In a slave society, white people kept a close eye on free black people, who had to register with the county government. Those records of free blacks in Augusta and Staunton have been transcribed by Katherine Bushman and made available for this archive.
In innumerable ways, small and large, Augusta’s free blacks were reminded of their anomalous status within a slave society. One such reminder was a law mandating their registration at the courthouse. Passed by the state legislature in January 1803, in response to the 1800 Gabriel Prosser slave rebellion in Richmond, the law was designed to “more effectually restrain the practice of negroes going at large.” Three years later, the state passed a law that even further emphasized free blacks’ tenuous position in Virginia. This second law, also designed to control the free black population, required that all freed slaves leave the state within 12 months of their emancipation. It was later modified to allow local courts to grant individuals permission to remain, sometimes indefinitely, sometimes only for a period of months or years. Free-born blacks, however, were exempt from this second law.
According to the registration law, county clerks were required to record a free black’s age, name, color (a subjective decision), any visible birthmarks or scars, whether they had been born free or the court in which they had been emancipated. Unlike the census, however, the burden was on the free black to choose to register, as well as to pay the 25-cent registration fee.
We have been given permission to reproduce Katherine Bushman’s transcription of the Augusta County and Staunton City Registers of Free Negroes. The registers are a valuable, if problematic, source. Valuable, because they contain a total of 706 registrations (523 in the county and 193 in Staunton), providing us with the names, ages, physical descriptions, names of emancipators, and family connections of people who left few or no other written records. The first recorded registration is dated 20 July 1810, the last on 7 November 1864. Problematic, because the majority of free blacks chose not to register. Of the 586 free blacks recorded in the 1860 census, probably fewer than one-third ever registered. Clearly, then, these laws were enforced selectively, if at all. The Vena family of Augusta County provides a good example of the challenge of using these sources.
Yet other free blacks registered more than once. Robert Campbell, a wealthy mulatto barber registered numerous times over the years. Through the registry, in fact, we can trace changes in his family: two wives, several children, and the occasional apprentice. Campbell may have availed himself of the registry in an effort to protect his considerable wealth and property. By reaffirming his and his family’s legal standing in the community, he achieved a measure of security in a time and place with few assurances for free blacks.
In addition to having their registration noted at the courthouse, free blacks could also receive a copy of their registration This was generally noted in their record, with the phrase “Copy Delvd.” This copy afforded them a measure of safety when traveling outside of the county, in areas where they would be unknown to local whites. Similarly, many registrants were either born free or emancipated in another county. Registering in Augusta proclaimed their status as legitimate free men or women in their new home. Parents might register their children, keeping them free from unscrupulous whites who might try to enslave them. Frequently, too, a free black would update his or her registration if scarred by illness or accident.