African-American Freedom in Antebellum Cumberland County, Virginia

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During the antebellum period, free African Americans living in the Southern United States were a third class in a society the legal regime had structured for two. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, state legislatures enacted increasingly stringent legislation designed to limit the growth of the free black population and to restrict the rights and power enjoyed by those already freed. The legal regimes of the era were committed to preserving the institution of race-based slavery and treated free black communities as unwanted anomalies. Historians studying antebellum laws in Virginia, in the South generally, and in the United States overall have uniformly concluded that the legal status of the free black population was precarious. This Article examines the scope of freedom experienced by free African Americans living in one county in Virginia during the antebellum period. It finds that much of the restrictive state legislation targeting free blacks was enforced sporadically, if at all, in Cumberland County, and that the events prompting the enactment of new laws-most prominently, reports of slave rebellions-had no discernible effect on recorded transactions and litigation in the county. The one realm the Virginia state legislature never racially restricted during the antebellum period-land ownership and the rights accompanying it-appears to have remained open and accessible to Cumberland County's free black residents, who engaged in numerous land transactions during this period. This Article documents seventy-six acquisitions of land by free black residents of Cumberland County between 1782 and 1863 and discusses the circumstances surrounding acquisition, tenure of free black ownership, and ultimate disposition of each piece of property.