Our series on some Holleman families that lived in Antebellum Isle of Wight County, Virginia continues. As always interpretations and any errors are mine alone.
For the most part Hollemans shared in the wealth of the plantation economy of the Tidewater. As discussed in previous articles, Josiah Holleman and his son, Joel, represented these interests as elected officials, Joel even serving from 1839-41 in the U.S. House of Representatives. As I have written, it was a conflicted society of paradoxes, and a state that denied, to varying degrees, human and political rights to poor whites, free persons of color and, of course, those in slavery.
In the 1850 Federal Census, I examined 101 households in the Eastern District of Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Half of these house holds were inventoried before the census taker surveyed the Wilson Holleman family, who lived on the original farm of Christopher Holyman who had patented 1,020 acres in 1684.
The other half of dwellings were recorded after the Holleman's visitation. In other words, these homes comprised the Holleman rural 'neighborhood'.
Thirty eight (38%) of the households were slave owners, the largest slave holder being neighbor John E. Thomas who owned 36 persons, and his land was valued at $12,000.
By contrast, the Wilson Hollemans had 17 slaves and farm land valued at $4,300, also placing the family in the upper echelons of the economy. The Wilson Hollemans were not the top 1% in terms of wealth, but they were definitely in the top 10% of the population with their accumulated assets. The majority of the assets were not their inherited Christopher Holyman (1618-1691) land, but rather of human beings held in bondage. This Holleman family and thousands of other white Southerners had much to lose economically if slaves were emancipated.
Thirty-four (34%) families were white non-slave holders, all farmers.
In this same neighborhood were 29 (28%) house holds of 'Free Persons of Color'. These quasi-free persons had been emancipated by former owners or were the product of natural increase of freed African-Americans. In all of what is the present state of Virginia, some 11% of the population were free persons of color in 1860. This Holleman neighborhood in Isle of Wight County in the decade of the 1850s was unusual, representing a high percentage of freed ex-slaves and/or their descendants.
That free persons of color, as decribed by the census, existed is often a surprise to non-historians. Normally novelists have presented the pre-Civil War South as three classes: slave owners, poor whites and slaves. A more accurate description would be planters with numerous slaves, yeoman farmers who might own a family held in bondage, yeoman farmers without slaves (the majority of white southerners prior to the war) and of course, slaves. Frank Owsley's 1949 Plain Folk of the Old South remains the ground breaking tome on this interpretation of the Antebellum South.
I am trying to get my head around what this Isle of Wight County society was like. This is not the romanticized South of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. This was a rural environment where black Americans in slavery lived adjacent to or at least in the same district with almost 200 free persons of color!
Granted the 'free' person of color was required to carry papers at all times stating that they were emancipated, could not vote, sue white persons, serve on juries, and, if they did not pay their paltry property taxes, could be sold into slavery, but they were 'free' to work for their own wages, own land, grow their own food and take the day off when they, and not the overseer, decreed. Nor could their children or spouses, their own flesh and blood, be sold away from them as if they were cattle.
If one was a slave, did one not have an envy of the freed black person and a smoldering anger of the white family and society that denied one's liberty? What must have been the simmering tensions and fears that abounded in this culture? How could there be social peace with so many contradictions?
The reality is that the white South did live in anxiety and some element of fear. In a previous post of February 2, 2014, I wrote of Josiah Holleman, Wilson's father, and his role as a commissioner (read Justice of the Peace) to enforce the repressive slave and racial codes of Antebellum Virginia. The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in neighboring Southampton County, resulting in the deaths of 55 white persons, preyed on the minds of all slave owners.
Some white Virginians were deeply troubled by the denial of liberty to African-Americans, so much so that in 1831-32, Virginia had a free and open debate at a state convention in the capitol in Richmond to discuss the issue of human slavery. Called in the wake of slave rebel Nat Turner's murderous uprising the previous August, the state legislature courageously called for an extended debate on the future of slavery in the
Historian Susan Dunn in her book, Dominion of Memories, has written of this convention, its disappointing outcome in terms of emancipation and a resulting hardening of racial feelings. Her work captures the deep ambiguities that many slave owners, including persons such as Jefferson, Monroe and Madison, had about the paradox of slavery in a free republic.
This is a good read of a state in economic decline prior to the Civil War, in large part because of slavery. Ironically and disgusting to modern sensibilities, Virginia's chief export, besides tobacco, was that of surplus slaves to the recently opened cotton fields of the Deep South.
Dunn's book echoed the 1990 work, Pocahontas's People by Helen C. Rountree. "By 1830, the attitudes of whites was hardening generally toward non-whites. In states that proclaimed themselves pro-slavery, as Virginia did... free Negroes came to be detested and feared by whites because they represented the possibility of freedom for all Negroes, an idea distinctly threatening to a white power structure whose economy as based upon slave labor.
The activities of abolitionists in the North made the situation worse by increasing the possibility of slave rebellions. White's fears of losing their income and privileged status caused them to heighten the barriers between themselves and all non-whites." p. 191.
Another historian, Peter Wallenstein wrote in 2007 in his book, Cradle of America, Four Centuries of Virginia History, "The social and cultural arrangements of eastern Virginia were constantly in flux, but their center of gravity focused on slave labor and tobacco cultivation. In a grotesquely uneven struggle over work rhythms and family life, the people of Virginia's free and enslaved populations worked together as they created another new world. At the top of the social and economic world in Virginia were the great planter families." p 40.
Next posting, an article by cousin Allen Holleman of North Carolina on the Hollemans who remained in Virginia....
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