Category Archives: Exhibitions

- First Freedom: The Great Sabbath Debate, Part 2


Arrest Warrant, Charles Bibbins, 1909, Commonwealth v. A. Berson, et. als., Norfolk County (City of Chesapeake), Court Records, Criminal Papers, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

In last week’s blog post, we learned about the efforts of two Richmond businessmen who lobbied to add an exception for non-Christians to Virginia’s Sabbath breaking law. An early 20th century criminal cause found in the Norfolk County (Chesapeake) court records illustrates that even this exception did not fully clarify the crime of violating the Sabbath.

Charles Bibbins and 27 other Norfolk County men employed by the Eustis Smelting Works were found guilty by a justice of the peace for violation of the Sabbath (Commonwealth v. A. Berson, et. als.). They appealed their convictions to the Norfolk County circuit court. The defendants were not being accused of “laboring at [their] own, or any other trade, or calling” on a Sunday, as Messrs. Levy and Ezekiel were in 1837. Rather they were convicted of being “engaged in business as merchandise merchants […] after sunset on Saturday and during the day commonly known as Sunday.” In essence, they were accused of violating “the exemption as to the Jews” by resuming their work on Saturday night rather than waiting for Sunday.

The case resulted in a ten-page opinion from the ironically named Judge J. T. Lawless, written in the form of an abbreviated dissertation on the history of the Sabbath. His Honor contended that prior to the enactment of the 1779 law by the General Assembly, “[a]t … read more »

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- First Freedom: The Great Sabbath Debate, Part 1


 Broadside, Sabbath Breakers, London, William Miller, 1671. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Source: WikiCommons.

The passage of the Statute for Religious Freedom by the General Assembly in 1786 guaranteed religious freedom to people of all faiths. However, Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, and other religious minorities continued to have concerns about worshiping freely. Their religious beliefs and practices did not conform to the mainstream Protestant beliefs and cultural customs of the day. They felt it necessary to file petitions with the General Assembly in an attempt to safeguard their religious practices.

The topic of the petitions could be something seemingly mundane as with one filed by Quakers from Surry County seeking permission to keep their hats on when greeting another person. They believed the custom of removing one’s hat to greet someone “originated in pride and superstition and that it [hat removal] is a mark of honor due only to the Supreme Being.” Other petitions were more controversial such as ones filed by a group of Quakers, Mennonites, Dunkards, and Tunkers asking to be exempted from military duty on religious grounds.

Some petitions filed by religious minorities were more easily accommodated than others. One religious tenet that proved difficult to accommodate was observance of the Sabbath. On 26 December 1792, the General Assembly passed a law entitled “An act for the effectual suppression of vice, and punishing the disturbers of religious worship, and Sabbath Breakers.” The portion of the act related … read more »

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- First Freedom: Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom


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The official enrolled parchment of 16 January 1786, An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, is one of the most important archival records preserved in the Library of Virginia. The text begins partway down one side of the parchment (a specially prepared animal skin) and concludes partway down the other side. The use of parchment developed in England hundreds of years ago for preserving official texts of laws. All the laws of a session of Parliament or a session of the General Assembly were copied onto parchments, signed, and then rolled up like a large scroll; hence, the title ‘Enrolled Bills’ for the official signed texts of these laws. No other version of the text, not even the text of the laws printed by order of the assembly after it adjourned, was considered as authoritative as the enrolled copy. To authenticate the text, the clerks and Speakers of the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia all signed the document. In 1786, governors of Virginia had no veto power, and bills passed by the assembly passed automatically became law without the governor needing to sign them.

By 2013, the Statute had suffered fading and surface abrasion because of improper storage and handling in the decades following its enactment. This led the Virginia Association of Museums to name the Statute one of the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts … read more »

- “Let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every Denomination Enjoy Religious Liberty”


Daniel Chodowiecki, Die aufgeklärte Weisheit als Minerva schützt die Gläubigen aller Religionen [translation: Minerva as a symbol of enlightened wisdom protects the believers of all religions], 1791. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Religious liberty is a hot button issue during this year’s presidential campaign. Should a religious test be applied for the purpose of denying Muslims entrance to our country? Can an elected government official deny a marriage license to a couple because their lifestyle is contrary to the official’s religious beliefs? The debate concerning religious liberty is hardly new. It goes back to America’s colonial period. And just like today, there were passionate voices on both sides of the debate.

During the colonial era, only one religious denomination was recognized by the British government– the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. There were other denominations in Virginia, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Mennonites, but the British government and the Anglican Church labelled them collectively as Dissenters. As a result of this differentiation, the followers of Dissenter churches, as well as Roman Catholics, did not enjoy the same civil and religious rights as Anglicans. Marriages performed by Baptist or Mennonite clergy were not recognized as legitimate by the Anglican Church. A religious test was used for the express purpose of denying Roman Catholics the right to hold public office. And everyone in Virginia, to the chagrin of Dissenters and Catholics, had to pay a tax to support the Anglican Church.

Growing sentiment for political independence from Great Britain also promoted the pursuit of religious … read more »

- Remaking Virginia: “To Secure Justice for Ourselves”




With the Civil War ended and slavery abolished, many African Americans believed that freedom should be much more than an absence of slavery. They believed it should include full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, including rights to personal liberty, property ownership, and participation in public life by voting and holding office. In the spring of 1865, African American men in Norfolk organized the Colored Monitor Union Club to demand full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. “Give us the suffrage,” they asserted in an address published as Equal Suffrage: An Appeal from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States (1865), “and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves.” In Hampton, Richmond, and other communities, African American men organized political clubs for the same purpose. Most white Virginians opposed granting freedmen the right to vote.

By the end of 1865, Radical Republicans in Congress had become frustrated with the opposition of many white southerners to extending full rights of citizenship to African Americans. During the next three years Congress adopted a series of Reconstruction and civil rights laws imposing reforms on the Southern states. Early in 1867 Congress passed an act placing the Southern states under military rule and requiring them to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and to write new constitutions before they could be … read more »

- Remaking Virginia: A New Labor System

This is the third in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.

Update: Freemen’s contracts from local government records have been digitized, transcribed, and added to Virginia Untold.


Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va. / from a sketch by Jas E. Taylor. Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 23, 1866 Sept. 22, p. 5. Library of Congress.

In the months following the end of slavery, a new system of labor emerged under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The new system forced former slave owners to recognize former slaves not as property but as employees with whom they would have to negotiate terms of employment. The Freedmen’s Bureau administered the negotiations to ensure that the former slaves, now Freedmen, were treated fairly. The new labor system was spelled out in written contracts that in some localities were stored at the local courthouse and remained there after the Freedmen’s Bureau ended in 1872.

The contracts usually specified the dates of the expected employment, obligations of the employee to the employer, and vice-versa. The following example found in the Lunenburg County (Va.) Freedmen’s Contracts, 1865-1866, offers the usual obligations found in freedmen’s contracts. A freedman named Archer Lewis made an agreement on 2 January  1866 with A.L. Davis to be a laborer on Davis’s farm. Davis would pay Lewis one quarter of the corn, oats, wheat, and tobacco … read more »

- Jacob Yoder and Educating Virginia’s Freedpeople after the Civil War

This is the second in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.

 


The Freedman's Spelling-Book  (Boston, 1865).

“It is too plain that this people still love Slavery with some blind Madness.” Jacob Eschbach Yoder (February 22, 1838–April 15, 1905), a transplant to Virginia from Millersville, Pennsylvania, had lived in Lynchburg for only a month when he noted this observation in his diary on April 28, 1866. The Civil War had ended the Confederacy’s dream of a slaveholding nation, but Yoder perceptively feared that white Southerners had “only accepted the result of this war, because they must.” A teacher who had come to Virginia after the Civil War to help educate the freedpeople, Yoder perceived that many whites “hate every measure that is intended to elevate them. Education is their only passport to distinction. Therefore the whites so bitterly oppose it.”

Shortly after the Civil War began, African Americans of all ages, both free and enslaved, quickly took advantage of any chance to gain the education that had been denied to them under slavery. Despite widespread and often violent opposition from white Virginians, opportunity came from a variety of sources. During the war, numerous religious and private organizations began sending people to Virginia to … read more »

- “There is yet enough left of the old barbarism of slavery”: Violence in Post-Emancipation Virginia

This is the first in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.


“Burning of Churches in Petersburg. “ Harper’s Weekly, May 19, 1866.

Black assertions of personal, political, and economic autonomy and freedom after the Civil War ran headlong into white resistance. Southern whites, embittered by the war and desperately clinging to an antebellum model of race relations, violently attempted to enforce labor contracts, social mores, and claims to political supremacy. Local and state records, newspapers, broadsides, engravings, and federal records on microfilm in the Library of Virginia’s vast collection reinforce the frequency and brutality of violence in this turbulent period.

Before the Civil War, Virginia whites of all classes exerted repressive control over enslaved people through legal codes, harsh punishments, slave patrols, pass systems, and the threat of sale. Whites were especially fearful of slave rebellions. Emancipation and the occupying Federal army took away that control, and white fears of retribution became palpable. Whites openly talked of an impending “Race War,” and attempted to disarm African Americans and re-arm whites. In Louisa and Culpeper Counties, the confiscation of arms from African Americans prompted officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau to order the weapons returned.  Adjutant General William H. Richardson wrote to Governor Frances Pierpont in support of an Elizabeth … read more »