainants and the role of the enslaved victim was limited to providing testimony on which the prosecution could base its case. John H. Mettert, for example, took out a warrant against Dick, a slave, on the oath of his slave Bob who claimed that Dick had beaten him with a large stick. On another occasion, P. Ralston charged James A. Gaines with beating his slave Sam and on the basis of Sam’s testimony Gaines was sentenced to thirty lashes. [23] It is rarely possible to determine whether the slaves on whose oaths convictions were secured instigated complaints themselves or were coerced into giving evidence by their owners. It is also difficult to understand why slaveholders would make complaints on behalf of their slaves in cases of minor assaults. Thomas Morris has argued that ‘violence among slaves rarely ever became the concern of the law as it did not threaten the system’ [24] and other historians have concluded that when cases involving enslaved victims did come to court it was because of the threat to slaveholder interests inherent in incidents of violent slave abuse. [25] As these interests were not threatened in the vast majority of cases that came before Richmond’s mayor, it is likely that slaves themselves were far more instrumental in bringing about legal proceedings to protect their person than historians have allowed.

In contrast to slaves, free blacks were able to make complaints to the mayor independently and they referred all manner of criminal matters to the municipal courts. Catherine Hope charged two free black men, James Scott and William Quarles, with stoning her house and breaking windows. When the mayor heard the case, however, three other free black women challenged Hope’s story and testified that Quarles and Scott were at Maria Sullivan’s house at the time the crime was allegedly committed. Mayor Tate ruled that the evidence was too doubtful and dismissed the accused. [26] The legal proceedings instigated by Harriet Cross against the white baker Charles Strittain, however, were more successful. Cross accused Strittain of disorderly conduct at her house and Strittain was held to surety to keep the peace in part because the complaint was sustained by the evidence of Burwell Jinkins, the First Officer of the Night Watch. [27]

James D. Rice has argued that black complainants who sought justice in white courts in antebellum Maryland were motivated by concerns that were ‘pragmatic and short term: suppressing forms of misbehavior, such as homicide and theft, that were unacceptable to black and white alike.’ It was rarely the case, however, that prosecutions that served the interests of individual black plaintiffs were of wider benefit to the black community and Rice argues that black complainants in fact perpetuated the Southern system of race relations as a whole, albeit inadvertently. [28] As most prosecutions instigated by African Americans incriminated slaves and free blacks, they were interpreted by slaveholders as evidence that African Americans were prone to violence and theft and suggested that the black community was internally divided and in need of strict white governance. In many of these cases it is probable that without the decision of the black victim to prosecute, the alleged offence would never have come to the attention of white society and in this manner black plaintiffs served something of a police function for the white community. Finally, the paucity of black prosecutions involving white defendants and the reliance on white testimony to bring complaints and secure convictions reaffirmed the significant limitations on African Americans’s use of the law.

Short term pragmatism and self-interest motivated many black prosecutors in antebellum Richmond yet, as Jon Christian Suggs has shown in an analysis of law in slave narratives, African American attitudes towards the law in the Old South were not shaped solely by short term interests and acquiescence to white dominance in the courtroom, but were instead characterised by ‘a complex welter of hope, cynicism, trust, and clear-eyed, even ironic, understanding’. [29] A free black storekeeper who was interviewed in Richmond by a northern reporter in the 1850s encapsulated these attitudes when he complained that if a white man stole goods from his store, he would have ‘no legal remedy’ unless another white man witnessed the offence and even then ‘fear of the municipal lash’ might restrain him from entering a proper complaint. [30]

African Americans who appeared in criminal courts as complainants did not take the decision to prosecute lightly then, yet when they did report offences to the mayor they not only submitted to white authority, but also simultaneously asserted their right to legal protection thereby redressing and challenging the white ideal of black passivity towards the law. Indeed, free African Americans in particular were well versed in the operation of the law and vigorously asserted the few legal privileges to which they were entitled. Most notably, free black defendants employed defence lawyers and appealed unfavourable verdicts to the Hustings Court, a process that had become so common by the final antebellum decade, that an exacerbated newspaper reporter condemned the ‘indefatigable efforts’ of the lawyers in defence of African Americans, and claimed that ‘[t]he idea of cross-examinations and arguments by counsel in such cases as these, is perfectly ridiculous’. [31] Affording legal rights to black defendants in trivial cases appeared to white contemporaries to be quite unnecessary and even unseemly. It wasted court time, gave blacks a degree of legal protection that equated them with white defendants and undermined the crime control functions of the court. Similarly, when African American victims appeared in criminal courts and made accusations that they had been assaulted or had their property stolen, they invoked legal procedures that, while flexible, could never be bent to suit white slaveholder interests to the same extent that black-white social relations outside of the courtroom could be conducted on terms dictated by white society.

African Americans’s access to the criminal courts could never have undermined Southern slavery; the law always repressed blacks in the Old South far more than it protected them and offered them justice. Nonetheless, as victims and complainants in criminal cases, African Americans demonstrated that the ideal of black submissiveness and docility before the law that pervaded Southern legal codes, was in practice undermined by the very nature of law as ‘an unwieldy, imperfect tool&[that]&proved difficult for any single group to control completely’. [32] The law was required to treat slaves as persons in order to hold them culpable for criminal actions, but the logic of this requirement meant that the courts were also accessible to African Americans as victims of crime. By the very act of appearing as complainants and victims in criminal cases, blacks ‘discredited the essential philosophical idea on which slavery rested’ and forced white society to recognise their claims to humanity and the protection of the law. [33]

Criminal Examinations in the First African Baptist Church

The First African Baptist Church was established in 1841 and the church building was, perhaps deliberately, constructed next to the city jail on the corner of Broad and Fourteenth Streets. The Church initially comprised over one thousand congregants, a figure that increased throughout the antebellum era as more than four hundred new slave members were received from elsewhere in Virginia by 1859. [34] In total, 4,600 African Americans were members of one of the four African Baptist churches that had been established in the city by the eve of the Civil War and approximately one-third of Richmond’s adult black population was therefore subject to Baptist discipline. [35] The minutes of the First African Baptist Church contain frequent references to slaves and free blacks accused of a variety of crimes ranging from intemperance and bigamy to theft, fighting and murder and suggest that a remarkably formal set of procedural regulations was adhered to in the investigation and examination of church members.

There were undoubtedly substantial limitations to the operation of ecclesiastical justice and there is evidence that some slaves and free blacks were sceptical of the extent to which the African Baptist churches could serve the interests of the black community. Henry ‘Box’ Brown offered a particularly scathing critique following his escape from slavery. Brown argued that whites had permitted the establishment of the First African Baptist Church as a means of countering the problem of slave runaways by ensuring that slaves had ‘a strong motive to remain where they were’. Furthermore, by continually requiring African American church members to pay additional sums towards the eventual purchase of the church building without ever enabling them to obtain complete ownership of the property, Brown claimed that whites hoped to deprive slaves of the small sums of money that they could earn in the city and that could have been used to finance their escape from bondage. Henry Brown also maintained that the white pastor of the First African Baptist Church, Robert Ryland, ‘was a zealous supporter of the slave-holders’ cause’ and ‘was not ashamed to invoke the authority of heaven in support of the slave degrading laws’. [36]

In addition to Henry Brown’s criticisms, the church courts also faced more practical problems in their attempts to resolve criminal matters. In the first place, slaves and free blacks who were not members of one of Richmond’s four African churches could not seek justice in the ecclesiastical setting. More significantly still, even those Baptists who saw in the religious tribunals the potential for a limited form of self-regulation on the part of the black community would have recognised that exclusion from church membership – the sole disciplinary sanction available to the ecclesiastical tribunals – could only be imposed on church members and that it held little meaning outside of the church community and, furthermore, could be contradicted by the judgment of a secular court investigating the same case.

Even accounting for these qualifications, however, there is evidence that church discipline played a particularly significant role in the self-regulation of the black community. The church courts functioned very much as an alternative to the municipal criminal justice system. They reflected a distinct value system that enshrined what in statute law and, in most cases, the church members investigated by ecclesiastical committees were suspected of criminal offences that had not been brought to the attention of white authorities. As Marie Tyler-McGraw and Gregg D. Kimball have recognised, ‘[t]he church provided a spiritual context in which blacks could assess themselves by standards entirely different from those imposed on them by the dominant white culture in Virginia’. [37]

In the same month that Isaac Simms was investigated for fighting with his wife, a free woman named Fanny Randall was excluded from the First African Baptist Church for the serious offence of stabbing. Like Simms, she was apparently never brought before the mayor of Richmond to be examined on this charge. This suggests that Fanny’s victim either chose not to report the attack to a magistrate or that the offence was not considered serious enough by white judicial officers to warrant a criminal prosecution. In either case it appears likely that the victim was black as it is improbable that a white victim would have considered reporting the offence to African American church deacons without also bringing the matter to the attention of the mayor.

A number of factors might have prompted this black victim to seek justice in the First African Baptist church rather than a secular court of law. In the first place, Fanny Randall’s victim may have been intimidated by the thought of approaching white officers and taking her case through the municipal court system. It was less daunting for a victim to appear before a committee of church deacons with whom she worshipped on a regular basis than to submit to an inquisition by a magistrate. [38] Alternatively, the victim may have believed that the corporal punishment Fanny would suffer if found guilty by the mayor was out of proportion to the severity of the crime. It is even possible that Fanny Randall’s victim may specifically have wanted her assailant excluded from the church, as she understood that in the context of Richmond’s black community and Fanny’s religious convictions this would be a particularly chastening sanction, more likely than a public whipping imposed by the mayor to reform Fanny from her violent ways.

Implicit in all of these possibilities is the suggestion of an alternative black value system that was not reflected in the provisions of Virginia’s criminal laws. [39] The particular significance of this distinct standard of morality was clearly evident in the examination of Robert Johnson and John Trice. These two African American men were reported to the church for visiting the circus and reprimanded by the deacons for immoral conduct on the grounds that attending a circus conflicted with the dictates of their religion. It is unclear whether Johnson and Trice were slaves or free persons of colour but, in either case, the moral concerns that were paramount to the deacons would not have been a consideration in a lay court. [40] Instead, the white authorities would have recorded a verdict based on whether the accused had authority to be at the circus in the form of a pass from their owner or a register of their status as free blacks. As all African Americans had their freedom of movement limited by the pass laws, it is improbable that any slave or free black would have reported violations of these laws to the mayor.

The criminal investigations and trials conducted by the First African Baptist Church reflected the influence of Anglo-American legal norms and one of the reasons that slaves and free blacks turned to the church courts was in order to secure the legal protections that were extended to whites but routinely denied to blacks in secular courtrooms. The role of the white pastor in this process is not entirely clear, but the constitution of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Richmond’s third African Baptist church, established in 1858, suggests that the pastor was not required to be present at disciplinary hearings and that the black deacons exercised complete control over the proceedings. At least seven deacons had to be in attendance to form a quorum over which the pastor or any member of the church committee could preside. [41] When the slave Peter Kelly was brought before the church on a charge of bigamy, a committee made up of no less than twenty-seven black deacons determined his guilt, evidence of a system that stood in stark contrast to the autocratic judgments passed by the mayor. Indeed, the Baptist examinations can be seen as comparable to the jury trials that Virginia state law reserved for white defendants. It seems that many church members were proud of their examining system and, much as the high standard of legal oratory displayed by white trial lawyers was remarked upon in the press, the minutes of the First African Baptist Church noted the debating skills of black litigants. Again, the Kelly case serves as a good example as the church minutes noted that ‘the case was ably argued’. [42] Therefore, although it is significant that African Americans relied on the African Baptist churches to examine and punish suspected criminals, it is apparent that the nature of this reliance was influenced in part by the obstacles that confronted blacks as both accusers and defendants in white courts and the racially discriminatory practices that these courts employed.

The manner in which the black churches investigated criminal allegations was not only based on Anglo-American legal procedures but also on established Baptist practices that operated in white churches. The minutes of the First Baptist Church suggest that that institution served a comparable purpose in regulating the conduct of its members as did the African Baptist churches and, furthermore, that its examinations were based on a similar system of investigation and committee report, followed by a vote of the members of the church council. [43] However, there were important differences between the crime control functions of Richmond’s black and white churches, especially with regard to the type of offences that were examined. As a means of responding to crime, the First Baptist Church was far less significant within the white community than the African Baptist Church was among slaves and free persons of colour. In purely numerical terms, fewer cases were brought before the First Baptist Church for adjudication. In the nine-year period covering November 1851 to November 1860 for which records are available, only twenty-three church members were investigated for behaviour that might have been classed as criminal in a court of law. Eighteen of these cases involved drunkenness or retailing ardent spirits and there was only one charge of violent crime and one of stealing investigated. [44]

The African Baptist Church investigated a very different selection of criminal offences. In the year 1852 alone, at least twenty-two black church members, including seventeen slaves, were examined for behaviour that the law considered criminal. Fourteen of the twenty-two were charged with violent crime, six with drunkenness or disorderly conduct and one each with gambling and theft. Furthermore, although there were no cases of adultery brought before the white First Baptist Church, incidents of marital infidelity were heard by the African Baptist churches on a regular basis. The contrast between the types of cases investigated by the black and white churches is striking and indicates the unique role of the African churches in shaping African American responses to crime in antebellum Richmond and as a force for order and justice within the black community. That the African churches performed such functions is somewhat ironic given that white contemporaries in Richmond commonly depicted organised black religion as a root cause of African American criminality and disorder. The Dispatch, for example, often drew attention to slaves examined in the Mayor’s Court who were church members and claimed that ‘[n]early every negro detected in stealing, is a member of some one of the African Churches’. [45] Similarly, Mayor Joseph Tate noted with astonishment in the late-1830s, that Edmund Taylor, a slave convicted of stealing, ‘is or was a Baptist Preacher’ and that George Washington, another slave thief, ‘says he has belonged to the Baptist Church for 5 years!’. [46]

In Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene Genovese argued that in the Old South African Americans turned to their masters or other white men for protection, because they recognised their powerlessness before the law and ‘knew that the law protected them little and could not readily be enforced even in that little’. In this manner, slaves were driven deeper into an acceptance of paternalism, a development that Genovese presented as evidence of the hegemonic power of the law in the Old South. [47] However, in the urban-industrial context of late-antebellum Richmond, where thousands of slaves were hired out and lived away from their masters in a state of quasi-freedom and as part of a vibrant black community, African Americans routinely relied on the courts to protect their person and property. They reported crimes to their masters, the police, and the mayor and instigated prosecutions against suspected black and, on occasion, white criminals. However, black victims were never entirely dependent on the law or on their masters or other whites to protect their person and property, but could instead rely on the institutional mechanisms of the black community. Most notably, Richmond’s African Baptist Churches facilitated the establishment and regulation of an African American moral economy that was largely independent of the concerns and constraints of white society. In this way, African Americans in Richmond demonstrated that they were subject to ‘multiple subordinations”to white society, the criminal law, the church and the black community. [48] While it is not possible to deny the repressive functions of the law in the Old South, the responses of black victims of crime illustrate that there were limitations to white legal hegemony in Southern slave society.

University of Nottingham


[1] Daily Dispatch, 16 August 1852.

[2] Isaac Simms’s wife (whose name does not appear in the records) was not investigated by the First African Baptist Church implying either that she was not a church member or that the charge of ‘fighting’ was used loosely in this case to describe what was, in fact, an assault perpetrated by Simms on his wife.

[3] James Sidbury found that ‘[f]ree black women sometimes took their mates to court in search of physical protection’ as early as the late-eighteenth century. Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 238.

[4] An important exception is Arthur F. Howington, What Sayeth the Law: The Treatment of Slave and Free Blacks in the State and Local Courts of Tennessee (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986), 98-115. A number of historians have examined local criminal trial court records. See, for example, Michael S. Hindus, Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1767-1878 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 139-45; Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 74-75.

[5] Historians of criminal justice in England have recognized the influence of victims at the pre-trial stage of the judicial process. See, for example, Peter King, Crime, Justice, and Discretion in England 1740-1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Robert B. Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the law in London and Rural Middlesex, c. 1660-1725 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Jennifer Davis, ‘A Poor Man’s System of Justice: The London Police Courts in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century’, The Historical Journal 27 (1984), 325.

[6] A. Leon Higginbotham and Anne F. Jacobs, ‘The ‘Law Only as Enemy’: The Legitimization of Racial Powerlessness through the Colonial and Antebellum Criminal Laws of Virginia’, North Carolina Law Review 70 (1992), 975.

[7] During the course of the antebellum period, the criminal laws of Virginia were increasingly based on race rather than free or enslaved status. In 1833, legislation decreed that free blacks charged with felonies would be tried without a jury in the same oyer and terminer courts as slaves and, by the late-1850s, free black convicts could be punished by being sold into slavery.

[8] On slave-hiring, employment and living arrangements in antebellum Richmond, see Rodney D. Green, ‘Industrial Transition in the Land of Chattel Slavery: Richmond, Virginia, 1820-60’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 241; Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 38-43, 48-54; Gregg Kimball, American City, Southern Place (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 27-30; Midori Takagi, Rearing Wolves to our own Destruction (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 37, 78.

[9] Marianne B. Sheldon, ‘Black-White Relations in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1820’, Journal of Southern History 45 (1979), 30; Stephen Eliot Tripp, Yankee Town, Southern City: Race and Class Relations in Civil War Lynchburg (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 20-21. See also Marie Tyler-McGraw and Gregg D. Kimball, In Bondage and Freedom: Antebellum Black Life in Richmond, Virginia (The Valentine Museum, Richmond, 1988), 23.

[10] Two excellent depictions of responses to crime in the rural South that provide an important point of contrast with Richmond, are Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, a Slave (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1991), 33-41; Michael Wayne, Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9-18.

[11] In 1838, 101 of 133 (76%) African American defendants were convicted of stealing compared with 14 of 22 (64%) whites. The comparable figures for stealing convictions in 1860 were 123 of 135 blacks (91%) and 38 of 67 whites (57%).

[12] Ten of 68 slaves were sentenced to 39 lashes for non-felonious stealing in 1838 and 55 of 73 in 1852. Figures are not available for 1860 as, although the Dispatch specified when slaves were sentenced to corporal punishment, it rarely recorded the precise number of lashes to be inflicted.

[13] Daily Dispatch, 28 August 1852; 13 February 1852; 15 February 1853; Mayor’s Court Docket Book, 8 September 1837. Michael S. Hindus makes a similar point in relation to black crime in antebellum South Carolina. See Hindus, Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1767-1878 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 142.

[14] On whites’s belief that African Americans were naturally inclined to theft, see Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 599.

[15] A total of 3,611 cases were heard in these three sample years. It is reasonable to assume that the Dispatch recorded every case heard by the mayor as the court reports were a feature of every edition of the newspaper and commonly recorded the most trivial of cases. Furthermore, on days when there were no cases to report, the court reporter filled his columns with congratulatory commentaries on the paucity of crime in the city. See Dispatch, 18 November 1859.

[16] As the Dispatch did not always record the race of the victim, these figures should be interpreted as minimums. Twelve of 28 free blacks and 21 of 38 slaves accused of violence in 1860 were alleged to have attacked African Americans.

[17] Sixteen white men were charged with assaulting nine slaves in 1838 and twelve were convicted. Of these twelve, ten were jailed or held to bail to keep the peace and two others were sent on to the Hustings Court for further investigation. Mayor’s Court Docket Book (MCDB), 1 January, 4 April, 4 June, 24 July, 30 July, 27 October, 19 November, 23 November, 22 December 1838.

[18] For cases involving white defendants and black victims see Dispatch, 10 January, 8 March, 19 March, 15 June, 22 June, 1 July, 3 July, 5 August, 31 August, 18 October, 4 December, 14 December 1852.

[19] Policing remained a function of the community throughout much of the South during the antebellum period and all whites were empowered with police powers to watch, catch and beat black slaves and, for the most part, free persons of colour. By the mid nineteenth-century, however, most Southern cities had more elaborate police forces with hierarchical command structures, uniforms, elected officers and increasing access to modern technologies such as the telegraph to aid in the fight against crime. See Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols. Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001), 4; James Douglas Rice, ‘Crime and Punishment in Frederick County and Maryland, 1748-1837: A Study in Culture, Society, and Law’ (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maryland, 1994), 138; Dennis C. Rousey, Policing the Southern City. New Orleans, 1805-1889 (Louisiana University Press, Baton Rouge, 1996), 6; Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 83.

[20] Daily Dispatch, 11 January 1855.

[21] Commonwealth v. James Meredith, Richmond Hustings Court Ended Causes, September 1845.

[22] Dispatch, 16 January 1852.

[23] MCDB, Case of Dick, a slave, 21 December 1836; Case of James A. Gaines, 5 April 1837.

[24] Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 299.

[25] Andrew Fede, ‘Legitimized Violent Slave Abuse in the American South, 1619-1865’ American Journal of Legal History 29 (1985), 150.

[26] MCDB, Case of James Scott and William Quarles, 16 January and 20 January 1836.

[27] MCDB, Case of Charles Strittain, 16 July 1836.

[28] James D. Rice, ‘Crime and Punishment in Frederick County and Maryland, 1748-1837’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1994), 441.

[29] Jon-Christian Suggs, Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 26.

[30] John R. McKivigan, ed., The Roving Editor, or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States, By James Redpath (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 29.

[31] Daily Dispatch, 30 September 1852.

[32] Laura F. Edwards, ‘Law, Domestic Violence, and the Limits of Patriarchal Authority in the Antebellum South’, Journal of Southern History 65 November (1999), 741.

[33] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 47. On legal treatment of slaves as person and property see Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 247; Mark V. Tushnet, The American Law of Slavery, 1810-1860: Considerations of Humanity and Interest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 37-40. Ariela J. Gross, Double Character. Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 3.

[34] Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place, 70-71.

[35] John T. O’Brien, ‘Factory, Church, and Community: Blacks in Antebellum Richmond’, Journal of Southern History 44:4 (1978), 527.

[36] Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself: Electronic Edition, University of North Carolina, 1999 <>, accessed 12 January, 2002, 30-32.

[37] Marie Tyler-McGraw and Gregg D. Kimball, In Bondage and Freedom, 36.

[38] See John R. McKivigan, ed., The Roving Editor, 29-30.

[39] Historians have found evidence that slaves had distinct moral standards. For example, slaves who stole from their masters justified their actions as taking rather than stealing. See Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 322.

[40] Minutes of the First African Baptist Church, 3 March 1844.

[41] Minutes of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, July 18, 1858.

[42] Minutes of the First African Baptist Church, January 1842.

[43] See in particular the examination of Henry Keeling, First Baptist Church Richmond City Minute Book, 10 April and 4 May 1853.

[44] The other offences that were examined included unchristian conduct and swearing.

[45] Daily Dispatch, 3 September 1858.

[46] MCDB, 5 February, 21 September 1838.

[47] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 30, 49.

[48] This idea is based on Erin Moore’s work on men’s hegemonic control of public disputing forums: ‘The juxtaposition of village councils and state courts means that Muslim women ‘find themselves in positions of multiple subordinations and at the same time in conflicting alliances’ with and against the state, with and against the local Muslim caste, with and against the religious leaders who have the voice to fight the state’. See Susan F. Hirsch and Mindie Lazarus-Black, Contested States Law Hegemony and Resistance (New York: Routledge, 1994), 15-16.