“Chapter XII, The Smaller States Which Endured” (1936)

The Freedmen's Bureau! An Agency to Keep the Negro in Idleness at the Expense of the White Man.

In this chapter from the African Background Outlined or Handbook for the Study of the Negro, published in 1936 and written by Carter G. Woodson, he sketches the history, politics, and culture of various African “tribes.” He covers a huge swath of time, from the 1400s to the present. He was explicitly writing against scholarship on the African continent that presented it in opposition to the United States and Europe as a means to prove the inferiority of Africans and African Americans. He was also trying to shed light on a history of African Americans that predated their forced migration as enslaved people to the United States.


Other native African kingdoms endured for years during this same period. Following the coastal zone from the mouth of the Senegal appear the three kingdoms of the Wolofs remarkable for their organization. The kingdom of Walo was ruled by a brac, the Wolof, by a bur, and the Cayor by a damel. All these though small, were remarkable for their organization.

Then there was to the south of these the Baol of Wolof and Serer extraction ruled by a tegne; and the Serer kingdom of Sine, which, before being upset by conquest, had done much to develop agriculture. Next there were scattering backward tribes mixed with Fulani and Mandingo people along the West Coast-the Diola of the lower Gambia and of the Casamance, the Balant, the Banyoun, the Bissago, the Papel, and the Biafada of Portuguese Guinea; the Nalu, the Landuman, and the Baga of lower French Guinea; the Timme, the Bulom of Sierra Leone; the Tiapi, the Bassari, the Koniagui to the north of the Futa-Jallon; and the Kisi and the Golo to the north and west of Liberia. These areas as a hunting ground for human beings supplied most of the slaves for the European colonies. Peoples related to the Mandingo, the Suso or Soso, the Mande of Sierra Leone and the Vai of both Sierra Leone and Liberia, assisted in pushing toward the ocean the tribes mentioned above. The most progressive of these people were the Soso, certain Fulani Sarakolle, Tukulors from the Futa-Toro, and Mandingo from the upper Senegal, who formed a nation of some promise. The Vai, however, must be given credit for developing a written language toward the end of the eighteenth century.

In this region, as already indicated, developed Sierra Leone and Liberia. The former grew from the idea of providing an asylum for slaves liberated chiefly by the decision of Lord Mansfield in 1772 and by the efforts of Clarkson and his coworkers who labored for the abolition of the traffic in human flesh. Numbers of Negroes had made their way to England when thus set free. The need for such a colony developed from the need for an asylum to which the English might deport their “poor black.” Prior to this enterprise the English had only a few trading posts along the coast.

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This effort was to make of Africa also an asylum for slaves who had come to England in order to enjoy such freedom from their United States masters from whom they escaped to the British during the American Revolution. There were brought also Maroons, who, after defying Jamaica authorities from their mountain strongholds in that island had been transported first to Nova Scotia and from there for a brighter future to this point in Africa. With the support of the abolition movement in England the effort assumed the phase of founding a colony in 1787 when 400 of the first of such settlers arrived at what is now Freetown. Soon thereafter followed others led by Thomas Peters, a loyalist who deserted to the British during the war for American independence and had served Sir Henry Clinton as sergeant. In 1790 the promoters of the undertaking organized the St. George’s Bay Association and prayed for a charter to “colonize a small part of the coast of Africa to introduce civilization among the natives, and to cultivate the soil by means of free labor.” At the same time these petitioners abjured all concern whatever to the odious traffic of human bodies and bound themselves neither to deal in slaves, nor to allow any slave trade in the territory. The. Association, incorporated in 1790 as the Sierra Leone company, exercised control until the Crown took over its rights in 1808. The colony did not pay as was expected, but the general emancipation of the slaves in the British Empire in 1833 supplied a larger number of colonists and assured its future, although England did not penetrate the hinterland until 1896

Liberia, established to carry out the policy of the American Colonization Society of deporting the free Negroes from the United States, was settled on the African coast below Sierra Leone in 1821.  As in the case of its predecessor, Liberia had a hard struggle and had to seek recruits to inject new life in what for a number of years seemed to be a failing enterprise. A new day dawned in 1841 when the colony came under the control of a Negro governor, J. J. Roberts, a native of Petersburg, Virginia, who replaced the last white functionary. The country was reorganized as a republic, and it declared its independence in 1847. Roberts was elected the first president. The future of Liberia was assured by recognition by France and England; but the United States, under proslavery control during those years, failed to treat with Liberia as an independent nation until 1862.

Since the Civil War the United States, the very country which delayed in recognizing Liberia as a member of the family of nations, has nevertheless been a sort of beneficent force in safeguarding the independence of the country. Pushing forward rapidly with their program of

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partitioning of Africa, European nations have not only tried to infringe upon Liberian territory, but have devised schemes for the dismemberment of the nation. Equally as much trouble has come also from European commercial enterprises with ramifications in Africa. They have advanced sums of money on terms disastrous to the republic by taking advantage of its weakness when at its extremity. The unsound economic policy of Liberian administrations, too, has contributed to this undesirable development. Up to the present the republic has stood the test largely because one power will not consent to the other’s undoing of that land. When one thinks of the little help which the nations have given Liberia while others have been endeavoring to destroy the nation he must concede that Liberia with all of its shortcomings has been a success.

Other less progressive tribes with little political organization are found to the southeast of Futa-Jallon near the dense forests, even primitive and cannibalistic. Among these are the Toma, the Guerze or Pessy, the Manon, the Dan or Mbe, the Tura, the Lo or Guro, the Muin or Mona, the Ngan and the Gbin. In the dense forest from the St. Paul River to beyond Sasandra are tribes still less advanced. Of those of this order near the coast the Krumen have become known to Europeans as efficient workmen on their ships. East of the Krumen are remarkable intellectually developed tribes, surprising all by their meticulous bodily cleanliness and etiquette. The Baule, the Agni, the Zema or Appolonians noted for their clever merchants; the Abron, noted for their well organized government; the Fanti, exploited as laborers especially by the English; and the Ashanti with their well constituted kingdom enduring from 1700 to 1895, appear also in this area. Much credit for the glory of Ashanti is due to their famous king Osai Tutu Kwamina and to Primpeh. The Ashanti vanquished the tribes between their country and the coast and defeated the British under Sir Charles McCarthy in 1821. The spirit of resistance was such that the English did not make much of an inroad into the country until 1874 and did not actually conquer it until 1895. Kumasi, the Ashanti capital, was sacked in 1900; and Primpeh, who was exiled in 1925, was permitted to return to the Gold Coast to die in 1931.

Going eastward, one finds other interesting tribes, “gifted from the intellectual, artistic and political point of view.” Among these are the Ewe of the lower Togo, the Mina and Fon or Jeli of lower Dahomey, the Yoruba of Nago of modern tendencies, the Benin or Edo, noted for their industrial arts and fine work in bronze, and the Nupe of Southern Nigeria.

Of Dahomey which developed in this area, Delafosse says, “Everyone in France knows about the kingdom of Dahomey which, founded be-

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fore the sixteenth century, with Abomey as its capital, was annexed by the French in 1894 at the end of a famous campaign. The kings of Dahomey were great warriors and slave traders and became celebrated for their human sacrifices, but on the other hand it must be said that they had known how to organize their state and their army and administer their kingdom in a fashion which did them honor; it must also be added that the talents of the Dahomeans as farmers and artisans, joined to their undeniable intellectual capacities, place hem among the first ranks of the Negro peoples of Africa.”

Along the coast where now stands the present Dahomey there were several undeveloped tribes which may be dignified with the name of petty kingdoms, some of which have already been noted above. In the interior were three more important nuclei of natives known as Ardra or Allada, Kana, and Nago. It seems that the Adja tribe gained the ascendancy were at an early period and in the seventeenth century the kingdom of Ardra emerged from bloody conflicts as the leading state of that area. Family disputes led to further dispersion and the settlement of two factions which gave rise to the two kingdoms of Abomey and of Porto Novo. The Portuguese were soon upon the scene to complicate matters, and the Dutch did not long delay in playing their role in this theatre of the slave trade.

Dahomey with its capital Abomey, however, emerged about 1650 or 1680 with the present area as a result of the conquests and organization of Dako, the first real king, and such successors as Wegbaja, Akaba, Agaja, Tegbesu, Kpengla, and Agonglo. The last mentioned was so unworthy that he was poisoned. Adanzan, his successor, did not make much of a contribution to the progress of his country, but Ghezo undertook to do what his predecessor had neglected, although he could not prevent Porto Novo from gaining its independence. The Dahomans, demonstrated however, not only their capacity for government but for the most dashing military manoeuvres observed during that time. The French were in relation with the Dahomans as early as 1842 made a treaty of amity with them in 1851, and took over in 1863 as a protectorate Porto Novo which had maintained a nominal independence of Dahomey. After several interventions the French penetrated Dahomey in 1894 as a result of their operations against the warring King Glele and his son, Behanzin.

With better trained and more efficiently equipped forces thrown into the conflict the French under the dashing Senegalese mulatto General Dodds finally won the day in 1894. With Dahomey, of course followed adjacent territory under the control of the French.

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Another important kingdom in this part of Africa should be noted because of its having been very much modernized. This is Yoruba, divided into several autonomous cities without tendencies toward the imperial. These states today are provided with legislative assemblies and “sometimes with journals-official and private-edited in English. The capital of one of these states is Abeokuta, an extremely populous and very industrious city.” Leo Frobenius believed that “the technical summit of that civilization was reached in the terra-cotta industry, and that the most important achievements in art were not expressed in stone, but in fine clay baked in the furnace.” This investigator found, too, that hollow casting was thoroughly known and practiced by these people, that iron was mainly used for decoration, that, whatever their purpose, they kept their glass beads in stoneware urns, within their own locality, and that they manufactured both earthen and glassware. He observed also that the art of weaving was highly developed among the Yourbans, “that the stone monuments show some dexterity in handling and are so far instructive, but in other respects evidence a cultural condition insufficiently matured to grasp the utility of stone monumental material; and, above all, that the then great and significant idea of the universe as imaged in the Templum was current in those days.”

Of another kingdom with a line of twenty-three kings dating from the ninth century we may agree in saying “as for Benin it was formed, without doubt, since the fifteenth century and perhaps since a more remote epoch, a powerful and redoubtable state, where the industrial arts and notably the art of bronze working and that of ivory have flourished in a remarkable fashion; certain bronzes of Benin of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that may be seen today in the museums of Holland, Germany and England and in private collections, are worthy rivals of analogous products of several renowned civilizations.” Having in mind especially the art of Benin, Felix von Luschan considered it “of extraordinary significance that by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a local and monumental art had been learned in Benin which in many respects equaled European art and developed a technique of the very highest accomplishment.”

In the bend of the Niger appeared other tribes which must be noted in passing, although they have shown little political organization. These include the Tombo or Habe, the Samo, the Fulse, the Nioniose, the Kipirsi, the Nuruma, the Sisala, and the Gurunsi. To these may be added the Dagari, the Birifo or Birifor, the Gbanian or Gonga, the Dagomba, the Nankana, the Bobo, the Lobi, the Dian, the Kulango, and the Sumba.        

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Yet although lacking in political organization beyond the family unit they are as a rule marvelous farmers, and the “attachment to the land seems to be the only solid and fecund institution in their chaotic society.”

Throughout the region of San and Kutiala on the right bank of the Bani as far as that of Bonduku and the elbow of the Black Volta are the Senufo or Siena people. Among these are the Jula who at Sikasso and Kong have developed small states of considerable “cohesion and vitality.” “The iron industry and that of pottery, as well as agriculture and the art of music have attained among certain Senufo a development which merits attention.”

In the central and eastern Sudan the Hausa states first claim attention. Toward 1600 tendencies toward disintegration of the kingdom of the Kebbi began to appear as noted above. Difficulties had arisen also between the Fulani shepherds of Gober and their Hausa patrons. Availing himself of this situation, the sheik Ousman the Torodo or Ousman-dan Fodio, raised an invincible army, and in 1801 preached a holy war which resulted in the conquest and the Islamization of the Hausa states and the founding of a new kingdom with Sokoto as the capital. To this empire the conqueror soon added Nupe, Kebbi, and Liptako. Ousman undertook to subdue Bornu also, but he was driven out by the Kaneal in 1810. The conquests of this warring Negro, however, entitle him to the front rank as a military leader.

When Ousman died in 1815 his son Mohammed Bello, a poor warrior, had difficulty in maintaining his empire. Zanfara, Gober, Katsena, and Kebbi rebelled as did also the Tuareg of Air and Damerghu, aided by the Kanemi, the Wadai, and the Bagirmi. Although hardly able to hold his empire intact, Mohammed Bello distinguished himself in another field. He composed in Arabic a number of poems and religious and historical works. He believed in justice and exercised a system of inspection of his lieutenants. Mohammed Bello died in 1837.

His brother Atiku, who succeeded him and reigned until 1843, alienated some of his subjects by proscribing all such amusements as dancing and music, and Gober and Katsena arose again in protest against the abuses of he princes who hd been stationed over them as governors. Ali, the son of Mohammed Bello, who reigned from 1843 to 1855, had to contend also with frequent uprisings of his subjects in Gober and Kebbi, who would not accept Islam. He was followed by five Tukulor kings who did not have the ability to rule successfully an empire which was never well organized, and it rapidly disintegrated. It came to an end in 1904 when Sir Frederick Lugard occupied Sokoto.

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Bornu comes next in the course toward the interior of the Sudan. Properly described, however, this area east of Hausa and on both sides of Lake Chad is called Bornu in the west and Kanem in the east. Bornu, as we have learned above, reached its highest level under Idris III, but after his reign the petty states began to assert themselves and the Tunjur got control. The Tukulor Ousman-dan-Fodio attacked the country in 1808 but was repulsed by “the Kanemi” after he had caused the dispersion of leaders under Mai Ahmed near Gassaro in a successful battle. This Ahmed and his followers served the country thereafter as puppet kings while the authority was almost entirely in the hands of “the Kanemi” and the members of his family. New life was injected into the situation when sheik Omar, son of “the Kanemi,” had himself proclaimed Sultan of Bornu with his residence at Kukawa, or Kuka, the capital of a new dynast which he founded. Troubles came in 1893 when the adventurer Rabah defeated and killed Hashem, Omar’s successor, destroyed Kuka, and transferred the capital to Dikoa. The new ruler, however, was soon vanquished thereafter by the French under Major Lamy in 1900, “and Abubekr Guerbei, a nephew of Hashem, was recognized by the English as Sultan of Bornu, which became a British protectorate.”

South of the Kanem is the kingdom of Bagirrni, supposedly established by a hunter sometimes known as Bernim-Besse and elsewhere as Dokkengue. He built Massenya, the capital, about 1513. He was succeeded him, introduced Islam about 1602. The ninth ruler of this line, Borkumanda-Tadele was a warrior of varying fortune. While he was twice victorious over Wadai, the country had been so weakened that his successor Alawine went down before the onslaughts of the emperor of Bornu and became his vassal about 1741. His. successor, Mohammed Alamine (1741-1784 ), shook off the tutelage of Bornu, but Abderrahman Gaurrang (1784-1806), the next to ascend the throne, succumbed to the Wadai who thereafter directed the affairs of Bagirmi as that of a vassalage under his son. Still another son of the last king Ousman Borkumanda (1807-1846) endeavored to free Bagirrni of the tutelage; but the forces arrayed were unequal to the task. He was defeated at Lederi in 1824, when conducting an expedition against Bornu. Abdelkader (1846-1858) failed in an attempt to become independent. Another effort of Bagirrni against the Wadai by Abu-Sekkine in 1871 was only temporarily successful. His son Borkumanda alienated his subjects by cruelty, and his successor was driven by Rabah in 1897 to accept French protectorship.

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Thus passed Bagirrni which was swayed perpetually between the rule of Bornu and Wadai. Wadai, settled with a few Arabs and mainly Negroes of the Maba, Tama, Massalit, Mimi, Kuka, Bulala, and Rougna tribes, however, was much to be feared by the Mohammedans. With their capital first at Kadama black kings of the Tunjur, hostile to Islam, ruled Wadai. About 1615 it is said that Jameh or Saleh, a native of the country, converted to Mohammedanism, proselyted a portion of the population; and Abdelkerim, his son, with an army of Arabs and Islamized Negroes, proclaimed himself Sultan of the Wadai, dethroned the Tunjur prince, and established a kingdom with a capital at Wara; but he had to pay tribute to the Darfur. His successors after further fortifying themselves with the propagation of Mohammedanism finally contrived to defeat the Darfur. Later Wadai under another aggressive ruler extended its influence over a part of Kanem. Cruel and weak kings, from 1803 to 1835, invited the invasion of the Wadai land by the Darfur who place on the throne of he Wadai Mohammed-Cherif (1835-1858) in the position of their vassal. He enjoyed great prestige and developed the power to defeat the Sultan of Bornu and force him to pay the tribute of 8,000 thalers. This conqueror was succeeded by Ali who restored order and encouraged very much the commerce between that country and the Mediterranean. King Yussef, his successor permitted the Bagirrni to regain their independence. Various princes, including Rabah (1894), then arose and invaded the land and the suzerainty once accepted of the Wadai passed to France in 1894. France, after taking the sides of various kings who entered the conflict, took over the country in 1912.

The Darfur and the Kordofan of this Negro area, like Wadai, were once dominated by the ambitious Tunjur. A Mussulman, Soloun-Sliman, in the sixteenth century secured control and brought about a turning point in the history of this kingdom. He had his capital at Bir-Nabak, but Omar-Lele, his fourth successor who overcame the king of the Wadai, transplanted the seat of government to Kabkabie, before 1700. Then followed Abubek Abderrahrnin I, and next Tehrab, who introduced the Mohammedan capital at Tendelty, or El-Facher, from which he treated with Napolean when the latter was campaigning in Egypt. Under Mohammed-Fadel (1800-1840) the Kordofan threw its allegiance to the Darfur but was immediately conquered by the Egyptians. His second succesor, Haroun, was defeated in combat with the Egyptians. The Darfur was incorporated into the Egyptian Sudan in 1874, and thus it remained in spite of a revolt. Haroun, the last of that line, was killed in action in 1879.

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The Kordofan lies between the Darfur and Senna. The country is inhabited by Negroes speaking different languages some of which resemble the Bantu. From the real Nuba, of South Kordofan (elsewhere confused in speaking of Africa) came the Mussulman Nuba led by Mussabba, their chief who conquered the whole country which was annexed to the Darfur under Teherab and Islamized. Under the regime a Magdum or governor was stationed at Bara; but, as already noted above, the Kordofan was conquered by the Egyptian defterdar Mohammed-Bey, who chose El-Obeid as the seat of government.

Throughout the history of these kingdoms during the last quarter of the nineteenth century runs the adventure of Rabah and the Mahdist movement. The occasion of the rise of Rabah was the revolt against the Egyptian government of Haroun, the dethroned Sultan of the Darfur in 1875. Summoned from his post to confer with officials in Cairo, he left his son Suleiman in charge. This son was “betrayed to Gordon-Pasha by the Dongola people, enemies of the J aaline,” the Arab tribe to which Suleiman belonged. Believing in the hostility of the Gordon-Pasha, the son took sides against the Egyptian government in favor of the revolt of Haroun, the dethroned Sultan of the Darfur. Gessi-Pasha sent against him decisively defeated Suleiman. His chief lieutenant was Rabah, the son of a Negro woman, the wet nurse of Zobeir-Pasha, who appeared in the new effort for liberation.

At the overthrow of Suleiman, Rabah fled with the remnants of his master’s army and began conquests to the northwest of the Bahr-el Ghazal (1878). Going west, he subdued the Banda in 1879, defeated the Kuti in 1883, and installed Senussi there as Sultan in 1890. “In 1892 he attacked the Bagirmi and in 1893 seized Bougoman, which at that time replaced Massenya as the capital. The same year he attacked Hashem, sultan of Bornu, vanquished and put him to death (December, 1893). Then he marched on the Gober, where Abubekr, nephew and successor of Hashem, had taken refuge. Stopped by the army of the emperor of Sokoto, he turned against the little States to the South of the Chad, took Gulfei from the Busso, Kusseri from the Mandara, Logone from the Kotoko, and again invaded the Bagirmi in 1898.” He “set fire to Massenya, pursued the mbang near to Kuno, there, with 8,000 men, clashed with some thirty militiamen commanded by the administrator Bretonnet (July 18, 1899) and did not finish with this handful of brave men till after eight hours of combat. On April 22, 1900, he was beaten at Kusseri by Major Lamy and killed at the end of battle, which also cost the life of his conqueror.” Thus ended an adventure which lasted twenty-two years.

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Mahdiism, like the adventure of Rabah, was a development of Sudanese Negroes. The beginning of it came when Mohammed Ahmen of Dongola, fresh from a victory over Rachid-Bey, governor of Fashoda, proclaimed himself mahdi, a sort of prophet or deliverer inspired by the Great Prophet as this fanatic understood it. Encouraged by his first success, he defeated a detachment of Egyptian troops in 1882, conquered the Kordofan by 1883, annihilated the entire army of 10,000 of Hicks-Pasha at Cheka the same year, forced the surrender of Slatin-Pasha as governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal in 1884, took Khartuoum in 1885, and put Gordoi-Pasha to death. Thus in five years the mahdi had made himself the master of four-fifths of the Egyptian Sudan.

The Mahdi died of typhoid fever shortly afterward at Omduman, his capital. Abdullah, from the cowherders of the Bagga tribe of crossbreeds of Arabs and Negroes, was designated as the successor. Disconnecting himself from the relatives and compatriots of the madhi and surrounding himself with Darfur people, Abdullah sent against Abyssinia a formidable army which took the city of Gondar and killed the negus John in 1888. His cohorts overran Equatoria in 1892. His power soon began to decline thereafter, however, for Dongola, Berber, Fashoda, and Omduman fell into the hands of the Anglo-Egyptian troops, and Abdullah was killed by these forces in Kordofan in 1899.

The Islamization and Christianization of West, South, and Central Africa, as we have observed, resulted then in the undoing of the African economic, social and political order. In East Africa, in Abyssinia, Christianized at an earlier period, there was sufficient force to maintain the independence in spite of these evils which worked so disastrously elsewhere. Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, not only civilized ancient Egypt but exerted a salutary influence on both sides of the Red Sea. When Mohammed was born in 570 Yemen was subject to Ethiopia. She sent an army of 40,00 men against Mecca. The negus “Prete-John” of this country also enjoyed an unusual renown throughout the Middle Ages, and Abyssinian influence tended to civilize the natives near her borders. This influence can be observed in the Bishari or Beha to the north, in the Danakil or Afar to the east, among the Somali to the southeast, and he Galla or Oromo to the south. Some of these tribes, like the Galla farmers and shepherds, a great power in the tenth century, and migratory in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were for a long time bitter enemies of the negus of Abyssinia, but were finally absorbed by that empire. The tribe supplying the rulers of Abyssinia is the Amharic, which, without disclaiming its Negro blood, contends that it resulted from the Semitic

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origin of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. The country is a feudal state with the optic religion in ascendancy, and the people have undergone some modernization under foreign influences intended to effect the partition of the land among Europeans.

Far away in various directions from Abyssinia, however, were Sudanese tribes which failed to come under such beneficent influences. Even Mohammedanism and modern Christianity with all their military support have failed to make great inroads among them. They have, therefore, remained in their native state following their customs of yore. These tribes are such as the Gbari, Munchi, Batta, Fali, Mbum, Baya, Manjia, Banda, Azendeh, or Niam-Niam, Sara, Kenga, Gaberi, Bulala, Kuka, Bongo, Krej, Kougna, Dinka, Nuer, Shillook, Bari, Madi, Mombuttu, Wandorobo, Kuafi, Humba, Taturu, and Masai.

APA Citation:
Woodson, Carter G.. “Chapter XII, The Smaller States Which Endured” (1936). (2022, April 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Woodson, Carter G.. "“Chapter XII, The Smaller States Which Endured” (1936)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (26 Apr. 2022). Web. 30 Nov. 2022
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