Author: Antonio T. Bly

associate professor of history at Appalachian State University and, with Tamia Haygood, the author of Escaping Servitude: A Documentary History of Servants in Colonial Virginia (2015)

Indentured Servant and Slave Patrols in Virginia

Indentured servant and slave patrols in Virginia sprung from the English tradition of hue and cry, in which the public’s aid was solicited in the apprehension of criminals. By the late 1650s, Virginians had codified the custom of hue and cry on which servant, and later slave, patrols were based. The House of Burgesses in 1663 declared the business of pursuing runaway indentured servants or enslaved people a public expense that would be repaid by the owner. In 1691, the General Assembly empowered county sheriffs to raise patrols to apprehend enslaved persons who were “lying out” or runaway. In 1727, the General Assembly authorized the creation of militias to control the movements of bound and enslaved persons, which marked the state’s formalization of a system to capture runaways. Over time, the patrols’ responsibilities were expanded to include regular surveillance of the enslaved population. As cities expanded in the early 1800s, some urban areas in Virginia created municipal patrols to police their growing enslaved populations. With the coming of the American Civil War (1861-1865), some slave patrols were incorporated into or worked alongside of white vigilante or paramilitary groups that sought to suppress any hint of Black revolt. After the Civil War, slave patrols were disbanded but often rematerialized in different forms. Some of the functions of the slave patrols, particularly in enforcing the Black Codes designed to limit the movement and labor of Black people, were absorbed by law enforcement in Virginia.


Literacy and Education of the Enslaved in Virginia

A relatively small number of enslaved African Americans in Virginia learned to read and write, either on their own or at the behest of their enslavers. As many as 5 percent of enslaved people may have been literate by the start of the American Revolution (1775–1783), their educations often tied to religious instruction. Many enslavers viewed Christian teaching as their duty, and converts to the Church of England were required to be literate enough to read a catechism. The Anglican bishop Edmund Gibson and the minister Dr. Thomas Bray both promoted education of the enslaved in America with the Associates of Dr. Bray founding a number of schools, including in Williamsburg and Fredericksburg. Virginia law never explicitly prohibited the education of enslaved people, but in the years after Gabriel’s Conspiracy (1800), the General Assembly made it more difficult. Elite whites worried that enslaved people who could read and write could travel through white society more easily and be exposed to ideas of freedom, making them more inclined to rebel. The gathering of enslaved people for the purpose of education was prohibited, so individuals stole away to learn on their own, often at great personal risk. During the antebellum period, the percentage of literate enslaved people doubled to 10 percent. The laws became even stricter after Nat Turner’s Revolt in 1831—Turner was a literate preacher—but during and after the American Civil War (1861–1865) freedpeople quickly established their own schools. Literacy rates rose to 30 percent and then by 1910 to as high as 70 percent.