On this day in 1916, Ota Benga committed suicide in Lynchburg. The four-foot-nine-inch Benga was a Congolese-born Pygmy whose family was killed in a raid in 1902 or 1903. He was captured, sold into slavery, and finally, in 1904, brought to the United States by a missionary who displayed him first at the Saint Louis World’s Fair and then—as you can see above—at the Bronx Zoo.
Such were the racial attitudes of the day that “saving” Benga from his life in Africa still meant putting him up to live in the Primate House. In 1910 he managed to find his way to Lynchburg and there befriended the poet Anne Spencer.
But even her company was not enough. This was, after all, Virginia, and on this day in 1924, the General Assembly passed its first Racial Integrity Act. While the cage around Ota Benga had been more literal, perhaps, the law still restricted the social movement of African Americans. For starters, no marrying whites. But more than that, the state took a fervid interest in the racial composition of its citizens, demanding that everyone be registered according to their “admixture” and treated accordingly:
That the State registrar of vital statistics may, as soon as practicable after the taking effect of this act, prepare a form whereon the racial composition of any individual, as Caucasian, Negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or any mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains, and if there be any mixture, then, the racial composition of the parents and other ancestors, in so far as ascertainable, so as to show in what generation such mixture occurred, may be certified by such individual, which form shall be known as a registration certificate.
Lest the proud descendants of Pocahontas worry about their being—gasp!—American Indian, the law provided that “persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indians and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons.”
I sometimes wonder if Ota Benga and Virginia more generally are just riffs on the theme of that famous Vietnamese town ofBến Tre: “We had to destroy the village …”
IMAGE: “African Pygmy, Ota Benga and Chimpanzee, From a photograph made in 1906 in the Zoological Park, New York City” (New York Zoological Society)
On Friday, 19 March 1847, Daniel Webster wrote on a flyleaf, “I have paid $120 for the freedom of Paul Jennings—he agrees to work out the same at $8 per month, to be furnished with board, clothes & washing—to begin when we return from the South—His freedom papers I gave to him; they are recorded in the District.” Jennings was sold to Daniel Webster and freed by him in the span of a paragraph. It was an early spring day, just as when he had first arrived in the city in 1809. Paul Jennings walked down the road in possession of this all-important piece of paper. He still owed Senator Webster $120, but this he would pay off “with his own free hands.”
The real reason why this particular iconic representation of America’s national bird never caught on, is in the tailfeathers – shaped to follow a border no longer in existence by 1848. The western borders of the subsequent independent and later US state of Texas are recognisable, for now as the dividing line between the US and Mexico. The feathers follow the US inland border as it moves north, and disappears out of sight at the area disputed with Great Britain.
Meanwhile, the great inland empire of Louisiana is already being divided up into US states, with Louisiana and Missouri separated from the ‘mainland’ of the formerly French lands.
This map was published in Philadelphia in 1833 by Carey & Hart, in a now extremely rare atlas, the Rudiments of National Knowledge, Presented To The Youth of the United States, And To Enquiring Foreigners, By A Citizen Of Pennsylvania.
On this day fifty years ago, U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy spoke at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, on the occasion of the Emancipation Proclamation’s centennial. As you might expect, the civil rights movement came up. Twelve years earlier, students at Robert Russa Moton school in Prince Edward County had struck for better conditions, and the need for better education continued to be acute:
We must achieve equal education opportunities for all our children regardless of race. Segregated schools cause educational as well as psychological difficulties an the resulting rain on our greatest resource—the spirit and knowledge of our children—must be eliminated.
We may observe, with as much sadness as irony that outside of Africa, south of the Sahara where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.
Some sources, including for a time, Encyclopedia Virginia, include an additional sentence at the end of this paragraph: “Something must be done about Prince Edward County.” But our research has shown no evidence that Kennedy actually said this, and the Department of Justice’s copy of the remarks does not include it.
The University of Virginia community traditionally has shied away from its legacy of slavery. Consider that the go-to piece of scholarship on slavery at UVa—one of the few devoted studies that even exists—was written by an undergraduate! Or take that engraving above, made in 1827 and depicting the Rotunda and Lawn. You have to look really close—see that balcony on the left? Now zoom in and you’ll see (above right) an African American woman holding a white child. That’s slavery at UVa, but it’s also a neat little metaphor for how the university has remembered slavery.
Finally, take the story of Henry Martin (pictured above left), who rang the bell in the Rotunda from 1847 until 1909. Last October a university alumni group placed a plaque on Grounds that reads, in part: “He was beloved by generations of faculty, students, and alumni, and he remembered them all when they returned for visits.”
Martin wasn’t actually a slave when he worked for the university, but he played well the role—both during his lifetime and during ours—of the contented black man. A historian recently told me that shining a spotlight on Martin—as opposed to the hundreds of enslaved men and women who labored at the University of Virginia—only “reinforces the old pro-slavery vision of the loyal slave. It reinforces old stereotypes.”*
So how do we bring slavery out of the shadows at the University of Virginia? One way is to put it on the cover of the university’s alumni magazine. “Unearthing Slavery,” by yours truly, appears in the spring 2013 issue. (Full disclosure: my wife is an editor at the magazine.) I think it is to the magazine’s editors’ great credit that they chose to put this story on the cover—not because I wrote it, but because, frankly, it’s risky. Not everyone in the university community wants to acknowledge this past, and, as for those who do, they are very invested. Should the story fail them, that would be significant. And disappointing. I hope it doesn’t.**
The story considers both the history of slavery at the University of Virginia and then a bit about how the university is working to acknowledge and even commemorate that history. Here’s a taste of the history:
[Professor Maurie] McInnis says that early records of the University indicate that students were more likely to be disciplined for wearing the wrong jacket than for assaulting a slave. As for their sometimes violent behavior: “It helps put into perspective what Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia,” she says, referring to Jefferson’s famous observation that the white children of slaveholders, “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” It was for that reason that Jefferson prohibited students from bringing their own slaves on Grounds.
“[Jefferson] hoped he could take 18- to 22-year-olds from that plantation environment and educate them out of being tyrants,” McInnis says. “But he did not anticipate that there was no way to operate the University without slavery. There was no other labor force available.”
And now the memory:
The efforts of various groups around Grounds have focused more attention on issues surrounding slavery, and a growing number of other colleges and universities have seen similar movements. “If we want to just confine ourselves to the history of [slavery in] higher education, then we have to acknowledge the work that other institutions have done: Brown, Emory and many others,” says Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. “So it’s important on that front that we have this discussion. The University of Virginia is a public institution, and one of some standing. Inasmuch as the conversation about slavery is fairly advanced in the circles of higher education, we should be a part of it. Slavery as an institution lasted for hundreds of years and provided the foundations of the economic, the social and the political structures of this country. To the extent to which we avoid talking about that history, we impede our own progress.”
* To be clear, this is not a comment on whether Martin was actually contented, or to suggest that, if he was, there would be something wrong with that. It is not to pass judgment on him as a person, but only to suggest that it can be convenient for an institution to honor some people and forget others.
** Thank you to Robert Viccellio and the other editors at the magazine. They have been wonderful to work with.
NOTE: This post was revised on March 11, 2013.
IMAGES:University of Virginia by B. Tanner, 1827 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); Henry Martin by Rufus W. Holsinger (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); and detail from the Tanner engraving
On this day in 1941, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. True story. (Among unfortunate causes of death to be found in the encyclopedia, it ranks up there with George Tucker dying, on the eve of the Civil War, after being struck by a falling cotton bale.)
Exactly 286 years earlier, a man named Anthony Johnson won a court case in Northampton County. Johnson had come to Virginia in 1621 on the James, and was identified at the time only as “Antonio a Negro.” He was a slave, in other words,* and in March 1622 he was working on the Bennett plantation when Opechancanough‘s famous attack came. Fifty-two people were killed on the plantation altogether, with Antonio among the few survivors. At some point he purchased his freedom, and that of his wife Mary (she had come to Virginia as a slave on the Margarett and John in 1622).
Together they became Anthony and Mary Johnson and lived on the Eastern Shore. Then, late in 1654, a black man belonging to Johnson ran away and threw himself upon the mercy of a neighbor. The man claimed that, contrary to Johnson’s claims, he was not a slave but a servant being kept illegally. The case made its way to the Northampton County Court, which ruled on this day in 1655 that the man was, indeed, the property of Johnson and that the neighbor should pay Johnson’s court fees.
* While it is true that scholars have, over the years, argued that many Africans in early colonial Virginia may have been indentured servants, the consensus seems now to be that they most likely were slaves.
A version of this post was originally published on March 8, 2012.
IMAGE: A court document, from August 1670, relating to Anthony Johnson (Library of Congress)
On this day in 1855, Winfield Scott was promoted to brevet lieutenant general, a rank not held by anyone since George Washington. The term “brevet” designated an honorary rank, usually given to mark some success. In Scott’s case, that was his victory in the Mexican War. To make the point, Congress made the promotion retroactive to 1847, and General Scott, being an old S.O.B., celebrated by immediately suing for nearly $27,000 in back pay.
It should be noted that Scott’s promotion came on the second anniversary of Jefferson Davis being appointed secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce. This is relevant for a couple of reasons: Pierce had been Scott’s subordinate in the Mexican War but had nevertheless trounced the general in the presidential election of 1852. In other words, a grudge just might have been involved. And if Scott could look past Pierce, it was hard to ignore Davis, who was a proactive secretary and often times a micromanager. Davis thought Scott to be “peevish, proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”—no doubt accurately—but in the end Scott got the last laugh. Pierce’s administration failed to come up with a good argument for why he shouldn’t receive his pay, and Scott eventually received about $10,000.
A version of this post was originally published on March 7, 2012.
IMAGE: Left top:Jefferson Davis (Library of Congress); left bottom:a minié ball, a bullet that greatly increased the accuracy of rifle shots and introduced into the United States army by Jefferson Davis; right: Winfield Scott (Library of Congress)
Fifty years ago today the great country singer and Winchester native Patsy Cline died in a plane crash near Camden, Tennessee, at the age of twenty-nine thirty. She was flying home to Nashville after a benefit concert in Kansas City in a plane piloted by her manager. Also on board were the country music luminaries Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas and Harold Franklin “Hawkshaw” Hawkins. After a prayer service, her remains were returned to Winchester, where her funeral attracted news media and thousands of fans. She was buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park just outside the city.
Willie Nelson wrote Patsy Cline’s great hit “Crazy,” and after the jump he describes meeting the star. Also, Patsy, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins …
IMAGES: Life, March 22, 1963, 32–33 (Google Books)
The king and queen of Spain, Fernando (Ferdinand) II and Isabel I, backed [Christopher Columbus's] first voyage grudgingly. Transoceanic travel in those days was heart-stoppingly expensive and risky—the equivalent, perhaps, of space-shuttle flights today.
There is no basis of comparison between the astronauts who first landed on the moon on 20 July 1969, and discoverers like Columbus, Cabot, Verrazzano, and Cartier. These four were men with an idea, grudgingly and meanly supported by their sovereigns. The three young heroes of the moon landing did not supply the idea; they bravely and intelligently executed a vast enterprise employing some 400,000 men and costing billions of dollars; whilst Columbus’s first voyage cost his sovereigns less than a court ball; and Cabot’s, which gave half the New World to England, cost Henry VII just fifty pounds. The astronauts’ epochal voyage into space, a triumph of the human spirit, was long prepared, rehearsed, and conducted with precision to an accurately plotted heavenly body. Their feat might be slightly comparable to Cabot’s if the moon were always dark and they knew not exactly where to find it—and if they had hit the wrong planet.
On this day in 1820, John Wood, a mathematics professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, put together a list of about 250 words in the Nottoway language. He learned them while visiting the tribe’s Southampton County reservation (pop. 27) earlier in the year and talking with sixty-year-old Edie Turner, a native speaker. Wood described Turner as a “Queen” who, although illiterate, was “extremely intelligent.” Then—obviously in honor of a forthcoming Saint Patrick’s Day celebration!—declared the Nottoway language to be “evidently of Celtic origin.”
Wood decided to send his collection of words to one of the nation’s foremost collectors of Indian language lists, Thomas Jefferson. Years earlier, the former president had compiled about fifty vocabularies and was readying them for publication when, on his way home from Washington to Monticello, lost them. In a letter written at the time, Jefferson explained that on the James River a thief had stolen the trunk that contained the papers, but “being disappointed on opening it, threw into the river all it’s [sic] contents of which he thought he could make no use. [A]mong these were the whole of the vocabularies. [S]ome leaves floated ashore & were found in the mud …”
This strikes me as not so different from the time I completely wiped my hard drive clean—by accident.
Anyway, eleven years later, Jefferson mailed John Wood’s new vocabulary to Peter Stephen DuPonceau. The French-born linguist corrected Jefferson’s mistaken impression that Nottoway was an Algonquian language (even he knew it wasn’t Celtic), instead identifying it as Iroquoian. Sometime later, James Trezvant, a lawyer in Jerusalem, Southampton County, and a member of Congress (1825–1831), also visited the Nottoways, creating a word list of his own that included what he said was the tribe’s name for itself: Cherohakah—which is now, more or less, the name of a state-recognized Indian tribe.
ONE MORE COOL FACT: One of the words that appeared on the Wood-Trezvant lists was “hokeh,” meaning “yes.” It appears to be a cognate of the Choctaw word “okeh,” or “it is,” which has traditionally, but likely incorrectly, been considered a source for the English word “okay.”
IMAGE: The Nottoway family of Walter Turnerposes for an unknown photographer in front of a house in Southampton County in 1918 (Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia / Virginia Indian Archive)
On this day in 1842, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Upholding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the justices determined that slaveowners had a constitutional right to attempt to reclaim their own escaped slaves, even when those slaves crossed state lines into free territory. This helped pave the way for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the provisions of which were most famously tested—in and out of court—by two Virginians: Shadrach Minkins and Anthony Burns.
Also on this day, in 1864, Union cavalry officers Ulric Dahgren and H. Judson Kilpatrick, in two separate columns, made their way toward Richmond on the famous raid that bore their names. It was a fiasco, and a dramatic one at that, involving spies, secretly exhumed corpses, and secret papers.
And finally, on this day in 1928, the House of Delegates passed the antilynching lawby a vote of 74 to 5. A noticeable twenty-one delegates abstained. Governor Harry F. Byrd signed it into law two weeks later.
A guest post by Peter Hedlund, Encyclopedia Virginia Programmer
One of the goals at Encyclopedia Virginia is to create intuitive and interesting ways for users to find content on our site. With this end in mind, we redesigned our site last summer. But one aspect of the original site persisted: the Explore Virginia map. Still, we found this tool to be outdated and unnecessarily complicated, concerns that we confirmed through usability testing. So we’ve been working to fix it, and today we’re happy to announce that we have created a new map tool. To find it, go to EV’s front page and click on “Browse the Map.”
Our mapping function has been completely redesigned. It will allow users to explore and discover our content more easily and quickly and—we hope—to make interesting geographic discoveries about Virginia’s history and culture. As ever, its goal is to provide pins on the map pointing to the locations of historical events; click on a pin and you’ll find a link to a related EV entry. But the new map can now filter geographic points of interest by a combination of date range, category, and/or search term. In the meantime, users can still zoom in and, by dragging, reposition themselves in order to see more geographic details or to differentiate among a tight cluster of event markers. Additionally, a scrollable text window to the left allows users to explore on the map events revealed by the combination of filters and map boundaries.
One of the benefits of being a digital publication is that we will be able to analyze the effectiveness of this new map by looking at our website’s statistics. For example, if our stated goal is to provide effective tools for users to discover our content, the statistics should show that more people are clicking from points on the map through to the entries to which those points correspond than they did with the previous map.
We have great ideas for improving this map in the future. We’d like to include historic boundaries of both Virginia and its counties as well as provide the ability to overlay historic maps. As always, we are receptive to suggestions from our users. What kind of features would you like to see us add to our map?
After the jump, a reminder of what our old map looked like.
IMAGE: A screen shot of Encyclopedia Virginia‘s new mapping tool
On this day in 1862, on day nine of the First Confederate Congress’s session, lawmakers authorized Jefferson Davis to suspend the writ of habeas corpus “in such cities, town and military districts as shall, in his judgment, be in such danger of attack by the enemy as to require the declaration of martial law for their effective defense.”
The Confederate president promptly took his congress up on the offer and declared martial law from Norfolk all the way to Petersburg and Richmond. While to be sure it was an attack on civil liberties, the declaration anticipated a more-feared attack in the spring by George McClellan‘s Army of the Potomac. As such, protests were few, and the suspension expired a year later. Only when the writ was suspended again in 1864 did states’-rights advocates get their backs up.
Meanwhile, many of those arrested, at least in Richmond, were held at Castle Thunder Prison (shown above). As it happens, also on this day in 1862, John H. Winder, a crusty old Mexican War veteran, was named Richmond’s provost marshal, which put him in charge of Castle Thunder and the city’s other detention facilities: Libby Prison and Belle Isle. By the end of the war, Winder’s esteem was such that he was promoted to command all prisons in Georgia and Alabama, including the notorious Andersonville. Fortunately for Winder, he died of a heart attack before his enemies could hang him.
On this day in 1601, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex‘s “head was taken off by the executioner’s axe when his frustrated ambitions had boiled over into a sorry attempt at rebellion on the streets of London. Feeling that he had never received the full recognition he deserved from the queen, at thirty-five the brightest star of Elizabeth’s last decade burned himself out.”
That quotation is from The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, a fine new book by Stephen Alford. As for Essex, whom Alford describes as “dazzling,” he crosses paths with Virginia history a number of times. He was Sir Walter Raleigh‘s great rival at court, and the two almost fought a duel. And a number of his followers—some caught up in his rebellion, some not—ended up closely involved with the Virginia Company of London. When Essex and Raleigh led an attack on the Spanish port city of Cádiz is 1596, Essex knighted the future company treasurer Thomas Smythe and the future governor Thomas Gates. Sir George Somers fought with Essex the next year, and the future governor and captain-general for life Thomas West, baron De La Warr, joined the earl in Ireland in 1599.
When Essex rebelled, these connections proved dangerous. Both De La Warr and Smythe ended up in prison. Here’s a passage from our entry-in-progress on the latter:
In 1601, Smythe’s former commander, Essex, led a failed uprising against Queen Elizabeth and Smythe was implicated. Writing in volume 53 of the National Dictionary of Biography (1898), the British naval historian Sir John Knox Laughton sketched the scene with great drama. On February 8, Laughton wrote, Essex rode to Smythe’s house on Gracechurch Street in London: “Smythe went out to him, laid his hand on his horse’s bridle, and advised him to yield himself to the lord mayor. As Essex refused to do this and insisted on coming into the house, Smythe made his escape by the back door.” Smythe was imprisoned for more than a year in the Tower of London but eventually was exonerated.
On this day in 1838, two University of Virginia students, Franklin English and Madison McAfee, were attempting to disperse a group of free blacks when they were approached by Fielding, a slave owned by the English-born mathematics professor Charles Bonnycastle. What happened next was the subject of some dispute.
On March 2, all the relevant parties, plus a few witnesses, were asked to testify before a committee of faculty—well, all the relevant parties except for Fielding. For his part, Bonnycastle stated that the young men administered his slave “a severe and inhuman beating,” and that when he intervened “for the purpose of preventing his servant from being murdered,” he too was beaten.
Others told a different story, one that emphasized Fielding’s insolence. For instance, a witness reported that a student struck the slave several times with his fists and with a hickory cane, both while Fielding was standing and then after he had fallen down. According to the testimony, “Fielding begged—was then suffered to get up and depart—in doing so he picked up a stone, motioned to strike with it and was again insolent.”
At some point, Bonnycastle arrived on the scene and “caught McAfee by the collar of the coat—and said something which witness did not distinctly hear—to which McAfee replied in a loud voice—’Madison McAfee from Mississippi’—and ‘that any man who would protect a negro as much in the wrong as Fielding is no better than a negro himself.’”
Another witness complained that Bonnycastle did nothing to stop Fielding’s insolence, and for that reason an assault on the professor was justified. Thomas Jefferson‘s grandson, George Wythe Randolph, was there. He testified to said insolence and stated that “he had little doubt, that if Mr. Bonnycastle’s manner of interference had been different, the matter might have been easily put a stop to.”
In this instance, blaming the victims worked.
The Faculty having deliberately considered the evidence in this case are unanimously of the opinion, that the alledged outrage against Mr. Bonnycastles servant ought to be left of the cognizance of the Courts.—And they are further unanimously of opinion, that under the peculiar circumstances of this case, no action can be taken by them against Messrs. English and McAfee for disrespect to Mr. Bonnycastle.
The professor died in 1840, at which point no action, civil or otherwise, had been taken against the students. According to an obituary notice in the Southern Literary Messenger, “Mr. Bonnycastle was a close student; and, perhaps, his devotion to study led to a premature death. He took very little exercise, studied in an unhealthy posture, and until a late hour of the night.”
No mention of any toll the attack might have taken.
Last week we mentioned on these pages an unfortunate column written by the president of Emory University, who held up the three-fifths compromise at the Constitutional Convention as the sort of pragmatic politicking to which we ought to aspire today. The idea of the three-fifths compromise was to count enslaved men, women, and children as three-fifths of a person when divvying up legislative districts. Compared to the North, the South had many fewer white people. Without the slaves, there would have been fewer congressional districts, and therefore fewer representatives in Congress. Which would have meant that southern interests—i.e., slavery—might have suffered. Slaves were required to be part of the “constituency” necessary to maintain slavery.
It’s an irony to be sure, but also, according to President John W. Wagner, an acceptable “price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—’to form a more perfect union.’” More than that, the three-fifths compromise “kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.”
President Wagner quickly apologized, but the New York Times has now written about the incident, placing it in the context of some other issues on the Atlanta school’s campus. A professor made an interesting point:
Leslie Harris, a history professor and the director of a series of campus events that for five years examined issues of race at Emory, said she was more troubled by the intellectual holes in Dr. Wagner’s argument.
In his column, Dr. Wagner used the Congressional fight over the national debt to muse on the importance of compromise, which he called a tool for noble achievement. “The constitutional compromise about slavery, for instance, facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to — a new nation,” he wrote.
That is a deep misunderstanding of history, Dr. Harris said.
“The three-fifths compromise is one of the greatest failed compromises in U.S. history,” she said. “Its goal was to keep the union together, but the Civil War broke out anyway.”
True enough. But how long does one need to stave off civil war before such a compromise—founded, as it was, on evil and injustice—can be seen as something other than a total failure? I mean, seventy-four years ain’t bad.
By the way, the university’s namesake, the Methodist bishop John Emory (1789–1835), is also the namesake of Emory and Henry College in Washington County—the oldest college in southwest Virginia and the alma mater (well, almost the alma mater, if he hadn’t have transferred) of J. E. B. Stuart.
On this day in 1790, Thomas Jefferson‘s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson, married Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. Our entry notes that “the Randolphs were a difficult and troubled family.” How so? Well, apparently one of Tom’s sisters, Judith Randolph, was married to Richard Randolph (they must have been cousins). Richard allegedly impregnated another Randolph sister, Nancy, and then—again, allegedly—helped her to commit infanticide. The cherry on top of this very sad story is that Richard Randolph resided on a Cumberland County plantation called Bizarre.
There was a trial, by the way, but you should read the entry for more on that.
On this day in 1732, George Washington was born at Popes Creek farm in Westmoreland County, the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington.
It’s a little confusing, because by Washington’s calendar, he was actually born on February 11, 1731. That’s because at the time England (and therefore Virginia) used the Julian, or Old Style, calendar. Much of Catholic Europe, however, had switched to the Gregorian, or New Style, calendar, which, for religious reasons, recalculated leap years. In order to get the ball rolling, Pope Gregory XIII had—for one time only—slashed the calendar by ten days. At the same time, the Catholics (including those in Scotland) mostly decided that the year should begin on January 1. England, living in its own private Idaho, didn’t turn the calendar until March 25.
So, Washington’s birthday: February 11, 1731, in England and Virginia; February 11, 1732, in Scotland; and February 22, 1732, in most of the rest of Europe.
Go figure. Virginia didn’t join the New Style party until 1752.
The other day we poked a little at Mississippi for just getting around to making official their ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery. So it behooves us to take note that on this day in 1952, Virginia finally got around to ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment, allowing women to vote. Just as slavery had long been dead in Mississippi, so had women long been a vital part of Virginia’s electoral process. In fact, the commonwealth elected its first two women to the General Assembly back in 1923: Sarah Lee Fain and Helen Timmons Henderson.
On this day in 1851, the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins, a native of Norfolk, quietly crossed into Canada and became a free man. As you might imagine, it had been a long road. First, he had escaped to Boston, where he got a job waiting tables at an upscale coffee house. But passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made his position precarious, and soon enough he was recognized and arrested. Amazingly, however, a crowd (or mob, depending upon your point of view) managed to break its way into the courtroom and rescue Minkins. From our entry:
Approximately twenty black men led the assault, and it is unclear whether their action was prearranged or spontaneous. Regardless, they burst through the outer door and then through a second, inner door before entering the courtroom. Witnesses described Minkins, who was standing with the Reverend [Leonard A.] Grimes [of Virginia] at the time, as looking frightened and confused. Four or five black men grabbed him and roughly carried him out of the courthouse, his clothes partially ripped off. According to the scholar Gary Collison, “The rescuers headed north along Court Street, 200 or more following like the tail of a comet.” If the deputy marshals pursued, it was only for a few blocks.
A bit of perseverance, organization, and luck, and—voilà!—Minkins had made it to Canada, where he lived out the rest of his days. In the meantime, the administration of Millard Fillmore was furious, including the president’s secretary of state, Daniel Webster, who had been an architect of the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act. On the same day that Minkins escaped into Canada, Webster addressed a letter to a group of New Yorkers, on the occasion of George Washington‘s birthday, describing Minkins’s rescue as, “strictly speaking, a case of treason.”
On this day in 1955, the Saturday Evening Post published an article titled“Southerners Will Like Integration,” [pdf] by Sarah Patton Boyle, the wife of a faculty member at the University of Virginia. Boyle recounts how, five years before, when U.Va. accepted its first black student, Gregory Swanson, everyone expected trouble, but that trouble never came. In fact, she writes, Swanson “suffered, during his entire stay here, no unpleasantness related to his race.”
While one doubts that this was strictly true, it was true enough for Boyle, who tested the waters with pro-integration editorials in the Norfolk and Richmond papers. She did not get an angry response. Feeling emboldened, and convinced that southerners were open-minded as a whole just afraid to say so, she took her campaign to the Saturday Evening Post. From our entry on Boyle, here’s what happened next:
The purpose of the article had been to reassure other white southerners that segregation could be ended without animosity; yet the title, along with a photograph of Boyle standing next to two black male medical students, raised the specter of interracial sex in the minds of many white readers, and Boyle was soon deluged with hate mail and threatening phone calls. The social isolation she faced in Charlottesville at this time was dispiriting; local segregationists burned a cross in her yard and she became so depressed that, despite her previous idealism, she contemplated suicide.
IMAGE: Detail of the first page of Patton’s article
In 1865, the citizens of Mississippi rejected the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery. It didn’t matter because the amendment, in December 1865, was ratified by three-quarters of the states anyway. See Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the full story.
Here’s the thing about Mississippi, though. It finally got around to rubber-stamping the amendment 130 years later—in 1995. Problem was, the unanimously approved resolution was never send to the Office of the Federal Register, as required in the last paragraph of the resolution in order for it to become official. No one actually noticed this until an Indian-born professor of neurobiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center saw the Spielberg film and discovered the oversight. (There was actually an asterisk next to Mississippi on the website usconstitution.net.)
Steps were taken, and on February 7, 2013, or about 148 years after most everyone else, Mississippi has given its thumbs up to the end of slavery.
PS: We have an entry being prepared right now about the Thirteenth Amendment. Here’s what it says about Virginia’s ratification, which was speedy because its state government was then controlled by Unionists:
Many state legislatures were in session when Congress submitted the proposed amendment to the states, and several of them speedily adopted ratification resolutions. The assembly of the Restored Government of Virginia was one of them. On February 8, 1865, the six-member Senate, with one member absent, voted 5 to 0 to ratify the amendment. The following day, February 9, the thirteen-member House of Delegates voted 9 to 2 to ratify the amendment … Secretary of State William H. Seward officially counted Virginia’s ratification as the twelfth of the requisite twenty-seven state legislative ratifications required …
The only other states to reject the amendment—besides Mississippi—were Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey.
IMAGE:Screenshot from Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg (2012)
Happy Presidents Day! The holiday—officially called Washington’s Birthday and established by Congress in 1971 as the third Monday in February—is meant to honor United States presidents. Eight of the forty-four, or 18 percent, were born in Virginia:
There are other kinds of presidents in the encyclopedia, however—for instance, Confederate States presidents. And on this day in 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the provisional president of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Alabama. He declared that the “South is determined to maintain her position, and make all who oppose her smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel.”
IMAGE: Folk art depiction of George and Martha Washington (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Everybody needs a break, and I’ve been taking a much-needed one while we at Encyclopedia Virginia work to meet a grant deadline. But it’s hard to ignore this from the president of Emory University.
In his regular president’s letter for the university’s alumni magazine, James Wagner begins with the usual bromides about political polarization and how we all need to compromise more. (Fun fact: the dictionary definition of bromide actually includes this very example: “His speech had nothing more to offer than the usual bromides about how everyone needs to work together.”) What’s interesting is Wagner’s example of a great compromise in American history:
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates [to the constitutional convention of 1787] wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—”to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.
At first I thought that maybe I hadn’t read that correctly. Was the president of Emory University really saying that counting African Americans as three-fifths of a human being in order to artificially empower those who enslaved them an example of “ultimate aims” and “higher aspirations”? Apparently, yes.
As it happens, the next issue of the University of Virginia’s alumni magazine will feature a cover story I wrote about the history and legacy of slavery at the university. A number of people I interviewed mentioned the great work that Emory University has done in acknowledging its own legacy of slavery. Two years ago, Emory even hosted a conference on Slavery and the University and a number of U.Va. people, aware that we’re playing catch-up here in Charlottesville, attended.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that James Wagner, in praising the three-fifths compromise, seems to forget about all the enslaved men, women, and children who were its victims. What drew white male landholders “more closely together” also destroyed families, ruined lives, and, more than half a century later, nearly ended altogether our “more perfect union.”
Are all compromises worth the price? If Wagner had wanted to argue “no,” he couldn’t have done a better job.