Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South
Life in Black and White is an impressive example of the kind of local and regional history that for the last generation has transformed our understanding of the past. Brenda Stevenson has immersed herself so deeply in the private letters, diaries, school records, newspapers, and census schedules of Loudoun County, Virginia—and occasionally the records of some other Virginia counties—that she is able to bring to life a fascinating variety of Southern whites, black slaves, and free blacks while also providing a broad view of economic, demographic, and social change from the mid-eighteenth century to the Civil War. Stevenson also avoids the sentimentality and demonization that have characterized some of the best-known work on American slavery. As part of her major theme of racial differences between whites and blacks, she challenges prevailing beliefs regarding family life under slavery and thus contributes to the larger debate, which has taken many sharp turns during the past half-century, concerning the alleged weakness and pathology of the African-American family.
Loudoun County, stretching across rolling piedmont country east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and south of the Potomac, combined some of the characteristics of Virginia’s tidewater plantation country with the ethnic and social diversity of border states like Maryland. Settled in the early eighteenth century by Quakers, Germans, Welsh, and Scotch-Irish, as well as by black slaves, the region also attracted such eminent planter families as the Carters, Byrds, Harrisons, Lees, Masons, Peytons, Janneys, and Powells. Both James Monroe and Robert E. Lee owned Loudoun estates, though neighboring Fairfax County was much richer.
As in tidewater Virginia, tobacco soon became the staple crop and for the few large planters the means to great wealth. Many of the richest eighteenth-century planters were “absentee” landlords like John Mercer, who owned plantations in three Virginia counties as well as in Antigua, in the Caribbean. It was not uncommon for a Loudoun planter to own land not only in other Virginia counties but in Maryland, Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana. This diversification had a cruelly divisive effect on slave families and communities, since large planters commonly separated family members as they transferred workers from one farm to another in accordance with economic need. Multiple holdings also allowed owners to shift their resources away from northern Virginia when the profits from tobacco began to decline. Because eighteenth-century farmers showed little interest in fertilizers or crop rotation, a steady decline in soil fertility, reinforced by a drop in tobacco prices, led to fallow fields and to a long-term shift from tobacco to wheat, barley, corn, oats, and rye.
The total population of Loudoun County was remarkably stable from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War. During those six decades when the US population soared from 5,308,000 to 31,443,000, Loudoun County’s continued to hover between 20,431 and 22,796. But its slave population reached a peak of 6,078 in 1800 and declined by more than a thousand in the next decade. The increasing sale of slaves, especially young men, to the west…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.