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Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
In the Upper South, free blacks stood out as a living breathing contradiction to the institution of race-based slavery. State legislatures continuously debated and discussed the issue, and created a plethora of laws to restrict the freedoms given to African Americans. However, through a comparison of two piedmont locales, Bedford County, Virginia, and Washington County, Virginia, this thesis reveals the flexibility of execution of state laws on the ground. The work argues that state laws did not necessarily dictate black experiences in freedom. Instead, free black experience can be shown through the ways that whites enforced the laws, a process that often relied on local factors within each community. Through free black experiences in manumission and registration, in the local economy, and in the county courthouse, this work argues that significant differences existed between free black experiences within different localities in the Upper South, and that the strength of the institution of slavery directly affected race relations on the ground. In Washington County, slavery found much opposition in the proximity of the free state of Pennsylvania and the migratory work force associated with the changing economy that resulted in the decline of slavery and an increase in the free black population. In Bedford County, slavery remained relatively strong through the production of tobacco while the small free black population remained stable. Free blacks in Bedford County faced a more informal enforcement of state legislation in favor of a more localized legal culture based on reputation within the white community. In Washington County, whites utilized the law in order to control portions of the population that questioned the wavering institution of slavery. Free blacks in Bedford County faced a more informal enforcement of state legislation in favor of a more localized legal culture based on reputation within the white community. In Washington County, whites utilized the law in order to control portions of the population that questioned the wavering institution of slavery. Although the enforcement of state laws differed within each community, free blacks in both communities frequently interacted with whites in the community. Their interactions within the community laid the foundation for local reputation and the ways authorities would enforce the law.
Schmidt, Ashley K., "“Endangering the stability of slavery”: Black freedom in the Upper South, 1820-1850" (2012). Masters Theses. 316.