History of Slavery in the Valley

By: Jazmin Bailey Email
By: Jazmin Bailey Email

In 1619, the very first slaves arrived in the Commonwealth. It's likely you've heard about their travels to America and the role they played in our country's crop production or perhaps, the start of their emancipation by President Abraham Lincoln. This is a different side of that story from a Valley perspective.

There are a few things most people don't know about the history of slavery in the Shenandoah Valley.

The first misconception is that slavery never existed in the Valley, but it did.

"Everybody knew a slave. Everybody knew where to find slaves. They encountered them in daily life," said Dr. Steve Longenecker, a professor at Bridgewater College.

Dr. Longenecker said 20 percent of people in the Valley were enslaved in the 19th century.

A book by Dr. Charles Ballard shows a list of slave owners in Page and Rockingham Counties. While some owned more than 50 slaves, others owned 15 or less.

A slave quarters built in Linville around 1830 was owned by the Coffman family. Local history describes the Coffmans a slave breeders.

Historians don't know to what extent, but many Shenandoah owners encouraged slaves to have a family. Any slaves that challenged authority or were seen as surplus could be sold south to live in dangerous conditions.

“Deep South was a consumer of slaves. It was less healthy...in the cotton fields. So they had this insatiable appetite for slave labor.”

Here in the Valley, about 10 percent of slaves were hired, meaning they were purchased to work for a short amount of time and then sold.

“Hiring was considered an especially harsh form of slavery. Slaves were pulled from their homes, perhaps abused. There's less incentive to take care of hired property or rented property."

Their work was a little different than in the Mississippi cotton fields or South Carolina rice paddies.

“They were taking rocks out of fields. They were tending gardens. They were tending cattle.”

Some things stayed the same.

“Shenandoah slaves got punished like everybody else did. They ran off, like everybody else did. They couldn't leave. They couldn't quit...They got whipped. They got sold.”

A pillory stood in downtown Harrisonburg. It restrained a slave's hands and head and sometimes, his or her ears were nailed in to make sure he or she didn't move during a whipping.

Many slaves tried to escape this life.

“Slaves felt much freer when they had gotten across the Ohio River. One way to do that was to travel down into the Shenandoah Valley, then cross over into the Mountains.”

This wasn't an easy task.

“It's for the strong and the swift...climbing, out of doors, traveling for long periods at night, literally running away from a slave patrol.”

Some never got that far thanks to ads used by slave catchers looking to make money. Ads described runaways by color, skin marks and personality traits.

As the Civil War approached, slaves in the Valley were taking even more of a role in their freedom.

“Some even joined the Union army. By the end of the war, 10 percent of the Army was African-American.”

In June 1865, the Civil War ended. Months later, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America and many newly freed slaves in the Valley stayed there.

“They probably relied on the family they were former slaves of, to sort of give them some ideas about how to succeed on their own,” said Dale Macallister, a local historian.

Macallister, former president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, said members of the United Brethren in Christ helped slaves gain land to build churches, like Long's Chapel in Harrisonburg.

“They weren't quite ready for integrated churches, but it was kind of the separate but equal idea."

While separate, churches helped former slaves transition into a free life. These spaces gave slaves their own place to worship, formally marry, bury their loved ones and most importantly, gain an education.

Education is one part of the Valley's story of slavery that continues. Long's Chapel, actually served as both a church and a school. It's also where Lucy Simms, a former slave whose name graces the Harrisonburg community center many people use today, taught her very first class of students after graduating from Hampton Institute.

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