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The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

by Mechal Sobel
Princeton University Press, 364 pp., $25.00

Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840

by Gary B. Nash
Harvard University Press, 354 pp., $28.95

Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia: 1860–1900

by Roger Lane
Harvard University Press, 213 pp., $25.00

When Landon Carter, a Virginia plantation owner, read the Declaration of Independence two days after it was issued, he wondered whether its ringing affirmation of equality meant that slaves must be freed. If so, he confided to his diary, “you must send them out of the country or they must steal for their support.” The author of the Declaration held an even darker view. Jefferson thought that emancipation, unless accompanied by the exile of blacks, would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

Carter and Jefferson both figure largely in Mechal Sobel’s study of black–white relations in eighteenth-century Virginia. The picture she draws seems to belie the one implied in the dire predictions. It is one of black and white living together in close quarters, each with inherited customs and attitudes, which meshed and interacted, so that both the dominant Anglo culture and the black subculture, itself a blend of many African cultures, were transformed.

It scarcely needs arguing that African customs were altered in America. For a long time it was assumed (a highly charged assumption, like all assumptions about race) that slavery eradicated every trace of inherited culture and left blacks without a past and with new patterns of living dictated entirely by their masters. The trend in modern studies of slavery has been the passionate opposite, to emphasize the survival of the African heritage and the autonomy of black culture even under slavery. Sobel takes the trend a step further in contending that attitudes and casts of mind carried from Africa penetrated and altered the dominant English culture. She sees the preindustrial, seasonal work patterns of Africa reinforcing traditional precapitalist English agricultural work patterns to create the lazy South. She sees native African acceptance of slavery encouraging the deference demanded by the master class in America. She finds African technology in the construction of houses transforming English housing.

Most significantly Sobel finds black and white patterns of religious experience meshing and merging in the evangelical denominations that swept up lower- and middle-class Virginians in the last half of the eighteenth century. Here the argument is persuasive in suggesting how African attitudes toward death made blacks susceptible to the “new birth” that figured so heavily in the preaching of Baptists and Methodists. That the black example served to make Virginia’s whites “more ‘open’ to ecstasy and spiritual life,” as Sobel seems to be saying, is less clear. Ecstasy of the spirit and outbursts of emotional frenzy have accompanied evangelical Christianity everywhere.

What Sobel does not emphasize, perhaps because it is obvious, is that this Virginia “world they made together” remained a white man’s world. White Virginians might learn from blacks—as white South Carolinians may have learned how to grow rice from them—but the blacks remained their slaves. The few who were free or freed and remained among them were a constant source of worry, and were systematically deprived of fundamental rights enjoyed by whites.

The intransigence of white control demonstrated itself most incongruously in the very churches where the black contribution was most apparent. Sobel stresses the conspicuous presence of blacks at the most successful revival meetings, where Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists expanded their membership. Initially the evangelical churches welcomed black participation and even proclaimed the incompatibility of slavery with the gospel promise of salvation. Slaves became church members along with their masters and voted in church disciplinary actions against erring communicants, whether white or black, slave or free. But it was not long before whites had second thoughts and corrected this aberration. By the 1790s the evangelical churches had reversed their resolutions against slavery and confined voting rights in their churches to the free. And though free blacks were still formally entitled to vote, their membership was gradually transferred to congregations composed entirely of blacks. Whatever blacks had contributed to white religion, whites no longer felt a need for it, indeed felt a need to do without it, and blacks themselves felt a need for churches of their own.

Sobel does not dwell on these reversals. Hers is a story of how “whites had come to share many African perceptions without being aware of it.” But the sharing, conscious or unconscious, gives added bite to the conviction of white Virginians that blacks were incapable of sharing in freedom a culture to which they had contributed as slaves. Jefferson acknowledged that his pessimism about emancipation rested not only on “real distinctions which nature has made,” but on “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites” and on “ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained.”

In the event, although the convulsions have not quite materialized, deep-rooted prejudice has proved a greater obstacle to racial peace than the ten thousand recollections of injuries. If anyone doubts it, the evidence is glaring in Gary Nash’s study of the black community in Philadelphia, peopled in large part by former slaves, among whom the recollections of injury were too fresh to have been forgotten. In the new nation that developed after Jefferson’s Declaration, Philadelphia was home to the largest urban concentration of free blacks, and the white population showed a greater initial commitment to emancipation and equality than that of any other part of the country. Philadelphians began the first abolition society in 1775; Philadelphia Quakers led the Yearly Meeting to renounce slaveholding for all Quakers in 1776; and Pennsylvania passed the first law abolishing slavery in 1780. The free black community grew by leaps and bounds thereafter, not so much by manumissions in the city itself as by the immigration of freed slaves from other states seeking haven in the city of light. By 1800 there were more than six thousand and by 1820 twelve thousand, the numbers bolstered in part by a Virginia law that embodied Jefferson’s fears in requiring emancipated blacks to leave the state.

Philadelphia’s enlightenment survived the early years of black expansion. Led by the Quaker humanist Anthony Benezet, by the leading physician Benjamin Rush, and by the Revolutionary gadfly Thomas Paine, Philadelphians attacked white prejudice. Samuel Stanhope Smith, soon to become president of Princeton, published a long treatise to demonstrate that all variations in the human species, including the unfortunate variations from the European norm, were the product of environment and would thus alter in the right environment, which was understood to include both Philadelphia and the rest of the United States. Although prejudice did not disappear (Smith’s argument exhibited it even while attacking it), it seemed to be on the run. When a West Indian reformer appeared on the scene in 1787, with a scheme for colonizing free blacks in Africa, he met a cool reception from both white and black.

But if prejudice was on the run, it did not run far. Not all Philadelphians succumbed to the enlightenment, as attests the stoning of a supposed witch by a lynch mob on the city streets during the sitting of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.1 Blacks felt enough hostility to begin very early to form institutions of their own for mutual support and shelter. In the same year that they rejected colonization in Africa, they founded a quasi-ecclesiastical organization called the Free African Society. By 1793, despite opposition from white patrons, the members had transformed themselves into a Christian church and constructed a two-story brick building to house their services. In the years that followed, this “African Church of Philadelphia” furnished black leadership and served as a prototype for other all-black churches. Most of them were affiliated with national denominations but retained a greater degree of autonomy than was common in other churches of the same denominations, retained it sometimes in the face of lengthy legal battles for control by the white-dominated national organizations.

Nash details the struggles of the black community to gain and sustain rights extended automatically to whites and to assist not only each other but their African countrymen still held in slavery. It is the story of a malign dynamic between white prejudice and black autonomy. Free blacks who banded together for whatever reason were resented both by unreconstructed white racists and, as Nash puts it, by paternalistic white reformers who found that “helping their black brothers provided more satisfaction than seeing them help themselves.”

The impetus for the formation of black organizations often came from white exclusiveness. The founding of the African Church of Philadelphia owed much to a new segregation of blacks in the city’s Methodist Church in 1792. The saddest example came on the Fourth of July, 1805. In the early years of independence the whole city turned out on the glorious Fourth in the square before Independence Hall for a day of feasting and celebration by all classes and colors. In 1805 the crowd turned on the blacks and drove them from the square before the festivities could begin. Three years later blacks established their own annual festival for January 1, the day in 1808 when prohibition of the slave trade took effect. The July 4 episode was only the beginning of a “Negrophobia” that grew over the ensuing decades, prompting blacks toward greater independence, which in turn provoked further ridicule, scorn, and hatred, culminating in a race riot in 1834 in which white mobs wrecked black housing.

Nash’s subject is the black community and the way it coped with the obstacles placed before it. He is less concerned to account for the growth of white hostility and prejudice than to ascertain the facts of what Philadelphia blacks did about it: the construction “of independent organizations embodying their sense of being a people within a people and relying on their own resources rather than on white benevolence.” The principal organizations were churches, but Philadelphia’s blacks also founded their own schools, their own businesses, and their own mutual aid societies for poor relief.

The facts as Nash exhibits them give the lie to most of the excuses that whites offered for their hostility. Whites expressed alarm at the growth of the black population, but after 1790 it grew at about the same rate as the white population, remaining at about 10 percent of the total. Whites charged that blacks swelled the relief rolls, but in the early years the number on public relief was about the same as the proportion of blacks in the population, and by 1832, owing to the work of black mutual aid societies, blacks comprised only 4 percent of those on public relief. Blacks were supposed to be responsible for most crime, but the numbers tried by the courts were also fewer than their proportion of the population. And though the proportion grew in the early nineteenth century, the numbers involved in violent crime remained small. Nor could blacks have invited hostility by clanning together in one part of the city, for in these years they were dispersed throughout the city. Nor were they by most definitions a distinct social or economic class. Although they never made it in the professions or in the higher ranks of mercantile enterprises, they developed a class structure roughly similar to that prevailing among whites.

Nash, like Sobel, declines to draw pessimistic conclusions from the facts he presents. He observes that Philadelphia’s blacks have not recovered the ground they held in the 1790s, but he entitles his last chapter “The Dream Deferred.” If it is only deferred, those of us who take some pride in our sanity may rejoice. But it is difficult not to see in this Philadelphia story a paradigm of black experience in America, of recurring bouts of white sanity overcome by prejudice, visible in the history of Virginia’s evangelical churches in the eighteenth century, in the Strange Career of Jim Crow as revealed by C. Vann Woodward in the twentieth, and perhaps as depicted in the recent commission report that finds the condition of most blacks to have deteriorated in the past two decades of desegregation and affirmative action.

Nash’s findings show that Jefferson was dead wrong about convulsions arising from ten thousand recollections by blacks of injuries sustained. But Jefferson has not yet been proved wrong about deep-rooted white prejudice. Nash eliminates every rational explanation for the prejudice that grew in early-nineteenth-century Philadelphia. He destroys every charge advanced to justify it, until there is nothing left but prejudice itself.

If we may believe Roger Lane, that same prejudice lay at the roots of the black violence and crime that he examines in later nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Nash acknowledges that black crime increased in the early nineteenth century but discounts it as consisting mainly in the kind of petty theft engendered by poverty. By 1860, however, black crime of all kinds had overtaken white. Lane begins his study in 1860 and carries it to 1900, making use of W.E.B. DuBois’s classic 1899 work on The Philadelphia Negro, “arguably the best piece of sociology written by an American in the nineteenth century.” He concerns himself with all kinds of crime but uses the figures for homicide as the tip of an iceberg. The problem he poses in its simplest terms is why the homicide rate among blacks rose from 6.4 per 100,000 in the 1860s to 11.4 in the 1890s, while the overall rate fell from 3.6 to 2.1. And he sets these figures in the context of a general decline of urban homicide in other major cities.

Lane’s explanation is not simple, and it goes beyond what DuBois proposed. DuBois and other contemporary black leaders attributed black crime, much as Landon Carter and Jefferson might have, to the distance that blacks had to travel out of slavery. Philadelphia had continued to attract black immigrants from the southern states, and the crime rate was frequently blamed at the time on these new arrivals, who stood at the bottom of the economic ladder, unaccustomed to making a go of urban life. Lane shows that the new arrivals were actually responsible for less than their share of crime. He demonstrates that native Philadelphians committed most of the crime and that it was not confined to the lowest levels of the black community. The most successful blacks owed their success to the profits of prostitution, gambling, and the unlicensed sale of liquor, activities that were illegal in themselves and that often generated the violence that brought men and women before the criminal courts.

Lane’s figures are based on court records, which one might expect to exhibit a considerable bias against blacks, but he demonstrates that the judicial and legal system was the least biased institution blacks had to contend with. The rate of conviction and the severity of sentences among blacks did not differ significantly from those among whites. If the law was an instrument of class dominance, as the proponents of critical legal studies claim, its administration in Philadelphia was not, on the evidence, an instrument of race dominance.

What emerges as the ultimate explanation of violence is something else: the unofficial but systematic exclusion of blacks from what Lane calls the urban industrial revolution. There is an unacknowledged irony here. Historians of labor have recently concentrated on the helplessness of industrial workers in the factories that superseded the home workshops of skilled artisans. They have called attention, not without vicarious nostalgia, to the days when labor was regulated by the seasons and the weather rather than the clock, to the unhurried patterns of life that Sobel finds concurring in Africa and early Virginia. When these patterns gave way before the factory system, where the only limits to work were the limits of human endurance, workers were subjected to ruthless degradation until they were able to protect themselves through collective bargaining.

What Lane argues is that Philadelphia blacks were excluded from the miseries of this system by employers and from its benefits by the very unions from which white laborers ultimately profited. As a consequence they were not subjected to the discipline of work ordered by a clock and the accompanying regularity of habits that, in Lane’s view at least, induce compliance with law. Philadelphia factory owners made it clear that no blacks need apply. Blacks were able to enter the system only as strike breakers, to be ejected when the strike was over. They never experienced the security (such as it was) or the discipline of industrial labor.

Nor were blacks able to improve their condition through political action. In the years that followed the Civil War, national policy, in the Radical Reconstruction of the South, gave southern blacks for a time the opportunity to become a part of the political system. Philadelphia’s blacks enjoyed only a diluted version of these benefits: they were given the vote in 1870, but when they attempted to enter politics at the municipal or state level, the doors were firmly closed. The reigning Republican party called on them for votes at election time but rewarded them with only trifling city offices. After a long struggle they were allowed one small triumph: they could board the city’s streetcars. But they were not suffered to aspire to so exalted a position as that of streetcar conductor.

In the early years of Philadelphia’s industrialization, white violence was more in evidence than black. It was not safe for a black to walk the streets in many parts of town. Black soldiers, veterans of the Civil War, marching at the ends of military parades, met with volleys of stones as well as catcalls from the white crowds. But as white violence subsided, black violence rose, directed most often at other blacks. Excluded from industry, they remained as in Nash’s account a people within a people but in Lane’s account a preindustrial people within an industrial people, a people whose undisciplined lives mingled with those of disciplined whites only at the fringes, where irregularity in the form of crime and violence were most common. Other migrants to the city, first the Irish and later the Italians, showed at first the same propensity for crime, the propensity of outsiders. But without the handicap of color they were able to fight their way in. Blacks remained outside. The faint hopes of the 1860s gave way to frustration by the 1890s, conforming to the paradigm.

The story, of course, is not over. As Lane points out in an epilogue, the Second World War cracked the barriers that excluded blacks from industry, and the civil rights movement that followed saw many other barriers fall. But as blacks have entered the industrial labor force, union seniority has helped to keep black unemployment at twice the white level. And as blacks have become a power in urban politics, industry has been moving to the suburbs. Black crime has continued to rise and, in Lane’s words, “For many blacks, the long tradition of coping with the lack of legitimate employment by turning to the illegitimate has now hardened into a kind of subculture within the wider culture of Afro-Americans generally.” It is scarcely a consolation that white crime has ceased to decline and is now rising to join the black rate “in response to some social and economic malaise that no one has been able fully to diagnose or cure.”

Whether Lane has correctly diagnosed the social and economic malaise behind black violence may be open to question. A host of reservations arise about the connection on the one hand between preindustrial habits and crime and on the other hand between industrial labor and social virtue.

Why, for example, have industrial societies required a professional police force to deal with crime, while preindustrial societies managed without one? Is it because an industrial economy requires stricter adherence to law or is it because industrial discipline provokes more disobedience than its other institutions can suppress? Is the police force required only or mainly to control the archaic remnants of the population with preindustrial habits? If so, has the need declined with the advance of industrialization? It would be difficult to deny that white prejudice must figure directly or indirectly in any diagnosis of black crime. That being the case, the relative impartiality that Lane discovers in Philadelphia’s courts and the role the courts have played in combating prejudice in our own time furnish a modicum of hope that over the long run prejudice may be weakened. Granted that the laws the courts administer have been and are white laws, made by whites for their own purposes. Granted too that the law can be bent and often has been. Nevertheless, as E.P. Thompson observed at the close of a study of the way law was bent by the ruling class of eighteenth-century England, “the law…has its own characteristics, its own independent history and logic of evolution.” 2 Even when law is designed by lawmakers to favor one class against another, the independent logic of the law may frustrate that design. Justice abhors prejudice.

If the paradigm of black experience, of progress followed by regress, has not been wholly cyclical, if the gains of one decade are not wholly erased in the decades that follow, it will not have been, pace Roger Lane, because of industrial discipline but because of the independent logic of the law. It is too soon to say that the course of black history in America has followed an upward spiral. But as long as society accepts the rule of law, the law will exert its own pressure toward justice. The courts cannot erase prejudice, but they can penalize it. We may only hope that the penalties will be sufficient to control it. Otherwise it may yet produce the convulsions that Jefferson predicted.

  1. 1

    The Witch and We the People,” American Heritage (1983), pp. 6–11.

  2. 2

    Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (Pantheon, 1975), p. 262.

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