Legislative Petitions African-American Handout

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Handout to go with presentation on African-American resources in the Library of Virginia

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Legislative Petitions African-American Handout

  1. 1. Legislative Petitions Petitions to the General Assembly were the primary catalyst for legislation in the Commonwealth from 1776 until 1865. Public improvements, military claims, divorce, manumission of slaves, division of counties, incorporation of towns, religious freedom, and taxation were just some of the concerns expressed in these petitions. The petitions often contain hundreds of signatures and are a useful tool in genealogical and historical research. Frequently, the petitions contain supplementary support documents useful in research, including maps, wills, naturalizations, deeds, resolutions, affidavits, judgments, and other items. For researchers of African-American history and genealogy, the legislative petitions are an invaluable primary source on the topics of slavery, free African-Americans, and race relations prior to the Civil War. One will find petitions from slave owners seeking approval to import their slaves into the Commonwealth from another state; free African-Americans seeking permission to remain in the Commonwealth; heirs of slave owners seeking to prevent the emancipation of slaves freed by their parent’s will; free African-Americans seeking divorce from their spouse. The following are specific examples of the research potential on African-American history and genealogy that can be found in the collection. John S. Harrison of Berkeley County petitioned the General Assembly in 1810 asking for permission to import three slaves named Paris, Letty, and Daniel from Maryland to Virginia. Harrison informed the General Assembly that he was a physician and that he moved from Maryland to Virginia to start a practice in Martinsburg. He planned to live in Virginia permanently. Virginia law prevented him from bringing his slaves with him; therefore, he had to leave his slaves with his father in Maryland. Harrison would not go into detail concerning “the inconvenience of his being deprived of the services of his slaves but will only state that his is a case of peculiar hardship.” Eleanor Bowery, a slave owner who resided in Elizabeth City County, made a petition in 1788 for compensation for the services of her slave Cuffy during the Revolutionary War. Bowery informed the General Assembly that she enlisted Cuffy as a seaman for the term of three years “in the country’s service” on the ship Norfolk Revenge Galley beginning in September 1777. When Cuffy’s enlistment period ended, Bowery never received a certificate from the ship’s captain John Calvert that proved Cuffy’s term of service. She needed the certificate in order to receive full payment for her slave’s service during the Revolutionary War as well as a bonus and interest due her. According to Bowery, Calvert could not give her the certificate because he lost the enlistment roll books and therefore could not remember when Cuffy enlisted. Bowery included in her petition an affidavit from a witness who did remember when Cuffy enlisted. She also included an exhibit that listed Cuffy’s term of service and how much she should have been compensated. Following the Nat Turner revolt in 1831, there were numerous petitions sent to the General Assembly from citizens throughout the Commonwealth demanding legislators to do something about the “colored population,” both slave and free. One notable example can be found in the
  2. 2. Buckingham County Legislative Petitions. A group of citizens from Buckingham County expressed to the General Assembly their concerns about the rapid increase of the “colored population.” “We believe that it is necessary to take the subject into consideration and devise a plan that will quiet the fears of the people of this Commonwealth.” They argued that the recent “Southampton Massacre” proved that their fears were well-founded. The citizens of Buckingham County offered statistical evidence to show that by 1900 the colored population would outnumber the white population four to one. The petitioners offered a plan to the General Assembly that would decrease the colored population in Virginia by transporting them to Africa. This plan, the petitioners pointed out, was advocated by Thomas Jefferson whom they quoted several times in the petition. The citizens of Buckingham County demanded that the General Assembly to act quickly. “We also believe that if this subject be delayed much longer, that it will not be in the power of the Commonwealth ever to get rid of the evil of which we complain.” Legislative Petitions Database: http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/petition/ Legislative Petitions Images: http://www.virginiamemory.com/collections/petitions

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