Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

CHAPTER 5 At the Sea’s Edge: Slavery, Race And Class in a Maritime World

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At the Sea’s Edge:
Slavery, Race And Class in a Maritime World

“Slavery always frayed at the sea’s edge,” David Cecelski observes in his excellent study of black watermen on the North Carolina coast. As an arresting example of that fraying, he presents the case of Albemarle slave Moses Grandy.1

Grandy was born in Camden, a few miles northeast of Elizabeth City, around 1786. Camden, adjacent to the tobacco-growing, heavy slaveholding counties along the Virginia border, was the state’s smallest port, and was just over thirty percent black. As a child, Grandy had seen one brother sold away and his mother flogged for resisting the sale. He had watched another brother be flogged and die. While still a child, he had been hired out to (and starved and beaten by) a number of masters. Later he watched helplessly as his own wife was sold away from him.2

Because there was a good market for labor in shipping and crafts, free labor was costly and scarce, slave labor was over-abundant on the tobacco plantations (soils were already beginning to be depleted by tobacco growing), and slave owners could use the additional profit, James Grandy and others allowed some slaves – Moses among them – to hire themselves out and keep part of their wages.

Grandy crewed a schooner on Albemarle Sound and worked on shares on Dismal Swamp canal boats, living away from the plantation for weeks at a time. At various times he also captained a canal boat, hiring his own slave crews for the runs between Pasquotank and Norfolk – a bustling port that drew both free and black labor and employed many skilled black artisans. And Norfolk was part of a larger system. Ever since Colonial times, Cecelski points out, Atlantic shipping was characterized by “an unprecedented degree of racial equality”; black seamen constituted ten to twenty percent of crews on New England vessels engaged in coastwise trade.

Grandy’s slave status notwithstanding, his relative freedom – to be away from direct supervision, to enjoy social status derived from his skills, and to earn money he could keep – allowed him to hope for freedom for himself and his family. And in that he was not different from many commanders and crews on canal boats, barges, and other boats large and small. Any freedom he had or could work to purchase was always conditional, however. Twice he paid the specified price for his own freedom, only to be sold again.3

Clearly, if we are to understand slavery and race in the coastal counties and on the Outer Banks, we must frame both within the maritime context.

Equally importantly, however, race must be comprehended in relation to class. Fortunately, Paul Escott’s seminal work on class in North Carolina during the latter half of the nineteenth century offers insight into this complicated relationship. Escott argues that however fundamental race is and has been to understanding the state’s history, “class purposes” and class divisions were even more fundamental – to the establishment and operation of the slave system, to the state’s ambivalent relationship to the Confederacy and to its “internal war,” to the process of reconstruction, and to the reemergence of race-biased policy and institutions thereafter.

In this chapter, we explore the relationship between race and class, and the importance of each to the history of the southern Banks and their associated counties.

Specifically, we attempt to demonstrate that

(1) However special or “isolated” the Outer Banks have been argued to be in some respects, the area cannot be understood apart from the race and class dynamics, discourses, laws, customs of the rest of the state.

(2) The structure and character of maritime endeavors have nevertheless at times produced some special configurations of slavery, race, and racial categories and discourse.

(3) Sometimes race and class relations have been better than more general ones in the state (e.g.,, among mullet fishermen), and sometimes they have been worse (e.g.,, among slaves forced to dig canals).

(4) Since there were no stable structures or power blocs (as in the plantation system or the textile industry) to hold the racial system – whatever its character – steady, it has flexed and adjusted with the shifting economic base (e.g.,, from shipping to fishing to tourism).

(5) Widespread and persistent romanticization of Outer Banks culture has blurred essential features and details of its racial and class system.

Slavery in North Carolina

There were slaves in North Carolina from the outset. The Lords Proprietors tried to encourage slaveholding, giving out land proportionally to the number of people (slave or free) settlers brought with them. Still, slavery grew relatively slowly in North Carolina during the early years; by 1712 there were only about 800 blacks in the entire colony. Between 1730 and 1767, however, the number grew from 6,000 to 40,000. The first (1790) Federal census had listed more than 100,000 slaves (compared to fewer than 300,000 whites).

Even though the nineteenth century opened with slaves constituting about a third of the state’s population, that number was far smaller than in neighboring states. By 1860, when the North Carolina slave population peaked at 331,000, Virginia had about 491,000, South Carolina 402,000, and Georgia 462,000. These totals gave North Carolina and Virginia about 52 slaves to every 100 whites, but Georgia had 91, Mississippi 105, and South Carolina 140.4

North Carolina’s free black population was significant from the 1790s onward, and by 1860 exceeded that of any other southern state except Virginia. From about 5,000 in 1790, that population had doubled by 1810 and doubled again (to nearly 20,000) by 1830. In 1860 there were more than 30,000. The growth had come from immigration, race mixing, and manumission. Of the five towns that had more than 200 free blacks, three were in coastal counties: Wilmington, Elizabeth City, and New Bern (the only town with as much as 20 percent of its population made up of free blacks).5

Slave laws in North Carolina were stringent from the beginning. The Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 gave masters absolute power over slaves. By 1715, voting and unauthorized travel were forbidden, as was (of course) miscegenation. Slaves were tried by a jury of slaveholders, and there were public executions. Following the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, a new slave code of 1741 tightened restrictions further. Slaves couldn’t raise their own livestock, carry arms, or trade with other slaves. Public whipping, neck yokes, and summary hangings were constant threats. A Johnston County slave named Jenny was burned at the stake in 1780 for poisoning her master, and slave heads were sometimes displayed on poles as a warning.6

Poisoning a master was extremely risky, obviously, but more subtle forms of resistance were pervasive. Generally provided only the barest of necessities in housing, clothing, and food, slaves supplemented their diet by growing small gardens, hunting, and fishing. [ILLUSTRATION: Slave cabins Halifax Co 1943 NCC. CAPTION: Preserved and Partly Rebuilt Slave Cabins at Ventosa (Walter Clark home) in Halifax County, ca. 1943. From Charles Anderson Farrell collection, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 87-226.] Many of the earliest slaves, brought to North Carolina from the West Indies, were already English speakers who could and did use their considerable familiarity with European culture as a basis for resisting – by malingering, theft, purposeful carelessness, dilatory behavior, and flight (with the Great Dismal Swamp a favorite destination). [ILLUSTRATION: Great Dismal Swamp Land of the South Fig 5-11 p 80. CAPTION: Great Dismal Swamp. Clay, et al. Land of the South (1989), Fig. 5-11.] At the same time, however, slaves were bicultural, and they made good use of their non-European cultural knowledge and practices: herb medicines (and poisons), funeral practices, and such cultural observances as Jonkonnu during the Christmas/New Year’s season.7

Retention of indigenous culture proceeded side-by-side, however, with efforts (at least from the 1730s onward) to Christianize blacks. Emerging initially from Anglicanism, the evangelizing effort made little progress, but the growth of Methodist and Baptist churches brought more success. John Wesley had denounced slavery by the mid-1780s, and North Carolina Methodists considered forcing slaveholders to manumit as a condition of church membership. Baptists accepted both black and white preachers, and permitted slaves to participate in worship. The pace of conversions quickened during the Second Great Awakening (1801-1805), but slaveholders were disturbed by the interracial religious meetings.8 [ILLUSTRATION: Negro baptism at New Bern NCC. CAPTION: Negro Baptism at New Bern (no date). 82-187, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]

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