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Book Excerpt: The Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, VA.
by Daryl Cumber Dance

The Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, VA.

1998, by Daryl Cumber Dance

Excerpt From CHAPTER III:
Crawford and His Generation: Abraham's Grandchildren Doing What They Could to Help the Cause

"I fed the soldiers and did what I could to help the cause."
(Warren Cumber, Claim #19208)

The period of the Civil War was obviously a traumatic time for Crawford and his generation. Members of the family were often in attendance at meetings of the Dover Baptist Association when the group considered its stands on matters regarding slavery and abolition. That the hysteria, fear, and suspicion that afflicted the slaveholding South would affect their lives is clear. That they would be particularly vulnerable at this time is also obvious. Crawford''s cousin Edmund Collier Brown was charged with a felony for possessing a copy of the Anglo-African in May 1861 (CCC Order Book, 1860-72, 74; see discussion in previous chapter).

When the war started, large numbers of slaves in Charles City deserted their owners, some joining the Yankees. Judge John M. Gregory laments in a letter dated 6/19/1862, "Almost everybody has lost some of their negroes and those that have remained do little or nothing. Every person in my neighborhood has lost some of their negroes. . . . I suppose nearly, if not fully, half of the negro men have gone" (Copland 7). The records of escaped slaves in Charles City is one of the thickest batches in the "Records of Escaped Slaves, 1863" (Auditor''s Item 153, Box 17, Library of Virginia), listing large numbers who left varied plantations mainly during General George McClellan''s occcupation, and one who "was hired to the Confederate government to work on fortifications at Yorktown and went to the enemy." In the aforementioned letter, Judge Gregory noted that his efforts to get free Negroes to work for him had been unsuccessful: "The free negroes refuse to work, and the demand for labor is so great in consequence of the great number of negroes who have gone from this county to the Yankees, that no labor can be hired."

Many Negroes were impressed into military service in the Confederacy, and the legislature passed laws allowing the impressment of slaves and free Negroes into its labor forces. My great-great-great uncle Warren C. Cumber notes that his nineteen-year-old-son "was forced to serve in the rebel army as a waggoner" (Southern Claims Commission Claim #19208 of Warren C. Cumber). In the Requisition for free Negro labor in Virginia on March 19, 1863, the number from Charles City was 100, one of the largest numbers. Some of the descendants of Abraham Brown were among them. Those who were conscripted were probably treated as little more than slaves, though impressed free Negroes were supposed to have been paid for their labor, unwilling though it might have been. Edna Greene Medford points out that many of those so impressed suffered lasting physical disabilities as a result of the difficulties they endured during their conscription (6).

Many of the free Blacks used any ploy available to them to avoid such service--some ran away, some feigned illness, some sought help from powerful White friends. My great-grandfather, Robert Spencer Brown, paid the sergeant who acted as foreman where he was put to work on rebel fortifications to let him go (Claim #6138). My great-great-great uncle Warren Cumber in his testimony to the Commissioner of Claims for losses suffered during the Civil War indicated that he was arrested by the Confederate authorities and was being taken to Yorktown to work on fortifications, but that "when they reached Williamsburg with me I applied to a lawyer of that place, who was an old friend of mine, named Branch, and represented to him that my crops would be entirely lost if I could not return to tend them. He obtained my release" (Claim #19208).

Like most free Blacks, Abraham''s descendents might have been inclined to join the Union and fight for their cause, since it was commonly believed that free Blacks would be enslaved if the Confederacy were victorious. My great grandfather, Robert Spencer Brown, declared, "I was always a Union man. I was born free. I knew if the Rebels got the best of the war they would make me a slave. I would never have stayed in this state if the Union Army had left it" (Claim # 6138). His brother James echoed his sentiment: "We were all for the Union. We couldn''t be anything else" (Claim of Robert Spencer Brown, #6138). Many, like Joseph Brown, wanted to fight for the Union, "but I didn''t want to leave my home--I had a wife and family dependent on me" (Claim #18499). All available evidence suggests that many of the free Blacks in Charles City and its environs did all that they could to offer clandestine support to the Union and to undermine the cause of the Confederacy. My great-great-great uncle Warren Cumber declares in his testimony before the Claims Commission:

I fed the soldiers and did what I could to help the cause.

I was a Union man at the beginning and throughout the late war. I knew a great many Union people and I followed their advice and example. I admire their opinions and thought the success of the Union would benefit myself and other colored peoples. I was always willing to aid the union cause to the best of my ability. (Claim #19208)

My great-grandfather, Robert Spencer Brown, claimed:
I have acted as guide to the Union soldiers & have given them all the information I could get. I have carried letters to & from Richmond. I got them from & gave the answers to a staff officer who used to come from City Point. I forgot his name--he used to come with Captain Myers. (Claim # 6138)

Sylvanius Tyler Brown likewise details his aid to the Union army, taking a scout from that army "to see the position of the Confederates and . . . back to the secure place," carrying letters to union men, and helping White and colored people escape to the Union lines (Claim # 7724; his named is spelled Sylvanus in the claim). His activities on behalf of the Union were regarded as so serious, he claimed, that the Confederates "advertised me in the Richmond papers offering a reward for my head, dead or alive." His cousin, Oscar Brown, in his deposition on Sylvanius''s behalf, declared that bringing people through the lines "was his business a good deal of the time; he would go in [to Richmond] with something to sell and bring back those who wanted to get through the lines. He was known as a river runner in the community where he lived--especially by the colored people." Sylvanius Brown also served as a stable boy and body servant in the Confederate Army, for which he received a pension from the State of Virginia during the latter years of his life (interview with Wilnette Carter). In his application to the Southern Claims Commission he explains that he was arrested and compelled to work for the Confederacy, but that he ran away when he could.

While one might suspect that some free Blacks might have exaggerated their service to the Union, accounts of Union soldiers substantiate the assistance provided them by free Blacks in concealing them, nursing them, helping them escape, providing guidance through rebel territory, passing messages, and spying for them. For just one example, Lieutenant Franklin Ellis of the United States Army wrote that at Charles City Courthouse a free Negro informed him of plans rebels had made to capture his party and concluded his report, "I am also convinced that many free negroes can be found who could be fully trusted with the transmission of messages in cipher." For more development of the support provided by free Blacks in Charles City, see Edna Greene Medford''s "''I Was Always a Union Man'': The Dilemma of Free Blacks in Confederate Virginia."

The dilemma of free Negroes during the Civil War was exacerbated by the fact that it was never clear who was in control of their area. As Medford points out, "Both the Confederacy and the Union claimed [Charles City and New Kent Counties] throughout the war. This complicated the lives of free blacks even more, as they could not feel secure in their property or personal freedom with such fluidity in the lines" (5). As residents of Virginia they were required to surrender a portion of their crops for the use of the Confederacy. Both rebel and Union soldiers demanded any of their crops, livestock, and tools that they needed. My previously mentioned Uncle Warren was arrested for saying, "I thought the Northern Army would win the day." The Rebel soldiers took him before General Fitzhugh Lee, who ordered his release, but his captors kept him and took him about four miles above Richmond, where he saw a Captain Archer who knew him and secured his release (Claim 19208).

No doubt members of Abraham''s family were cheered by victories of the Union forces during the war and were probably all aware of a victory of a largely colored regiment under the command of Brigadier General Edward A. Wild over the forces of Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee at Fort Pocahontas, also known as Wilson''s Wharf and Kennon''s Landing in the Sturgeon Point area of Charles City. This battle on May 24, 1864, was the largest engagement in Charles City during the war. The colored troops stationed at Fort Pocahontas had been villainized in the newspapers in the most vitriolic manner as Black beasts and demons whose very presence threatened civilization in the county and exposed the community to pillage and Southern ladies to rape. When Lee''s forces attacked Fort Pocahontas, however, these colored soldiers defended it gallantly, inflicting 140 casualties, including twenty-two deaths upon the larger Confederate force (over 2000 Confederates to 1400 Union soldiers). The Union forces suffered only six deaths and fourteen wounded. One Confederate private wrote of their retreat and called the attack "the most signal failure we were ever engaged in." A Union lieutenant applauded his colored soldiers: "our sable warriors showed their fighting qualities. They stood their ground firmly, firing volley after volley into the ranks of the advancing foe." One of the colored soldiers participating in this historic battle was Charles City resident, Pvt. Robert Brown, a great-uncle of Richard Bowman, who grew up hearing tales of this battle that he never saw entered into the history books. After being mustered out in 1866, Pvt. Brown returned to Charles City, where he remained until his death in 1919. (On May 24, 1997, the fort (about three miles east of Sherwood Forest), now owned by Harrison Tyler, the grandson of former President Tyler, was opened to the public for the first time.)

Whatever problems they may have endured during the Civil War, some of the 856 free Blacks listed in the 1860 Census in Charles City prospered as a result of the War since there was greater demand for the fish and other produce that they were able to provide as well as other services, such as carpentry, blacksmith, shoe repairing, etc. After the war, these same formerly free Blacks were often well situated to take advantage of new laws and new opportunities. In March 1871 Congress enacted legislation which opened official channels for pro-Union Southerners to apply for reimbursement of their losses. As I have previously noted, several members of my family, including Crawford Brown, Robert S. Brown, Walker Cumbo, Major Brown, Joseph Brown and Warren Cumber, filed claims for property appropriated for the use of the Union Army through the Southern Claims Commission, established in 1871; most of them were not reimbursed to the degree that they had expected, however. Other family members who filed claims include Elizabeth Brown, who received $370.00 (Claim 5246, Settlement #2351, March 19, 1873); Samuel Brown, who received $312.00 (Claim 6710, Settlement #2487, March 31, 1873); and John N. and William Brown, who received $775.00 (Claim 8083, Settlement # 2351, March 19, 1873): the case files for the claims of Elizabeth, Samuel, John N. and William Brown no longer exist (Letter from the National Archives and Records Administration, April 8, 1997).

On February 11, 1873, Crawford, taking advantage of a new state law, declared the fourteen acres of land on which he was then living a "homestead for the benefit of himself and family exempt from sale for debt levy seizure or garnishment" (Deed Book 12, 441).

Greater business opportunities opened up for members of the family. As previously noted, Tom "Pappy" Cotman, husband of Eliza J. Brown, Abraham''s niece, owned and operated Wilcox Wharf from 1866-78. Cotman, Thadeus Brown, my grandfather Robert S. Brown, and Samuel Jones received a license to sell wine and liquor in 1867 (Coski 80). On January 18, 1872, Fleming Brown and Uriah Christian received permission to sell "ardent spirits" at their storehouse and "to keep an ordinary at the same" (CCC Order Book, 1860-1872, Reel 18, 578). My grandfather Robert Spencer Brown, A. Q. Franklin, and some others received a license "for the privilege of keeping an Ordinary at their Store House, near C. C. Brown''s," effective July 1, 1875 (CCC Papers Concerning Free Negroes 1821-52 [dates are incorrect], Box 24, File 324). As Coski indicates, "The board of supervisors often authorized the purchase of supplies from these stores, indicating at least a minimal acceptance of black economic independence" (80).

There were other benefits to be enjoyed as a result of the Civil War and the opportunities Blacks enjoyed for a few years after the Reconstruction Acts of March 2, 1867, and the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States gave Black males the right to vote and to a limited degree participate in the government. Samuel Brown was elected Superintendent of the Poor on November 18, 1870, for three years (CCC Order Book, 1860-1872, Reel 18, 494). A. Q. Franklin, a free Black from Henrico who married Abraham''s great-granddaughter Anna, was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1889-90. Franklin also was elected twice to the post of Commissioner of the Revenue, a difficult post for a Black man to obtain because it required that he post $5000.00 bond. Abraham''s great grandson William Sanford Brown (8B1A1C3) became the first Black man on the Charles City County Board of Supervisors. W. H. C. Brown, who will be discussed later in this and the next chapter, was one of the rare Blacks at the 1905 Republican State Convention in Roanoke where he made a seconding speech for Judge L. L. Lewis for governor, reassuring the White audience that it need not fear the Negro as aspiring to social equality, and declaring that the colored people wished only to copy "the civilization of the whites and [follow] at a respectable distance" (Roanoke Times, August 10, 1905; cited in Buni, 51-52).

Crawford held public offices and performed other tasks for the county for which he was reimbursed. On March 17, 1870, he was appointed "Surveyor of the public roads from the cross roads at Vaiden''s Store to the main road leading from the lower church to the Courthouse or at the forks at Major''s Store" (Order Book for 1860-1872, 418). On two occasions in 1874 and 1878 he was paid $1.00 for jury duty (Order Book 6, 121 and 237). On June 21, 1877, he presented a bill for $5.00 to the county for "viewing and examining the body of Roane Cumber a pauper found dead near the Poor House there being no coroner in the county" (Order Book 6, p. 349). He also served as Justice of the Peace, an office which he held in 1871 when he witnessed, among others, the claims for losses during the Civil War submitted by his son-in-law and cousin Robert S. Brown (Claim #6138), and his cousin Sylvanius Brown (Claim # 7724). He was still serving in 1877 (Order Book 6, 349), though I have been unable to determine when he was first elected. He was elected to that office again on May 26, 1887 (Deed Book 12, p.441; and CCC Court Order Book 8, 406). Crawford, one of the earliest Black officeholders in Charles City County, is treated in Jackson's Negro Office Holders in Virginia (61).

Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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About the Author:

Daryl Cumber Dance, a graduate of Virginia State College and the University of Virginia, is Professor of English at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. She has also taught at Virginia State College, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is the author of Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans (Indiana, 1978), Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans (Tennessee, 1985), Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Black Folklore (Tennessee, 1987), New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers (Peepal Tree, 1992), and The Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, Virginia (1998). She edited Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook (Greenwood, 1986), Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women's Humor (Norton, 1998), and From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore: An Anthology (Norton, 2002).


Read excerpts of From My People; 400 Years of African American Folklore at Google Book Search

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Author Paul Heinegg's published works Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina and Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware have long been the essential resources for researching free African Americans in the age of slavery. Now, on the website Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, Heinegg shares the entire body of his published research online, placing volumes of new information in the hands of those researching free African Americans. (For those of us who are still paper-based, the site also contains a link for ordering print copies.)

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