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Justice for Ourselves highlights the struggles and successes of Black Virginians following emancipation

Free men, women and children gathered in 1866 at the Petersburg district headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, where they sought assistance with food and clothing rations, education, enforcement of labor contracts and protection from white violence while the Freedmen’s Bureau operated in Virginia between 1865 and 1869.
Special Collections, Library of Virginia
Free men, women and children gathered in 1866 at the Petersburg district headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, where they sought assistance with food and clothing rations, education, enforcement of labor contracts and protection from white violence while the Freedmen’s Bureau operated in Virginia between 1865 and 1869.

When the Civil War began there were half a million enslaved men, women and children in Virginia. And by the end of the war they were all free, says author and historian Brent Tarter.

“That’s a lot, that’s like 40% of the entire population,” he notes. 

And yet each person’s emancipation experience was different. Some escaped before the war, while others wrote their day of emancipation was when their enslaver rode away to fight in the war.

It was such a unique and important event in each person’s life that many couldn’t agree on a singular emancipation day explains co-author John Deal.

“Others would say 'oh it was when Richmond fell to the Union Army.' And someone else would say 'no it was later when I shook hands with a quote-unquote Yankee.' And that stays with them several decades after the fact.”

Decades that involved struggle, hard work, and poverty.

"Enslaved people in the countryside for the most part had no farming implements," Tarter explains. "They had no animals. They had no plow. They had no horse, no mule, no ox."

To survive, many were forced by former enslavers to keep working in a system of debt bondage called sharecropping.

But new found freedom did allow some to travel in search of the loved ones they had been forced to live apart from, explains author Mari Julienne.

Born into slavery, James Apostle Fields became a successful lawyer and civic leader in Hampton and was one of the last Black legislators elected to the General Assembly during the 19th century.
Luther P. Jackson, Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895, Norfolk, Va.: Guide Quality Press, 1945. Enhanced image, VPM Media Corporation
Born into slavery, James Apostle Fields became a successful lawyer and civic leader in Hampton and was one of the last Black legislators elected to the General Assembly during the 19th century.

"And people are moving all over the state of Virginia— writing to local sheriffs, writing to the Governor, writing to the Freedman’s Bureau, to help them find family members.”  

One family that was able to reunite was that of James Apostle Fields. He had been enslaved in Hanover but found his family in Hampton.

Fields’ family represents a group of formerly enslaved who were able to access education and capital… He, and his brother, and his niece all became lawyers.

"James Apostle Fields, in addition to his legal career, he was Commonwealth’s Attorney of Warwick County, and he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1889," Julienne says. 

Those who were literate had a better chance at making their way in the new South, as did those who had already worked in the free-market economy. That’s because one of the primary obstacles was finding a fair wage, let alone any wage,. for their skills.

“Right it’s all about fairness and equity and equality. And in this postwar period whites were not going to allow that or certainly not enable that,” John Deal explains.

Newly freed Black Virginians were more likely to find opportunity in the state’s urban areas and then pour what resources they were able to gather back into their own communities, a sort of mutual aid distributed through schools, churches and newly formed civic groups explains Brent Tarter.

"There were hundreds of self help societies just in the city of Richmond in the 1860’s. And we can find evidence that they existed all over the state."  

Political organizing also took place. Once elected, Black Virginians worked hard to secure voting rights and then eventually helped form the state’s first public school system.

"They knew from the very beginning the importance of education," Tarter says, "in the same way they knew from the very beginning about the importance of being able to vote to help protect their own rights and liberties and opportunities."

This compilation of new research shows just how hard Black Virginians fought for those opportunities in the years following the Civil War and they created.

"Institutions and businesses and communities parallel to the white middle and professional class communities in every town and city in the state so far as we know. And that’s not failure," Tarter relates. "That’s pretty remarkable success."

Those successes and challenges are detailed in the historians’ new book Justice for Ourselves: Black Virginians Claim Their Freedom After Slavery out this week.

The Library of Virginia in Richmond is hosting a book launch this Thursday at 6 p.m.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.