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Terrorism is An Old Game

Recently I purchased three volumes of Virginia's Acts of the Assembly that covered part of the decade preceding the Civil War. I looked through them last night, expecting to be mildly interested in what concerned the legislators of 150 years ago. What I read led to lost sleep and now this column.

Terrorism is a word that gets used a lot these days but it is hardly a new concept. The white men who were elected to govern Virginia were pretty good at a subtle but insidious form of terrorism against people they classified as slaves, mulattoes and free Negroes. They would not specifically target people of African descent but instead they would reference them in a paragraph inserted into a general act dealing with a new tax or prohibition.

For example, the sheep farmers of the Isle of Wright County near Virginia Beach and Norfolk were having a problem with dogs attacking their flocks. According to the records of 1852-53, the legislators passed an act allowing that county to limit ownership of dogs to only two to a family and each was to be licensed and taxed. (That is enough to make those of us who love our dog companions shudder.) However, if you were of African descent it was more than a license or a tax.

The act reads: "no slave, free negro or mulatto shall ...under any pretense whatever, keep or own a dog of any description whatever, not shall such slave, free negro or mulatto be permitted to pass through any part of the county of Isle of Wright having a dog with him or them."

The exception to this was written permission from a Justice of the Peace or the owner of the slave or the dog. Justices were not known to hand out favors to black people anywhere in Virginia including this far southeastern county. The punishment for violating this part of the act was not a fine or jail time. Punishment, on the word of any "person aggrieved," was up to 39 lashes with a whip.

We don't know if that punishment was ever carried out but the evil part of the legislation is that it existed. It could be used against people of color if someone in authority chose to do so.

I found other alarming entries. According to the official state records of 1852, the city of Alexandria (near Washington) asked to amend its charter. Among the other provisions requested and granted, the town council could pass laws authorizing tax collectors to sell, "for a limited time, free negroes and mulattoes for non-payment of any tax levied by the city council."

Lynchburg, in the south central part of the state, was authorized that same year to enact laws prohibiting Negroes (either free or enslaved) from owning dogs or hogs. Furthermore, if black people assembled without authorization, police could seize and imprison them.

These are a few of the many, many such prohibitions and penalties that were written into law before the Civil War. A person of African descent living in Virginia probably had little chance of even knowing these laws existed, let alone trying to abide by them. And, as a black person, one could receive physical punishment that would never be meted out to a white person.

That is terrorism. I am using the FBI's definition of terrorism as, "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

I live in Virginia so I was particularly interested in, and appalled by, these pre-war records. Does anyone know of similar, 1850s legislation passed in other states? What about the northern part of the country?

By Linda Wheeler  |  March 16, 2009; 12:45 PM ET
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Nice find! Perhaps this will cause some of those Southern apologists of the "lost cause" to ponder--at least for a few moments--about the cause for which their misguided ancestors fought and which ultimately cost their forefathers and their short-lived confederacy so dearly.

Posted by: yankeebob | March 16, 2009 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Terror and terrorism have always existed and, unfortunately, probably always will. As long as we choose to see terrorism as something that other people do and not as something that is in our history, too, we will always struggle for peace. It is our lack of a collective American long-term memory that forces us to learn this lesson repeatedly. Indeed, you once reported years ago, Linda, that there was lynching in Northwest Washington in the 20th century near what is now St. Augustine's Church. We have survived segregation, miscegenation laws, poll taxes and all manner of law that had published consequences for some and decidedly different results for black Americans.For many African Americans, simply living at a time when your freedom, maybe even your life, could be at peril for indiscretions, real and imagined, certainly was its own exquisite form of terror. It is a relief to know that it was documented and the product of false memories.

Posted by: jjones5647 | March 17, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

What a great column. I thank you, Linda, and the Post for helping us learn about our history. You asked whether there were other states that enacted such laws. I know of one specifically and that was Indiana, which though not a slave state, actually forbade blacks from settling there in the years before the Civil War.

Posted by: gailsteph | March 18, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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