The Rise and Fall of Emancipation in Petersburg


The American revolution stirred the idea of emancipating the Africans brought here on English and New England slavers, and Virginia’s emancipation efforts were second to none. But while the Northern States in the early 1800’s had trouble tolerating the few free blacks among them, the very large number of free blacks (and slaves) in the South being influenced by black revolts in the Caribbean created a great powderkeg. The South had prior experience with an enemy inciting blacks to massacre white Virginian’s and Carolinians with Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation; it wouldn’t be long before New England’s radical abolitionists would do the same. These were New Englander’s who forgot that their fathers grew rich from the slave trade.

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402

The Rise and Fall of Emancipation in Petersburg:

"(A)n alarming proportion of black families were "matriarchal," that is, the husband/father was either absent or…present but of negligible influence. (Also) the woman-dominant family was unstable and disorganized, at once the symptom and cause of severe social pathology among black people. Women were prominent among free blacks; they outnumbered the men three to two, they headed more than half of the town’s free black households, and they constituted almost half of the paid free black labor force. Among those free blacks who managed to accumulate property, a high proportion—40 to 50 percent—were women.

The manumission law of 1782 (Virginia) empowered the owner to set free any slave under the age of forty-five by the stroke of a pen. For the first time, a substantial proportion of black Virginians would be free people. Petersburg’s free black population more than tripled in the space of twenty years, its size swelled by the high rate of emancipation in the town itself and by the hundreds of newly-freed migrants from the countryside who came in search of kin, work and community. By 1810, there were more than a thousand free blacks in Petersburg, and they made up close to a third of the town’s free population (31.2%). Free blacks and slaves together outnumbered the whites four to three.

It was the very success of the manumission law that led to its demise. In 1805, Petersburg’s common council begged the General Assembly for some action to halt the growth of the free black population. The council feared an uprising, and with seeming good reason. Petersburg had welcomed its share of refugees from Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where dissatisfaction among free blacks had touched off protracted (racial) warfare; in 1803, the whites of Saint-Domingue were ousted altogether. When Petersburg’s officials looked at their own burgeoning free black population, they imagined it happening all over again…"a mine sprung in St. Domingo that totally annihilated the whites. With such a population we are forever on the Watch."

(The Free Women of Petersburg, Susan Lebsock, W.W. Norton, 1984)