Author: Brendan Wolfe

former editor of Encyclopedia Virginia (2008—2019)
ENTRY

Buck v. Bell (1927)

In Buck v. Bell, decided on May 2, 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, affirmed the constitutionality of Virginia’s law allowing state-enforced sterilization. After being raised by foster parents and allegedly raped by their nephew, the appellant, Carrie Buck, was deemed feebleminded and promiscuous. In 1924, Buck was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, near Lynchburg, and there ordered sterilized. The Virginia law allowing the procedure had been passed in 1924 and responded to fifty years of scholarly debate over whether certain social problems, including shiftlessness, poverty, and prostitution, were inherited and ultimately could be eliminated through selective sterilization. Looking to test the law’s legality before engaging in widespread sterilization, the colony superintendent, Albert S. Priddy, made sure his order was appealed. The Amherst County Circuit Court and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals both ruled in the colony’s favor, and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In an infamous opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. noted that Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter were all suspected of being feebleminded, declaring, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The opinion was never overturned and led to a marked increase in sterilizations across the United States. At the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi defendants cited Buck v. Bell in their own defense. Virginia repealed the law in 1974 and in 2002 apologized to its victims.

ENTRY

York County Conspiracy (1661)

The York County Conspiracy was a plan by indentured servants to rise up against authorities in York County in 1661. Led by Isaac Friend and William Clutton, the servants were angered by the lack of meat in their diet, but their conspiracy apparently was revealed before they could act. The county court warned Friend about his behavior and encouraged his overseer to watch him more carefully. Clutton was ordered arrested for delivering “seditious words & speeches,” but the result of the county’s legal action is not known.

ENTRY

Yeardley, Sir George (bap. 1588–1627)

Sir George Yeardley served as deputy governor (1616–1617), governor (1619–1621), and royal governor (1626–1627) of the Virginia colony. Born in London, he met Sir Thomas Gates while fighting for the Netherlands and joined him in Virginia in 1610. There, Yeardley served as captain and then lieutenant of the guard under the colony’s new martial law and briefly as deputy governor when Sir Thomas Dale departed to escort Pocahontas to London. After returning to England himself, Yeardley was appointed governor in 1618 and charged with implementing a set of reforms that came to be known as the Great Charter. He instituted the headright system and summoned the first General Assembly. He also likely purchased some of the first Africans to arrive in 1619, making him one of the first slaveholders in Virginia. On 1,000 acres granted by the Virginia Company of London, Yeardley established the Flowerdew Hundred plantation, where he built the first windmill in British North America. As company politics became more difficult, he resigned as governor in 1621 but remained involved in colonial affairs, especially after the surprise attacks by Virginia Indians in 1622. After the Virginia Company dissolved in 1624, Yeardley returned to London to deliver a report on conditions in the colony and there, in 1626, was appointed the new royal governor. His health soon failed, however, and Yeardley died in Jamestown in 1627.

ENTRY

Washington, John M. (1838–1918)

John M. Washington was a slave in Fredericksburg who escaped to freedom during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and later wrote a narrative of his life entitled Memorys of the Past. Born in Fredericksburg, Washington spent his earliest years on an Orange County plantation where his mother had been hired out as a field laborer. Upon their return to Fredericksburg, Washington served as his owner’s personal slave, remaining in that role even when his mother was hired out to a school principal in Staunton. In 1860, Washington labored in a Fredericksburg tobacco factory and then spent the next year as a waiter in Richmond. When Union troops occupied Fredericksburg in April 1862, he was tending bar in that city’s Shakespeare Hotel and used the opportunity to escape to Union lines. Washington worked at the headquarters of Union general Rufus King until Union troops abandoned the city on August 31. He escaped to Washington, D.C., and was eventually joined there by his wife and newborn son, his mother, and her husband. Washington worked as a painter after the war and was active in the Baptist church. He wrote his narrative in 1873 and died at the Massachusetts home of one of his sons in 1918.

ENTRY

Indians in Virginia

Indians have lived in the area now known as Virginia for thousands of years. Their histories, ancestral connections, and traditions are intertwined with the 6,000 square miles of Tidewater land the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Virginia called Tsenacomoco. The early inhabitants of Virginia were hunter-gatherers who followed the migratory patterns of animals. Over time, and as the region warmed, they settled into towns along riverbanks and outlined their homelands, developing intimate, balanced relationships with the animals, plants, and geographic formations. They hunted, fished, and farmed, and developed complex social and religious systems and vast trade networks. By the early 1600s, Virginia Indians lived in three broad cultural groups based on the language families found in the area: Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan. Scholars know most about the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco, who eventually grouped together into a paramount chiefdom. Led by Powhatan, the polity ultimately included twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes, stretching from the James to the Potomac rivers and encompassing much of Virginia’s coastal plain. In 1607, Englishmen arrived and changed Indian life forever. In the midst of a severe drought, the colonists’ demands for food and their inability to fully understand Indian cultural practices led in part to three protracted and violent conflicts over four decades, ending in 1646 with the Algonquian-speaking Indians largely subject to English rule. The General Assembly set aside land for the former tribes of Tsenacomoco, although in subsequent years some Indians were forced to move and some groups became dispersed. In the years that followed, they contributed to the developing American culture while working to maintain their own traditions during difficult periods of disease, hunger, forced relocations, and restrictive colonial and later statewide policies that curtailed their rights to travel unmolested through lands now occupied by settlers, to visit their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and to testify in court on their own behalf. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a cultural renaissance bloomed and some scholars began to study Indian history more closely. At the same time, the General Assembly did much to deny Indian identity, including passing in 1924 the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, which criminalized interracial marriage and separated Virginians into two simplified racial categories: white and colored. These wrongs were addressed in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967) and by state legislation in the late 1980s that allowed Virginia Indians to change the racial designation on their birth certificates without cost. Virginia Indians in the twenty-first century actively cultivate their own culture while educating others about their history.

ENTRY

Virginia Company of London

The Virginia Company of London was a joint-stock company chartered by King James I in 1606 to establish a colony in North America. Such a venture allowed the Crown to reap the benefits of colonization—natural resources, new markets for English goods, leverage against the Spanish—without bearing the costs. Investors, meanwhile, were protected from catastrophic losses in the event of the project’s failure. The company established a settlement at Jamestown in 1607, and over the next eighteen years, the Crown granted the company two new charters, democratizing its governance and reforming its financial model. What began as an enterprise of investors seeking a dividend was funded a decade later almost exclusively by a public lottery. By 1618 the company had found a way to use its most abundant resource—land—to tempt settlers to pay their own passage from England to the colony and then, after arrival, to pay the company a quitrent, or fee, to use the land. Still, the Virginia Company and the colony it oversaw struggled to survive. Disease, mismanagement, Indian attacks, and factionalism in London all took a toll until, in 1623, the Privy Council launched an investigation into the company’s finances. A year later, the company’s charter was revoked and the king assumed direct control of Virginia.

ENTRY

Veney, Bethany (ca. 1815­–1916)

Bethany Veney was an enslaved woman who, prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), lived in the Shenandoah Valley and, in 1889, published The Narrative of Bethany Veney, a Slave Woman. Born near Luray, in what later became Page County, Veney labored for several different owners. She married Jerry Fickland, an enslaved man who was later sold south. Veney herself was placed on the auction block in Richmond but foiled the sale—and the separation from her family that it guaranteed—by pretending to be sick. After marrying her second husband, Frank Veney, a free black man, Bethany Veney negotiated a small amount of freedom by hiring out her labor and paying her owner a yearly fee. When her owner’s debts threatened the arrangement, Veney found relief in her employer, a copper miner from Rhode Island. He purchased Veney and her daughter and took them north. Veney eventually settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she dictated her life story in 1889 and died in 1916.

ENTRY

Slavery at the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia utilized the labor of enslaved African Americans from the earliest days of its construction, in 1817, until the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Most of the university’s first enslaved laborers were rented from local landowners and worked alongside whites and free blacks in performing all the tasks associated with building what the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, called the Academical Village. In March 1825, the first students arrived and African Americans transitioned to working in the pavilions, hotels, and the Rotunda; maintaining classrooms, laboratories, and the library; ringing the bell; and serving the daily needs of students and faculty. While faculty were allowed to bring personal slaves on Grounds, as the university campus was called, students were not—a reflection, perhaps, of Jefferson’s view that slavery raised the young in habits of tyranny. Students nevertheless tended to treat the university’s slaves poorly, at times even attacking them. The university’s response to such behavior was inconsistent. Although the men who founded the university were ambivalent about slavery, over time students and faculty alike tended to take a harder line in favor of the institution. When the slaves were freed in 1865, the faculty was not, as a group, inclined to help them. The university hired many of its former slaves to work their previous jobs but never articulated a formal policy regarding the newly freed men and women.

ENTRY

Unionism in Virginia during the Civil War

Unionists in Virginia supported the United States government during the secession crisis, the American Civil War (1861–1865), or both. Representing a minority of white Virginians and an overwhelming majority of both free and enslaved African Americans, Unionists articulated their beliefs through a range of actions. Some explicitly supported the ideals of the Union; others defined their Unionism as a rejection of slavery. Many Virginians feared the economic consequences of secession, while African Americans saw Unionism as an opportunity for personal liberty. Just prior to the war, Unionism had been particularly strong in Virginia, but by the time the question of secession was put to a referendum, Unionist influence had declined sharply. Most Unionists lived in the state’s western counties, although their antipathy to secession had less to do with slavery than with the undemocratic political advantages enjoyed by slave owners. Unionists flourished in Union-occupied areas of Northern Virginia and fought guerrilla actions in Southwest Virginia. Ethnicity and religion played an important role in formulating Unionist or anti-Confederate actions, with pacifist Germans sometimes refusing to serve in the Confederate armed forces. In Richmond, Unionists formed a spy network, and across the state slaves deprived the Confederacy of critical labor by running away. All of these efforts contributed to the eventual Confederate defeat.

ENTRY

Tucker, Beverley (1784–1851)

Beverley Tucker was a law professor, an advocate of slavery and states’ rights, and a writer who is best known for his novel The Partisan Leader (1836), a prediction of civil war that proved remarkably prescient. Born in Chesterfield County to a prominent slaveholding family, Tucker was educated at the College of William and Mary and then read law before opening a practice in Charlotte County. From 1816 to 1833, Tucker lived in Missouri, where he established a settlement for slaveholders and, in response to sectional strife over slavery in the territories, publicly argued for states’ rights and secession. In 1834, he was appointed a professor of law at William and Mary, a position previously held by his father, St. George Tucker, and that year delivered a major lecture there in defense of slavery. Over time Beverley Tucker became a leading architect of proslavery ideology and he often employed extreme rhetoric, once publicly referring to his opponents as “bloated vampyres,” for instance. In 1836, he published The Partisan Leader, a fictional piece of political propaganda, timed to influence the presidential election, that in many respects anticipated the American Civil War (1861–1865). In 1850, Tucker served as a delegate to the Nashville Convention, a meeting of southern states, during which he called for a new slaveholding republic that stretched from the American South to Cuba and Jamaica. Tucker died in 1851.

ENTRY

Hakluyt, Richard (1552–1616)

Richard Hakluyt, better known as Richard Hakluyt (the younger) or Richard Hakluyt (the minister) to distinguish him from his elder cousin of the same name, was an editor, geographer, and Anglican minister. With his cousin, he acted as one of the chief propagandists of English colonization in North America. In 1582, he published Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America, and the Ilands Adjacent, probably in support of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s plan to settle North America. And when Gilbert’s half brother Walter Raleigh inherited Gilbert’s patent for colonization, Hakluyt wrote and presented to Queen Elizabeth a Discourse on Western Planting (1584), forcefully arguing for colonization predicated on Protestant proselytizing and economic expansion, both of which, he insisted, would help undermine Spain. Five years later he published Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, a remarkable collection of documents whose final section focused on English activities in the Americas. Hakluyt also played a key role in producing a book that brought England’s first American colony to the attention of a wide and lasting audience: the first volume of Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry‘s multilingual America series, an edition of Thomas Hariot‘s narrative with John White‘s images and maps of the settlement at Roanoke Island. In later years, Hakluyt advised the East India Company; his was one of eight names on the original charter of the Virginia Company of London and he was listed as an investor in the second charter. An official for many years at Westminster Abbey, he died in 1616.

ENTRY

Morgan v. Virginia (1946)

In Morgan v. Virginia, decided on June 3, 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law requiring racial segregation on commercial interstate buses as a violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The appellant, Irene Morgan, was riding a Greyhound bus from Hayes Store, in Gloucester County, to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1944 when she was arrested and convicted in Saluda for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed appeals on her behalf, and after the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled against Morgan in 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court heard her arguments. The case came near the end of a string of decisions, dating back to 1878, in which various courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, had found that the commerce clause did not support state laws that regulated commercial interstate passenger travel. Morgan v. Virginia was not a typical civil rights case in that it did not comment on a state’s right to segregate whites from blacks. Still, Morgan’s refusal to give up her seat foreshadowed Rosa Parks’s more famous action a decade later and marked an early and important victory in the civil rights movement.

ENTRY

Known World, The (2003)

The Known World (2003) is a novel by Edward P. Jones that centers on Henry Townsend, a free black slaveholder living in antebellum Virginia. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2003 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004, the novel was lavishly praised by critics, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice.” The New York Times noted how racial lines in the book “are intriguingly tangled and not easily drawn.” In addition, The Known World has been compared favorably with classic American novels about slavery such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), William Faulkner‘s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Jones’s book is distinctive, however, for its focus on the historical reality of black slaveholders before the American Civil War (1861–1865). Although the author, who received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1981, has downplayed the role of his research, the reality of Henry Townsend adheres to the historical record. According to scholarship done in the 1920s by Carter G. Woodson, 12 percent of all free black heads of families in Virginia in 1830 owned slaves.

ENTRY

Johnston, Mary (1870–1936)

Mary Johnston was a novelist, suffragist, and social advocate, as well as the first woman to top best-seller lists in the twentieth century. Born in Botetourt County to a businessman and Confederate veteran, she was largely self-educated. After the death of her mother and during a financial downturn, she began writing in order to help support her family. It worked. Johnston’s second and most famous novel, To Have and to Hold (1900), broke existing publishing records by selling 60,000 copies in advance and more than 135,000 copies during its first week of publication. A romantic tale of colonial Virginia, the book proved to be the biggest popular success between the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and Gone with the Wind in 1936. Two novels of the American Civil War (1861–1865) ran her afoul of some prominent southerners, including Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s widow, while her increased interest in mysticism puzzled readers and led to a critical and popular decline. Still, Johnston’s social activism may be of more lasting importance than her literary output. She was an early member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, using her reputation as a “southern lady” to the movement’s full advantage. And in 1923, she wrote the influential short story “Nemesis,” depicting the horrors of lynching. Johnston, who never married, died at her home in Bath County in 1936.

ENTRY

Pickett’s Charge

Pickett’s Charge was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and one of the most famous infantry attacks of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Lasting about an hour on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, it pitted 12,000 Confederates—including three brigades of Virginians under George E. Pickett—against half that number of Union troops. On July 2, Robert E. Lee had unsuccessfully attacked the Union flanks; in what even some of his own men perceived as a desperate gambit, he now attacked the center, asking his troops to cross an open field nearly three-quarters of a mile long. They were bloodily repulsed, losing half their number. Controversy resulted, as Confederate veterans struggled to lay claim to honor and glory, pitting Virginians against North Carolinians in efforts to explain why the attack had failed. Many Southerners came to believe the charge represented the “High Water Mark” of Confederate hopes for independence, a view cultivated by proponents of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Meanwhile, twentieth-century popular culture transformed Pickett into a soldier as “gallant and graceful as a knight of chivalry riding to a tournament,” in the words of his wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett. And films like Gettysburg (1993) glorified the attack even while historians continued to debate Lee’s decision, sometimes comparing it to Union general Ulysses S. Grant‘s equally futile attacks at Cold Harbor in Hanover County in 1864.

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