A Brief History of Free People of Color and UVA

In October 1832, UVA paid $4 to “Col’d woman Kitty Foster” for clothes washing.[1] Less than two years later, the Faculty Chairman “received information that a party of students…had visited several houses in the neighbourhood, where they had conducted themselves in a disorderly manner.” They “had thrown down several flower pots at Foster’s” and attempted to forcibly enter her home. At that time, Katherine Foster owned a house immediately south of the university. One student admitted that “the party went from Foster’s where they had upset some boxes containing dirt and they had knocked at her door” before continuing on to a cock fight.[2] Three years later, the Faculty Chairman noted that “almost every evening…students are in the practice of firing pistols across the road south of the University…with pistols they allege they keep out of the precincts…the place of deposit is, I understand, the house of Kitty Foster.” Certainly, Foster charged for this service.

Just what was going on here? How could a free woman of color, denied full citizenship rights both as a woman and as a member of a tiny marginalized population, come to own land and a run gun storage facility?  She had come to the area drawn by the promise of economic advancement. She indeed found economic opportunity but also an at times powerful white hostility to her presence, as the mob violence at her property attests. The school offered both great promise and significant peril to free people of color desperate for economic security and advancement.[3]

Built in a rural plantation district encompassing several counties east of the Blue Ridge, UVA created the first urban center the region had ever seen, promising employment opportunity, more regular pay, and even skill development. Free people of color gravitated there in search of jobs, but also viscerally bore the brunt of the white supremacist violence. The new university needed labor and gladly paid them low wages. But, the school, peopled by white men steeped in the politics, economics, and culture of slaveholding society, simultaneously sought to eliminate the non-enslaved black presence on campus and did little to curb violence directed at black Virginians.

In 1829, students returning from town knocked at a cellar door and made “indecent propositions to a female servant.” Had a professor not intervened, the students may well have forced themselves upon the enslaved woman living there. In 1850, three students “committed a violent outrage on a small negro girl, a slave about twelve years old” in an empty field near the school. They were caught raping her. This threat was palpably real.[4] That night in 1834 when students smashed flower pots and “knocked” on Katherine Foster’s door may well have been sexual violence in the making.[5] In 1837, a free woman of color living near the University found her home under siege. Several students “committed an outrage upon the house,” banging on the door, breaking windows, and knocking down the front door.” In 1839, students came upon what they described as “a large and disorderly assemblage of negroes in the street.” According to one student, “two of [the free blacks in the street] were engaged in a fight,” and the students endeavored to “drive away the crowd of negroes gathered about.” Other students passing by on a carriage joined the attack on the free blacks. The student’s mob violence was ultimately redirected at enslaved man Fielding when he intervened, telling the student mob that the black men gathered there “were free and should not be parted.”[6]

Free people of color may have seen the potential for harassment and violence at the school as worth the risk because the opportunities were simply so much better than what the rural county had offered before. In 1820, Stephen Bowles, hauled coal there. That same month, the university paid Milley King $9 dollars for cooking.[7] A month later, it paid William Barnett nearly $10.[8] Dolly Battles made clothes for the enslaved people the university had rented in 1822.[9] Free black people continued to haul coal, wash clothes, cook, and even sell corn and beef.[10] [11]

Areas adjacent to the University quickly developed with white landowners subdividing properties and renting out housing to free people of color. These neighborhoods included the one immediately to the south that became known as “Canada,” the name a direct reference to the free people of color there.[12] One “Canada” resident was William Spinner, who took a $150/year position as the school’s first janitor in 1825. The faculty saw the janitorial position as a menial one. That would soon change, and not for the better for Mr. Spinner.[13] With the arrival of over 100 students, the faculty’s ideas evolved as the reality of controlling them settled in. They responded by demanding that the janitor take on policing and inspection duties. In early 1826, Spinner “absented himself…for the space of a fortnight,” refusing to work or spend time on Grounds. He may have found his new duties impossible to carry out—white students and faculty simply would not accept his oversight and he likely experienced harassment or violence. The faculty paid his wages up to that time and replaced him with a white man. Spinner and his family, however, did not leave the area. They continued to live in “Canada” and repeatedly found short-term work at UVA digging and cleaning wells—work that did not demand regular interaction with students.[14]

Shortly after Thomas Jefferson’s death, the school hired Burwell Colbert, described as “the faithful servant of our late lamented Rector.” In 1828, Colbert earned $52 for 3 1/2 months’ painting.[15] In 1836, he earned $1/day painting and earned $180 for his work in 1837. Colbert’s skills helped to deliver to him the university’s promise of economic security and opportunity. By living outside of the university precincts and doing work involving little or no interaction with students, Colbert may have been able to shield himself to a degree from open white hostility and abuse that likely drove William Spinner from his job.[16]

Any free person of color, such as cobbler Thomas Sturrs, found the school willing to pay them low wages but also wanting to banish people of color entirely. University officials saw free people of color as anomalous, inferior, and a threat to slave discipline.[17] As early as 1828, the faculty informed the proctor that they “disapprove of free Negroes being located within the University.”[18] The University later sought to rid the adjacent neighborhoods of the free black presence.  In 1847, the Proctor, worried about “the evil resulting from the number of free Negroes, and those nominally so, hanging on about the University,” tried to convince the faculty to quit hiring free blacks and instead require hotelkeepers (or their enslaved laborers) to do the washing.[19]

Despite persistent faculty concerns about free blacks and the very real threat of harassment or violence, free people of color continued to seek wage work and the school continued to hire them. In 1828, John Neale sought to rent one of the vacant hotels. The faculty, however, disapproved “of free negroes permitted to reside within the University,” and ordered John Neale “removed.”[20]  In 1833, Jack Kennedy, “a mulatto man,” sought to move into “one of the cellar rooms for a barber’s shop for the accommodation of students.” The faculty, however, wrestled with the request. Kennedy was “such a person [that] was much wanted,” because “the students might thus be prevented from going to Charlottesville so often.” They were attracted to the double usefulness of Kennedy’s barbering—providing a much-needed service and reducing the number of trips to town the students took—but they were also suspicious about having him live on campus.

That suspicion extended to those living off campus. In 1828, the faculty, wondered “whether the house occupied by Phil a free man of colour, and a free white woman…is not reputed to be a house of evil fame.” They worried that Phil’s home was “injurious to the morals of the University” and ordered the Proctor to “consult as to any legal means which ought to be pursued to get rid of such disorderly neighbors.”[21] In 1863, the faculty ordered the grounds superintendent “to remove Jackson, a negro having a white wife, from the house he occupied on University Grounds.” They were removed within one week.[22]

Some free people who moved near the university were ultimately successful in their quest to find continuing employment and a measure of economic security. Elijah Battles, a carpenter, was first hired in 1828 to build a small observatory and saw railings. His work carving chestnut railings suggests that he was already highly skilled.[23] In 1835, he and Thomas Farrow were paid $10 for repairing a water pump.[24] Both men continued to do carpentry and water system work (hydraulic pumps, wooden pipes, cisterns, pond flood gates) for decades. Battles’ son in 1863 repaired and installed fencing almost everywhere on University property, and continued to do so through 1870.[25] Their long-term success in working for the university was in part attributable to their skilled work that largely insulated them from daily contact with the students.[26]

The university needed a lot of cooking, washing, and sewing—work that typically included a measure of independence from direct managerial oversight and did not involve significant interaction with students. Keziah Davis was first paid in 1828 for “making clothes, shirts, and trowsers” for hired slave Zachariah. Later that year, the proctor asked if the faculty “would object to a decent free woman’s occupying the house of the late Janitor and paying rent.” Davis began paying rent to the university in 1830 while working as a seamstress.[27] Several months later, the faculty chairman complained “that a free black woman, named Keziah Fortune, of bad character, was living within the precincts without being under the control of any particular master.” This was Keziah Davis. Again, white faculty associated free people of color with immoral student activities and saw them as would-be slaves. A hotelkeeper worried that “her immediate removal would cause him some very serious inconvenience.” Davis continued to make clothes, so she may not have been removed or, after forcing her to move off Grounds, she was allowed to continue working for the school.[28]

The economic opportunity the university offered free people of color was real enough, but it came with costs.[29] By 1832, a professor’s house just north of the university was being rented to “free negroes” Fanny Barnett and her family. In that year, the Proctor arranged to use her house “as a hospital if wanted” and “its present occupants—free negroes—agreed to act as nurses and attendants.” In 1834, three students indicated that while drunk, they went to “the house rented to Fanny Barnett.” Another witness an unnamed free woman of color, described Barnett’s house “as a brothel—students come there every night.” She came forward despite students threatening to harm her if she didn’t keep quiet.[30] Court documents described Barnett as “not of good fame, nor honest conversation…unlawfully and wickedly did keep and maintain…for filthy lucre and gain, divers and dissolute persons…both black and white, and whores.”[31] [32] Her lucrative work, shaped by marginalization and domination, put her and other free women at risk of greater violence—working nights surrounded by often drunken young white men. She would be in and out of court repeatedly, almost always charged with or as the victim of physical assault.[33]

The university, however desirous of free black labor, nonetheless regularly fretted about their presence and worked to minimize their visibility. In 1823, Robert Battles, who already owned a small farm between the university and Charlottesville, hauled nearly 200,000 bricks from the brickyards and kilns that had popped up at various locations nearby. He also hauled several tons of sand, earning over $160.[34] [35] Board of Visitors member John Hartwell Cocke spent years working to pressure Battles into selling. Cocke and his associates, all involved in the birth of the university, sought to remove free blacks and explicitly speculated that land adjacent to the school would greatly increase in value in just a few years. As one man told Cocke in 1825, “nothing but the failure of the University can prevent my opinion of its [Battles’ land] value then being realized and that in a very short time.” Thus, speculating in land meant both profit and removal of “mulattos” from the vicinity of the school. Cocke’s 1825 purchase of Battles’ farm succeeded in reducing the number of free people living in the area. For this trouble, however, Battles netted a tidy profit, receiving $2,000 for the 26-acre farm.[36]

Stephen Byars purchased his own freedom in 1837 after years of living as if free and hiring himself out. His owner had allowed him to live in Charlottesville and find his own work as a groom or stableman near the university for nearly twenty years.[37] [38] Despite Byars’ freeing himself and his wife, he had not been granted permission to remain in Virginia. They decided to move to Ohio. By 1839, they had returned because, as Byars explained, “he found after a trial of about six months residence there, that so marked was the difference in the manners and habits of the people of Ohio that he would not remain amongst them with the least happiness or contentment.”[39] His return to Albemarle involved risk—he had moved to a free state, meaning he could have been found in violation of a law regarding free people of color who left Virginia. Four years later, he would actually be charged with illegally remaining, but the court would acquit him. However, some in the community continued to find his presence objectionable, as he was charged again in 1844.[40] Byars continued to work as a stableman near the University. In June 1840, having saved enough money, he purchased land along the main road just north of the school for $700. The seller, someone he knew well, let him pay it off over 7 years.[41] His experiences highlight both the promise of the university and the peril it could present to free people of color.

Although many were successful in the pursuit of a measure of economic security, they regularly faced intense harassment and white resistance to their presence. This abuse was particularly acute because the student population changed every year, limiting the development of the kinds of neighborly bonds that could mitigate chronic abuse. As a result, many free people of color only worked for the school in brief stints. Those who could do more skilled work that did not involve regular contact with students—painting, iron work, carpentry, clothes-making, and the like—were more likely to work long-term. Free people of color, in working at the University, had to chart an uneasy course toward opportunity that could not entirely avoid harassment, violence, and peril at the hands of the predominantly white male population at the school.

 

[1] Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia RG-5/3/1.111. Box 8, Bills and Accounts October 1832, October 6, 1832.

[2] Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia. RG 19/1/1/461. Vol. 3: 1830-1834, p. 325-326.

[3] See Kirt von Daacke, Freedom Has a Face: Race, Identity, and Community in Jefferson’s Virginia, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.

[4] Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, 1827-1864, Vol. 7, p. 134

[5] Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 7, p. 80; Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia. Vol. 3: 1830-1834, p. 325-326.

[6] Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, p. 392; Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 5, p. 623.

[7] Journals of the Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 1, 1819-1921, April 4, 1820, p. 16; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1828, Box 17, Accounts January –June 1820 (the Milley named here may have been a free woman of color known as Milly King); Journals of the Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 1, 1817-1822, April 21, 1820, p. 19.

[8] Journals of the Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 1, 18171-1822, May 2. 1820, p. 19, 20; Ledgers maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910, Vol. 1: 1817-1822, p. 24; Albemarle County Court Order Book 1821-1822, p. 24; Albemarle County Court Order Book 1822-1823, p. 32.

[9] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 2: 1819-1828, p. 282, 286, 316; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1828, Box 18, Accounts July-December 1823. For more on Shadrach Battles, see von Daacke, Freedom Has a Face, pp. 16-22.

[10] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 1: 1817-1822, p. 38; Ledgers Maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910, Vol. 2, 1819-1825, p. 26.

[11] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 2: 1819-1828, p. 336.

[12] For more on the “Canada” neighborhood and the Foster family, see Benjamin P. Ford, et al. Phase III Data Recovery Investigations: The Foster Site: 44AB525. University of Virginia, 2008.

[13] Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 1: 1825-1827, p. 3, April 27, 1825; Albemarle County Deed Book #22, p. 46, December 7, 1819; Albemarle County Deed Book 28, p. 169, January 15, 1822; Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 1: 1825-1827, p. 36-47. See also von Daacke, Freedom Has a Face, pp. 62, 63, 191, 192.

[14] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 2: 1820-1827, p. 412; Journal of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 3: 1828-1832, September 11, 1830, p. 89; Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol, 4: 1832-1844, July 12, 1833, p. 77.

[15] Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 6, Folder 646, John H. Cocke to Arthur S. Brockenbrough, July 17, 1826; Albemarle County Will Book #8, p. 248; Albemarle County Court Order Book 1827, p. 223; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 18, Bills and Accounts, July-December 1826; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 19, Bills and Accounts, January-April 1828; Library of Virginia Free Negro and Slave Records, 1832, February 6, 1832, freedom certificate for Burwell Colbert (age 48, light complexion, five fee ten inches high).

[16] Albemarle County Marriage Register 1806-1868, December 5, 1834, p. 59; Journals of the Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 4: 1832-1844, September 21, 1836, p. 141; Financial Records of the University of Virginia Patron, 1832-1833, Repairs and Improvements, p. 160, 168.

[17] Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., “’A Just and True Account’: Two 1833 Parish Censuses of Albemarle County Free Blacks,” Magazine of Albemarle County History, Vol. 53 (1995), p. 132; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 9, Bills and Accounts, January 1833; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 16, Letters and receipts, n.d.; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 9. Bills and Accounts, March 1833; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 10, Bills and Accounts, June 1833.

[18] Faculty Resolutions, Box 7, 1827-1828, April 23, 1828.

[19] Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 15, 1843-1847, Proctor’s Report, June 25, 1847.

[20] Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 2: 1826-1830, p. 138, 139.

[21] Minutes of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 2: 1826-1830, p. 142.

[22] Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, Vol. 13: 1861-1864, October 5 and 10, 1863, no page number.

[23] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 3: 1828-1832, April 2, 1828; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 19, Bills and Accounts May-July 1828.

[24] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 4: 1832-1844, p. 129.

[25] Ledgers Maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910, Vol. 1861-1865, p. 408-410, 565, 568, 576; Ledgers Maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910, Vol. 1866-1867, p. 580; Ledgers Maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910, Vol. 1869-1870, p. 717, 719, 737.

[26] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 4, 1832-1844, p. 137, 141, 218’ Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 5, 1844-1851, p. 4, 9, 26, 44; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 15, Disbursements 1847; University of Virginia Bursar’s Accounts, 1851-1860, p. 54-55; Ledgers Maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910, Vol. 1860-1861, p. 713, 742; Ledgers Maintained by the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1910. Vol. 1861-1865, p. 442, 555, 557.

[27] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol, 3: 1828-1832, p. 15; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 7, Folder 881, Receipt, Sept. 12, 1828; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 19, Bills and Accounts, January-June 1829; Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. e: 1828-1832, p. 30; Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, 1827-1864, Vol. 1: 1827-1830, p. 40; Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 3: 1828-1832, p. 63, 81.

[28] Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty, 1827-1864, Vol. 2: 1830-1831, p. 38; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, Box 8, Estimates of Various Expenses, 1831, Labour account for last year ending 9 July 1831; Journals of the Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 4: 1832-1844, p. 75, 117, 121, 129, 138.

[29] Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, 1827-1864, Vol. 4: 1832-1833, p. 8

[30] Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty of the University of Virginia, 1827-1864, Vol. 5: 1833-1835, no page.

[31] Albemarle County Court Order Book 1822-23, p. 24; Old Papers Orphans’ Indentures, August 20, 1822; Albemarle County Court Order Book 1823-1824, p. 42. She had children William, Jane, Betsy, Mary, and Estin apprenticed for several years.

[32] Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 13, October 13, 1823; von Daacke, Freedom Has a Face, p. 140.

[33] Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 12, July 9, 1821, Peace Recognizance of Fanny Barnett; Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 28, October 25 and November 2, 1841; Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 32, July 5, 1845, Peace Recognizance of Fanny Barnett; Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 34, May 5 and June 4, 1847; Albemarle County Minute Book 1845-1847, p. 412.

[34] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 2: 1819-1828, p. 215, 217, 224, 228, 231, 233, 235, 236, 244, 246, 248, 255, 256, 272, 286, 301, 316; Papers of the Proctor of the University of Virginia, 1817-1828, Box 18, Accounts February-June 1823, Accounts July-December 1823.

[35] Journals of Business Transactions of Central College, Vol. 2: 1819-1828, p. 301.

[36] Letter, Alexander Garrett to John Hartwell Cocke, March 18, 1825, Papers of John Hartwell Cocke, Box 43; Deed of Sale, March 22, 1825, Papers of John Hartwell Cocke, Box 43.

[37] von Daacke, Freedom Has a Face, pp. 98-107. For more on term slavery arrangements, see T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

[38] Albemarle County Legislative Petitions 1817-1836, Box 4, Folder 53 (December 11, 1835); von Daacke, Freedom Has a Face, p. 100.

[39] Albmarle County Legislative Petitions 1837-1848, Box 5, Folder 13 (February 8 and 14,1839).

[40] Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 30, Indictment (October 17, 1843) and Verdict (October 21, 1843); Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes, Box 31 (May 16, 1844).

[41] Albemarle County Deed Book No. 38, p. 104 (Jun 15, 1840); Mary Rawlings, ed., Early Charlottesville: Recollections of James Alexander,1828-1874. Charlottesville: Albemarle County Historical Society, 1942, p. 97; John Hammond Moore, Albemarle: Jefferson’s County 1727-1976. Charlottesville: Albemarle County Historical Society, 1976, p. 133.