Tag Archives: Brunswick County

- 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.


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 that Lewis produced from his labor. Davis agreed to furnish Lewis with the animals and farm … read more »

- CSI: Old Virginia: Coroners Edition

Slave quarters under the oaks at the Hermitage in Savannah, GA., circa 1900-1915. (Image public domain/used courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

At one o’clock in the morning on 1 September 1859, Milly T. King arrived at the home of James Clary and found his slave Hannah “lying on the hearth gasping for breath, and I thought dying.” When King saw Hannah an hour later, she was dead. The following day Brunswick County coroner William Lett arrived to examine the body.  With him were twelve men, none of whom had a medical background but rather were chosen as upstanding men and representatives of the county. The office of coroner held inquisitions in cases when persons met a sudden, violent, unnatural, or suspicious death. In this case Hannah had certainly met a sudden and suspicious demise.

Hannah, owned by the late Elizabeth H. Harwell, had been in the possession of James Clary, who adamantly maintained that the marks found on her feet and legs and the wound on her head were not from anything suspicious but came as a result of a fall from a window occurring a few weeks before her death. The coroner and his jury of white men were left to decide if Hannah had suffered an accidental death or if her death had been caused by something more malicious. Clary’s wife, Eliza, backed up her husband’s statements and claimed to know nothing of Hannah’s death, maintaining that her wounds were caused by the fall. … read more »