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 Virginia repealed the law in 1974 and in 2002 apologized to its victims.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.

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